Mr. Peanut Gets Unshelled

[Mr. Peanut aka “Pee”. Source: Google search]

On a recent road trip, I was driving through Georgia and noticed that peaches were a big item in most roadside food stands. But there was also billions of peanuts: salted, unsalted, boiled, plain, shelled and unshelled to satisfy any taste. It was outside the Peanut Emporium in Lumpkin when I noticed a swanky peanut walking back and forth, wearing an Emporium sandwich board.

I knew Mr. Peanut back in the day when we, the kids in the ‘hood, called him ‘Pee’. We all shied away from calling him Peanut because one fellow in our gang was…well, vertically challenged. Dooley was to go on and make a nice living as a circus clown. He was a midget. It was so many years ago, many details are lost in the fog of distant memories. Pee didn’t sport a cane, a monocle, a top hat and white gloves that matched his spats. Putting it simply: he was your basic peanut. No, all those accoutrements came from me after months of grooming and then reinventing him as Mr. Peanut. I quite liked the ‘pee’. And changing his style was the least I could do for a friend and convicted felon. I’m not totally sure but I do believe he is still wanted in three states out west for alleged mail fraud. Once he was transformed into a gentle peanut, he made a fair living parading up and down Court Street in Binghamton, New York. He was responsible for selling a mountain of peanuts in the Mr. Peanut Shop. The kids of that fair city (and a number of adults) certainly got their protein from all those stained paper bags of peanuts. The fact that they also had episodes of high blood pressure from the salt, but no one really cared about those things…back in the day.

But I digress.

A little about me. I’m just a washed-up scribbler. I wrote one novel about twenty-seven years ago that sold about thirty-one copies. I last saw a copy on the remainder shelf at a small independent bookstore in Macon, Georgia. I was a bummed out failed novelist but I was never alone. I’ve been to many Starbucks and everyone except the barista’s grandmother is a failed novelist. Successful novelists eat at the Plaza Hotel. So I moved on and roamed the south.

Let’s just say that I was born a ramblin’ man.

I write pieces for the local rag, the Del Rio Times, in Texas. I only write bits about topics that interest. So, I got a call from my editor, Oscar “Twinks” Rowbottom, to drive up to Marfa and check out a lead about someone called Peanut-something who was barricaded in a bungalow. Apparently, he was surrounded by SWAT teams and refused to come out until he had his shell back. No one knew where to find a six foot peanut shell…so it looked like it was going to be a long siege. I had nothing on my plate that couldn’t wait. My bottle of Rebel Yell was empty and I needed a new ribbon for my Underwood. Besides, I could use a break and a breath of fresh air. This room at the Hi-Ho Motel can get stuffy at times. The ceiling fan broke two weeks ago and the A/C was on the blink.

I have a certain degree of power over Mr. Rowbottom ever since I informed him that I had seen his wife duck under the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey with her paddle-board instructor, a Mr. J. Farrington Tipton. “J” had a graduate degree in Particle Physics from Yale. After I became his mate he told me that his Yale degree didn’t allow him much scoring with women. The paddle-board gig, he confided, was a real chick magnet. What I was doing under the boardwalk is the stuff of another blog. Suffice it to say that I was with my new girlfriend, Dola, a carwash receptionist from Horn, Texas.

After Rowbottom heard my story, he collected a few friends and chased Tipton to the train station. He was last seen boarding the midnight train to Georgia.

So, here I am leaning against a digital parking meter in the rain. A large drop from a storm gutter high on the third floor of the Potter Savings and Loan building managed to find its way to the end of my Lucky Strike, dousing the red glow. I flicked the butt into the gutter and patted my jacket for a pack of smokes.

I heard a cop on a bull horn but failed to catch what was said because a truck passed by. I did hear a reply shouted from the surrounded house: “And, besides that, everyone is allergic to me!” I recognized Pee’s voice.

Just as my cigarette hit the pavement, I noticed the toe of a red stiletto crush out the butt. I followed the sight line from the foot, to the ankle, up the leg and finally settled on the wrinkled face of an old friend. It was Moxie Thornton, she has my job but with the competition, the Del Rio Gazette. Her once seductive size 6 figure had matured slightly into a size 12. Her dress still had a sale tag on the back collar. Moxie and I went way back. She sure was a looker back when I first met her…a real feast for the eyes. She was holding a torn gray umbrella with a smiley face, faded but still grinning. She invited me to join her under her umber-shoot. I moved next to her. I could smell the distinct scent of her favorite perfume, Sweet Addict.

