Monday, April 30, 2007


Did I tell you that I was homeless for an afternoon?

Not really, mind you.

It was during my senior year of college and I had a rented room in a house with 13 other undergrad and graduate students, but for a sociology experiment I dressed as a homeless man and went out on to Hillsborough Street in Raleigh across from the campus of North Carolina State University to spend a few hours peddling and learning how people dealt with being asked for money. (Today, I am a professional fundraiser, and I can tell you that the job is much the same in many ways, but now I smell better and get to have at least one 0.001-ounce bag of pretzels per flight.)

My sociology professor’s first name was Claire Jo. She let us use her first name in class. This seemed to distinguish sociology from, say, my calculus class, where we’d have to intone, “Your Supreme Majesty of Integrals, His Excellency Dr. Smith.” Her husband was Jerry. He was an ordained minister but worked full time for the UPS. Seems Jerry and the Baptists didn’t see eye to eye, so he was making inroads with the Presbyterian Church. Claire Jo was my second soc (pronounced “soesh”) professor, after my intro soc professor, Randy, who also encouraged familiarity, and with whom I played soccer Saturday mornings on the intramural field on the south side of campus. A group of progressive first-named professors and international graduate students squared off each week at that time. All I know is that Indonesian chemical engineering students can sprint for like twenty hours straight and not get tired, and my sorry a*# was pooped after about 90 minutes.

Claire Jo and her teaching assistant (TA), another woman, were to observe me during the experiment. I had gone to Goodwill and found the trashiest clothes I could find and then rolled around in the dirt outside my house. I put vegetable oil in my hair, dirt on my face, chewed black licorice for about an hour to discolor my teeth, and practiced a homeless “walk,” which was a kind of drunken gait not unknown to college students – I being no exception during those days – mixed with a stoic resignation that perhaps was.

One of the first things I did was find an old cigar butt in a trash bin, and positioned it between my