“Moxie,” I said. “What a sight for tired old eyes.”

“You always say that, even to the nice girls.”

“Mox, this is a blog. You’re in my blog.”

“Cool”, she said during a yawn. “This is the first time I was ever allowed into your blogs. Gosh, I remember our first time so well. The plastic back seat of your ’59 Studebaker…”

“Let me tell you all about how to be in a blog,” I said. “But let’s do it over a drink at Sam’s Bar and Grill. It’s on me.”

I fingered my last twenty in my pocket.

“You always knew how to charm the ladies big guy.”

She slipped her arm through mine and we started to make our way, through the rain, to Sam’s.

“What about Mr. Peanut?” she asked. “You and I have deadlines.”

“I’ll decide how it all turns out with Pee,” I said. “After all, it’s my blog. And when I’m done, I won’t have any Jackassery to put up with from Rowbottom.”

In the end, it all turned out fine. The police talked Pee down and somehow located a shell for him. From where, I’ll never know. I haven’t written that part of the blog yet.

I do know that in the last scene, he was walking on the tarmac, in the fog, and left on a jet plane.

Of Time, Thomas Wolfe & Me

[The Thomas Wolfe House, Asheville, NC. Photo is mine]

“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas,”…

You, my readers, have no idea how long I’ve waited to use that quote in a blog or short story. Now, I sit in the 9th floor room of the Marriott Renaissance in Asheville, North Carolina. Just steps away from the hotel front door is Thomas Wolfe’s House. I can feel his presence. The quote puts into clarity the feelings I’ve always had about everyone’s shared history and the unbroken continuity of human relationships. I must be careful. I must be wary. Something I say or do, however small, will set in motion a chain of events that may not be apparent for a hundred centuries.

I grew up in Owego, New York, a small town in the south-central part of New York State. I am not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that that is not my home anymore. I’ve grown up and I’ve moved away. But something deep inside me tugs away and whispers in my ear: “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.”

The spare, nearly naked choice of words…the sentiment…I’ve felt this too.

Many years ago Bob Dylan wrote these words:

“…she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul…”

–“Tangled Up in Blue”

That’s the way the writing of Thomas Wolfe strikes me. The man knows me. He understands me. He has seen into my heart and he writes words that are usually just out of the touch of my fingers, on the tip of my tongue or just behind my eyes, or only in my dreams…on the rare midnight hours when I do dream. Dylan, of course, has the same effect. But this post is not about Bob. It’s about how Wolfe’s books reflect my take on life. The titles of his most popular novels are ones I would have chosen.

-Of Time And The River

-You Can’t Go Home Again

-Look Homeword, Angel

[The Angel. The inspiration for Wolfe. Now located on a private plot (not Wolfe’s) in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville, NC. Source: Photo is mine]

I’ve read a fair number of books on the craft of writing and I’ve learned how the story arc is supposed to play out in fiction. The secret to almost all stories is the “Hero’s Journey”. Most, if not all, great tales use the common archetype: The protagonist sets out on a journey, he/she must overcome challenges (conflict)…the ultimate goal? To Go Home. Everyone wants to go home.

[Cover of a new edition. Source: Google search]

Examples abound: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas, Odysseus wants to return to Penelope in Ithaca and most of the characters in Game of Thrones want to go home, wherever that is. For many years, Owego, NY, was that lodestone. And to some extent, it still is. I was happy growing up in that small river town. The cemetery on the hill. The river. The backyards. The children attending St. Patrick’s playing in the school yard. Standing on the Court Street Bridge and looking down at the Susquehanna River ice floes crash against the abutments. The autumn leaves that covered the Bluestone sidewalks. The smell of the burning leaves, back in the day. The snow piles. The smell of newly mown lawns.

It’s been said many times: “You can’t go home again”. In my late middle age years I went home again, to live. It was an act born of necessity. But, I found the adage true. You really can’t go home again.

But the urge surfaces every so often, when I’m not looking, when I’m not listening. The urge to go home.

In the end, though, where is home for me? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the root cause of my restlessness…and my loneliness.

The Peanut

[Source: Wikipedia]
[source: Photo is mine]

Georgia, Georgia

The whole day through (The whole day through)

Just an old sweet song

Keeps Georgia on my mind.

—Hoagy Carmichael (1930) (Source: LyricFind)

Yes, we’ve left Florida and are now trying to survive in the oppressive heat of Macon, Georgia. For the last 100 miles or so I’ve had peanuts on my mind. I happen to enjoy a good peanut now and then. And who doesn’t like the taste of some organic peanut butter, spread unevenly on a piece of miniature pancake from Costco?

[Source: Wikipedia]

The simple legume, the peanut (Arachis hypogaea), has a complex nature. It can be very good for you (as a source of proteins) and at the same time be the death of you (high saturated fat). It took George Washington Carver (1864-1943), (the first African-American to earn a B.S.) to discover the varieties of products that can be derived from a peanut.

[Source: Wikipedia]

It all reminds me of a song we used to sing at Camp Barton, near Ithaca, when I was a Boy Scout:

“Found a peanut, found a peanut…

It was bad, it was bad…

Ate it anyway, ate it anyway…

I died.

Those Boy Scout leaders sure knew how to get an adolescent male’s juices flowing. But the song does highlight the fact there is a shelf-life for peanuts (1 month at room temperature).

The peanut goes by several different names: Groundnut, Goober, Pindar and Monkey Nut. I prefer the simple moniker of peanut. I know some places in New York City where if you asked the person behind the counter for some Monkey’s Nuts, you’ll get a small bag of something…I’d rather not go there.

As we made our way north on I-75 from Fort Meyers, Florida, I had my mind set on buying a small quantity of boiled peanuts, but all the billboards kept pushing were Pecans. I’m reminded of the time when I went to college in Louisiana in the 1960’s. I was talking to my roommate about how much I liked Pecan Pie. I was a Yank and I pronounced the word: pee-can. My room mate lost no time in correcting me: ”It’s pick-on”, he said. He went on describe what a pee-can was. I’ll leave it at that.

So, I see the temperature has dropped into the upper 80’s. I can bear going to our car to get something. In a few minutes I intend to venture out and retrieve a heating pad. All those hours in the car has made my back feel as though Ethel Merman just spent an hour dancing on my L2 and L3 region of my lower back while singing ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

I’ll sit with the heating pad and watch another episode of The Blacklist on Netflix. I will rest assured that all is well in the world (it really isn’t) because in nearby Atlanta is the location of the National Peanut Board.

[Source: Photo taken by Mariam at 73 miles per hour]

My Florida Pastels

Did I ever mention how much I liked pastels. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York I tend to spend more time in the galleries of watercolors and oils by the Dutch Masters and Turner. There’s not a great deal of high art using pastel colors. The exception at the MET is an Cobalt Blue Rhinoceros (Cobalt Blue is a pastel color to me. If any of my readers happen to have a Master’s of Art or is an artist themselves, I’m not in any mood to argue. Don’t ruin a good story with facts.)

But I digress.

When setting up a household in Florida one must, repeat must utilize the pastels in every room and on every wall. The large tricycles are pastel colored as are a few golf carts. The pool lining is blue. Overhead, the sky is often blue. I made attempts to purchase a light blue pair of ear plugs to prevent swimmers ear. I had to settle with a dark blue, much to my dismay.

For my money, Aquamarine is the only color to add to your list. I can often be found sitting in my blue beach chair in our kitchen and sitting quietly admiring the tea kettle (Aquamarine) and our wall clock (Aquamarine). In the interest of Full Disclosure, the clock was purchased at Zabar’s in New York City, a tiny fact I can live with. The only snag in this set up is that I have to get up and move the chair every time Mariam goes into the bedroom or bathroom. But its a small inconvenience. Sometimes I bring my Blog Idea Book (which is brown and can be seen in the photo below).

Outside the wind has picked up. The blue sky has turned pink. I’m told Hurricane Season is just around the corner.

Right now, I’m happy staring at the hands of our Zabars clock. If I get tired of this, I’ll find something useful to occupy my time until dinner is ready.

I’ll go into our lanai and sit in the comfy beige and flowered overstuffed chair and get back to picking the bar code sticker off the blade of my wife’s spackle blade.

[A creative writer at work]

[All (both) photos are mine]

The Migratory Habits of Cockle Shells, Birds & Yankees

[Recent snow storm near Owego, NY. Photo courtesy of my friend Mark Mendelson]

[Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this humble blog to my friends and loved ones who, through no fault of their own, were caught up in a Late-Spring Snowstorm. No wonder many of my classmates from high school moved to the south or mid-south after graduation. After a winter in Fort Myers, Florida, I totally get it.] Now the blog:

All Things Must Pass–A George Harrison album name.

[A palm frond. Down and out at winter’s end. Photo is mine]

We are taking our late afternoon walk down Cuarto Lane. One must wait until after 6:30 pm for such a stroll. Otherwise, it’s so barking hot the sun will melt your polyester toupee, it’ll bleach your already grey hair and sear your retina unless your wearing Ray Bans. I’m not wearing Ray Bans. I’m wearing cheap Walgreen’s sunglasses. I can feel the plastic rims get soft. That’s why 6:30 is our cut-off time.

But I digress.

On our walk yesterday I snapped a photo of a palm frond, on the grass, beside the Lane waiting to be picked up by the Resort maintenance crew. I saw it as a symbol of a season’s completion. Just like the leaves in Autumn in the mountains of the Adirondacks or all of New England. The frond spoke to me. It was lamenting the fact that it was done with contributing any and all Oxygen to the atmosphere. No more photosynthesis, it said. I stopped to answer back but my wife, Mariam tugged at my arm.

“Don’t! The neighbors are watching.”

But I got the point. All things must pass, even palm fronds. And even Snowbirds like us. Soon we leave this little bit of paradise and go north. Back to our home on Rainbow Lake and the very real possibility of a freak mid-June snowstorm. Think I’m kidding? We once sat at the bar of Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn. It was May 31, my birthday, and we were have a quick glass of wine before a lovely steak dinner at the Adirondack Steak & Seafood. I spun around in my bar stool to look out at Mirror Lake, but it was snowing…no, it was blizzarding. I saw the fronds as a metaphor for our eventual departure. But, there’s more:

This blog is about travel, migration and departing. Here is something of interest:

[A Bar-tailed godwit (L. lapponica. Photo: Google search]

The bird shown above happens to hold the record for longest migratory flight yet discovered. The Godwit has been found to have the ability to fly 6,800 miles without any layovers. (Think of it as Jet Blue with feathers). Now, I don’t know what impresses you, my reader, but 6,800 miles is one badass flight. In doing the research necessary to bring you this post I also found out that some long-term migratory birds can do awesome things on their journey. One species has the ability to eat, fly, sleep and mate while on the wing. My brain short circuits when I think of humans doing these sorts of things. Myself? I can barely drive along a country road for a country mile while eating a cheeseburger.

Well, so much for the avians. Time to discuss Cockle shells.

[This is a Cockle shell. I found it and a zillion others on the beach this very afternoon. Photo is mine]

The Cockle shells litter the edges of the beach…where the waves wash up and then back into the sea. Whole shells, bits of shells…shells of all kinds are found in the sands of Sanibel Island. I find pleasure in picking one from the knee deep water and holding it for the iPhone camera. But, like everything else along a shoreline, the waves and currents are constantly moving the shells along only to replace them with newer ones. If I were to stand at the exact same spot on the exact same beach at the exact same time next year, I will reach into the sand beneath my feet and find another Cockle shell…exactly like the one I found today. I’m not sure what the point is about all this, but it does remind one of moving along, going away, traveling and replacing one environment (the beach) with another (the Adirondack lake shores). Some of my readers will say:

“A place in the Adirondacks? You have waterfront? Kayaks? Canoes? A screened-in porch? A quiet place in the playground of New York State? And you’re not satisfied? Are you playing with a full hand?” The truth is that I enjoy the Adirondacks very much, but not like I used to. As a little boy I played in sands of many of the most popular beaches in the ‘dacks. But I’m not a boy. I’m not a healthy fit young teenager who would climb any peak at the mere suggestion of doing it. Two of my three brothers were Adirondack oriented men. Both are no longer with us. I have found that around every bend in a trail, every curve in the road and every paddle stroke I make to round an island, I see the ghosts of my brothers. I’m tired of seeing ghosts, both figurative and real.

I love the night sky and the Adirondack air is fairly free of light pollution. The stars tumble out in numbers that are not humanly countable. I’ve slept on mountain peaks and counted the stars. I gave up after reaching 3,000 points of light. But our house is surrounded by trees and my patch of sky above our house can be covered with one open hand.

I want to see for miles while standing at sea level.

Which brings us to Yankees. Sorry, but this is not about the Bronx Bombers. This is about snowbirds who flock to Florida for the winter. I’m one of them. A yankee? In one sense, that is the definition of anyone living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But what about my one-time sailing partner here in Fort Myers? He was from Toronto. Well he’s a yankee too, by my definition.

I’m lonely and I’m restless. How many years do I have left to see the world? Only a seer can answer that kind of question.

[This not my car. Mine is cobalt blue. Photo: Google search]

So take heed, take heed of the western wind

Take heed of the stormy weather

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me

Spanish boots of Spanish leather

–Bob Dylan “Boots of Spanish Leather”

Late Night Thoughts on Connie Francis

Spring and summer were still weeks away, although summer seems to permanently exist here in Florida. But still…

I was sitting in the lanai making notes on developing and writing and publishing a blog about music and the importance of Connie Francis. We had just been to the beach and my head was full of Beach Boy songs. I asked Alexa to play a few more when we returned home. But, I knew there was more to summer and sand music then Brian Wilson & Company. Out of the blue it came to me. I stopped making notes and picked up my iPhone and went straight to Spotify. There they were. I downloaded (or is it uploaded?) several songs by Connie Francis. I sat back and played Where The Boys Are. Her sweet alto voice rising and falling stopped me in my tracks. This was the music of my youth, those halcyon days of bikes, pools and buzzing cicadas.

Where the boys are, where the boys are, someone waits for me…

I look around me. I’m fourteen again. My towel is damp from three hours in the pool. I sit on the steps of my childhood home and talk to my neighbor Craig:

“What do you wanna do today?”

“I dunno, what do you want to do?”

“Beats me, what do you want to do?” Our days were carefree and full of Beach Boys, Tommy Sands, Neil Sedaka and Connie Francis.

In the crowd of a million people, I’ll find my valentine…

[Our helpmate Alexa]

Our thoughts turned to the movies: “Let’s go to the movie tonight,” Craig would suggest. “They’re showing “Beach Blanket Bingo”. This was just after “How To Stuff a Wild Bikini” ran for two weeks. Before that the marquee read: “Dr. Goldfoot” (I’m not making this up.). The next feature was slated to be “Muscle Beach Party”. One could get a shoe full of sand just watching these classics. Many starred Frankie Avalon or Tommy Kirk and, of course Annette Funicello. All the guys around our age, and I suspect a few fathers just adored Annette as a star of the Mickey Mouse Club. And its no wonder. Annette had the biggest…..head of black hair than any other Mousketeer.

And then I’ll climb to the highest steeple and tell the world he’s mine.

Later in life, sad things befell Connie and Annette. It saddens me.

Thank you two ladies for some of the best music of my teenage years.

Now, sitting in the Florida warmth, the ceiling fan whirring above my head, I can feel a bit of the exuberance of youth. Even though I’ve come to fully accept the limitations of age, the pains, the aches, the regrets and the triumphs, I can still appreciate the songs written for the Young At Heart.

But that’s another story for another time. And besides, perhaps inside my worn body beats the heart of a hopeful young boy.

Thank you, Lord, for Spotify.

Down By The Sea

[Photo is mine]

I knew the man’s story. I had read his many blogs but the campfire was the place where he untied his cachet of stories. There would be no campfires in Florida, not this time of year. Instead, I would have to find shade beneath a palmetto palm to study his photograph. I stretched the screen of my iPhone. Yes, it was him. I compared the picture to the one he sent me seven years ago. It was the same lighthouse over and behind his right shoulder. The mask and snorkel were the very same. His bracelet was different. The cheap ones he was inclined to buy had been replaced many times over. His pale shoulders were the same, no sign of a slouch. His beard seemed a tiny bit grayer as did his hair.

We all had been caught in the great Pandemic but he seemed to be emerging from its shell like a newborn chick. A new wrinkle? Sad eyes? I couldn’t get a good look because of the snorkel but I suspect they were present on his face. After all, it had been seven years since he stood chest deep in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Some things change with terrifying speed. Some things never change Some things change so subtly that it’s hard to see the years.

I knew him well enough to see the partial smile on his lips. He was happy, happy for the first time in years. At least seven years anyway.

He failed to notice me behind the palm observing him. He thought he had sent the photograph to someone distant friend but I was usually physically closer to him than he knew. I noticed his head turn toward the twenty-something in a toxic pink bikini. Ha, I thought, he still remembers some of the important things in life. I saw him turn to his wife as she handed him the bottle of ice water. He smiled in his contentment. He looked westward toward the horizon and stared for many minutes.

He rises and walks to the water’s edge.

He thought himself Poseiden, but he was really just an old man standing on the shore.

I Failed the Pepsi Challenge

[Photo is mine]

It was a bright autumn day. The cirrocumulus and stratocumulus were fighting a war to dominate the sky. The altocumulus and mammatus clouds stood out of the way in the western sky. It wouldn’t rain that day. I entered the Mall, full of anticipation. I loved Malls, all the stores would be bustling and the popcorn near the anchor store, J. C. Penney would have a line that stretched as far as the CVS outlet. After the great doors swung shut behind me, I knew I was home. I headed to the central part of the Mall passing the Pearle Vision Center and found myself at the video game kiosk. There were several older men sitting in vinyl couches waiting for their wives to finish their attempts to stuff there size 10 foot into a size 6 pump at the nearby Shoes Shoes Shoes outlet. I was not into video games at the time. That was for the teens, I thought. I was 31. It would be another few years before I bought Game Boy XIII. No, I was a reader and to prove it I headed to the bookstore (most people today wouldn’t believe it but bookstores were once quite common). These days it’s harder to find a real bookstore than finding a virgin in Passaic. I made a right turn and began my stroll to the Books R Us store. I passed a Florscheim shoe store, an American Eagle, an Eddie Bauer, a Ben & Jerry’s and a nail salon. I needed to sneeze so I paused at the Victoria Secrets shop. I lingered. I couldn’t take my eyes off the mannequin who was wearing a G-String and a purple push-up bra. I was transfixed. The mannequin looked just like Twiggy.

Across the ’street’ a family had stopped.

“Honey, hold onto the kids. There’s a pervert over there,” said Vic, the husband.

“Where? asked the wife, Lucy.

“In front of the Victoria Secrets store,” replied Vic.

“What are you talking about? said Lucy. ”Are you forgetting about the time I found you right where he is standing. I had to use three Kleenex’s to wipe the drool from your chin.”

Nevertheless, they gathered their family closer. Muffy, three years old was in a stroller. Brittany, five already had pierced ears. A Mickey Mouse stud sparkled in the bright flourescent light. Angus was seven and was wearing a Black Sabbath tee shirt. The nine year old was D’Artanan (he wasn’t Vic’s child. He was the result of an affair Lucy had with her Classics professor, who was her advisor when she was studying for her Masters degree in Relative Absolutism at the University of South Trenton). Vic never knew the truth. He never questioned the distinct Asian features of D’Artanan. Bucky, the oldest child was twelve. Vic and Lucy never saw much of Bucky at home. He would lock himself in his bedroom with his ’comic books’ which he kept under his mattress. Lucy once found a copy of the third edition of Playboy. She sold it on eBay years later.

The family moved slowly past me and then sped off to the nearest Burger Boy resturant. A Mickey Mouse stud fell from Brittany’s left ear lobe. I walked over and picked it up. It was pretty cool looking. I happened to be outside the Spa Salon. Maybe it’s time I got my left ear pierced, I thought. I decided I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t get pierced until years later when everyone, including my grandfather got his septum pierced.

But I digress.

I continued my walk to the bookstore. At the next intersection I paused. There was a table and a large white cardboard sheet. A sign, taped to the table, read ”TAKE THE PEPSI CHALLENGE”. I had seen the TV commercials showing the same set up. I boldly walked to the young couple who stood behind the table.

“I’d like to take the challenge,” I said.

“Great,” said the man.

“Awesome,” said the woman. They went behind the cardboard partition and returned with two sytrofoam cups, both filled with a cola like liquid. I took cup A and sipped. I sipped again. Then I was given cup B. I drank the whole thing.

“So?”, said the woman.

“Which one is the Pepsi?”, said the man.

I was ready. ”Cup B was the Pepsi,” I said.

The couple looked at each other. ”Okaaaay”, said the woman. ”Thank you so much.”

They poured the remaining sodas into a bucket.

“Was I right?”, I asked.

The man moved close to me, invading my personal space. He took my collar in his left hand and jerked me closer.

“No! You were wrong, you loser. Now get out of my sight before I box your ears”. I smelled Tequila on his breath.

I was sweating now. Lamely, I said: ”Wa…Want to settle things out side behind the dumpsters?”

“Dumpsters? What dumpsters?”, he said, angrilly.

“Over there,” I said as I broke free and ran all the way to Ruby Tuesdays. I ordered a shot of Johnny Walker Red and a pint of Genesee. I was much calmer as I made my way back to my car. I couldn’t find it at first. There must have been three thousand cars facing me. I spotted the orange ’68 Buick.

I would find something else to do that night. “Deep Throat” was playing at the local ’art movie’ house.

Nefarious Paperclips

[This is not a ‘regular’ size paperclip. It’s a ‘large’ size paperclip. Note the distinct shape.]

As part of our post-surgical life Mariam likes to take a walk down our narrow street, Cuarto Lane. “It’s all part of resetting your muscle tone and strengthening the lower back,” Mariam tells me. “Okay, but I can only go to the house with two flag poles,” I said before our first such walk. I was able to lengthen the walk a few houses more, to the stop sign. The first half of our stroll was great but the return to our house at #319 put us directly facing the setting sun. Even with the best cheap drugstore sunglasses the glare was playing havoc with my vision. I began to see small pink Flamingos standing motionless in the tiny front yards. I felt like I was in a John Waters movie. It was at this point that I recalled the fact that we have two plastic Flamingos (pink) in our own yard. Even so the sun proved to be a challenge so I lowered my eyes and focused on a point about three feet in front of me. I was busy studying the crack in the pavement that seemed to run on for half the length of the street. I looked ahead. I looked behind me. I had this sudden feeling that this was like living on the San Andreas Fault. Were there plate boundaries in this part of Florida? Were earthquakes just another fact of life in The Sunshine State along with hurricanes and alligators? We just became friendly with the woman across the lane and I really didn’t want to increase the distance between her front door and ours.

It was a walk like all the others when I first noticed them. Imprints in the cement made by a paperclip. On subsequent walks I intensified my search for these marks. I knelt down for a closer look. I asked Mariam: “What do you think of these impressions?”. Mariam just stared at me. There, imbedded like a dinosaur footprint in Montana shale, was the tell-tale shape of a paperclip. The one shown in the lead-in photo above is that of a “Large” size clip, but I was seeing the mark of a “regular” size clip. I don’t have any of those average clips to show you so I chose a “Large” one instead. This is the only time I’ll ask you to use your imagination.

[Clearly solid evidence.]

It began as just another couple of marks on an otherwise smooth cement surface. Then I saw more. I lost count when I reached sixteen paperclip marks. I made a comment about the shoddy efforts that were used when the cement was poured. I became very anxious and fearful of the quality of the workmanship. I made up my mind to investigate this odious affair…to dig deep into the history of Cuarto Lane and uncover those responsible for the now overwhelming number of paperclip impressions. I asked at the Main Office if I could have a look at the blueprints used during the laying of the cement.

I was deeply absorbed in going through the files when I noticed a small crowd gathering in the Common Space near the pool. The crowd grew steadily as I furiously made notes. The crowd grew larger. There were angry murmurs from some of the oldest people in the crowd. The crowd continued to grow. I began to panic. Maybe there was something I wasn’t supposed to see? Perhaps a secret buried deep in the files. An overdue bill. A compromising photo? Then, just as I thought things were going to turn ugly, a man appeared with a heavy keyring. He unlocked the door and the crowd surged into the dancehall. It was only the Bingo crowd. As the group rushed inside I watched as an 87 year old woman with blue hair jab the key holder (a convicted felon on parole) in the sternum and said:

“You’d better open on time next week or I’ll have you singing like a counter-tenor, sonny boy,” she said in a voice heavy with venom.

Back at our house I looked over the notes I had taken. It seems that three “engineers” were working the cement pouring that day…so many years ago. Here’s what I took away from my researching:

Directing the operation was Dr. Elroy Cistern, Road Construction Engineer on loan from the University of South Florida. He was on a retainer from the Siesta Bay people. (His per diem alone would choke a horse). I studied the margins of the blueprint. He had made copious notes with a dull pencil. After reading his self-memos I had to dismiss him from the list of suspects. He had the names of two local strippers and their phone numbers, a note about not forgetting a package of clothespins from Publix, a few scratchings about how hot it was in August in Florida and some notes-to-self about the odds in the third race at Pimlico. The guy was clearly a genius…certainly not one who litters wet cement with paperclips.

Then there was Rachel Rowbottom, Cement Truck Driver. I found a small diary she had left behind. Some of the entries got very personal. Apparently she moon-lighted at a Nail Salon. I didn’t see her as one who cares very much about paperclips.

The guilty person, according to conclusions I had made was one Michael Messerschmitt, Cement Smoother Technician. It seems he was going through a rough divorce and was carrying at least half a ream of paperwork from his ex-wife’s lawyer. Now nobody loves paperclips more than a lawyer. And she was taking the poor sod to the cleaners. Reading between the lines, I realized that the golf cart was the main bone of contention. Eyewitnesses to the cement pouring mentioned (to their children and grandchildren) seeing the “smootherer” kept dropping a paperclip into the wet mixture as he went through the list of the lawyer’s demands.

So, I can now rest easy at night. The small impressions, well I’ve learned to keep my eyes looking forward as I walk. Keep focusing on the horizon. Even in the intense sunlight.

[Cuarto Lane.]

One Molecule And I’m A Rosemary

[Note: Not my mother’s cards and letters. Source; Google Search]

My mother passed away on a sunny Easter Sunday morning. This is what she wanted. She had seen the priest on Holy Thursday and whispered in his ear that she had chosen the date. She was a good Catholic. The year was 1992. I had the night watch duty to stay by her side and listen to the pump. I was up all night (I recall watching The Robe with Richard Burton). I checked the clock. My shift was over and I was exhausted. As I climbed the stairs I brushed shoulders with my father who coming down to relieve me.

“Anything change?” he asked.

“She breathing steadily,” I replied.

Twenty minutes later, my mother passed on.

Several weeks later my father asked me to go through and discard any personal belongings of hers that any son or nephew or niece might want. I sat at the art Deco bedroom vanity and pulled open the top drawer. Swatches of fabric, buttons and knitting needles faced me from the drawer. I went to the second one and it too held little of interest to me. Then I slid open the bottom drawer and found myself holding a bundle of old cards. Each card was addressed to my mother and sported a 3 cent stamp. They were tied together with a pink ribbon. I opened one card and pulled it from the envelope. It was a “Happy New Baby” card. Little lambs and tiny birds decorated the inside. I read it.

“Dear Mary, oh, so happy about your new baby. I know its a boy but maybe next time you’ll have your girl.” They were heartfelt messages but they read a little like sympathy cards. I checked the post marks. They were posted on June 2, 3 & 4. I was born on May 31.

I saw and calculated. All this meant that sometime in the Fall of 1946, a rogue molecule or cell or whatever kicked in a Y chromosome…making me a male.

So, I was christened Patrick. My girl name was supposed to be Rosemary. I wondered how hard it was to be a girl. My situation was not without some advantages. By the time I reached puberty, I knew more about the female than many of my ‘girlfriends’.

An eighth grade girls rises from her seat and walks up to the nun…already in mid-lesson…and whispers in her ear. A nod. The girl was gone for ten minutes. I knew what was going on.

I’m not claiming to be unique in any way. Many of my friends had sisters so they were probably pretty aware of life.

I lacked the lipstick and lace, but I feel confident that my mother loved me without conditions. After all, on a family trip to Philadelphia, my dad and two of my brothers went out to the old Connie Mack Stadium to watch the Phillies. I confess I was a little disappointed to be asked to go with my mom to see The King & I at a downtown theater. In the end it worked out quite well. I could only think of the baseball field as hot and sunny, two conditions that I have a deep dislike for. But, there I was, weeping as Yul Brenner’s hand dropped off his knee…he died in this scene.

Here is what I learned from that day:

*I tend to be a little bit of a Romantic.

*I’m capable of crying in public.

*Memories stay with me whether I like it or not for a long time.

After a life of working with adolescents (I taught for nearly thirty-five years) I learned I had a very emotional side to me which I did my best to subtlety disguise my fuzzy exterior for a patina of gruffness…not frightening, just enough to keep the hounds at bay.

Family secret of sorts:

Now that I’m approaching the age my mom passed, I’m grateful for all my parents did for us…dad rising early to be off to IBM and my mom…forever cleaning the large house my dad purchased in ’45. But while my siblings excelled in sports (except for my eldest brother, Chris whose idea of a good time with a workout was to roam fields and backyards for arrowheads) I had within me a different set of rules. My mother, I now see, taught me to touch, to glance the feminine side of my being.

It’s no big secret that humans have these two forces, often at war, the male and the female.

I’m grateful to my mother for instilling within me a perspective that maybe, just maybe not all men are privy too.

I’m also grateful that my mother kept her from actually raising me as a female. And I’m glad I wasn’t given the option to wear lipstick. I could never find a shade that went with my boyish brown eyes.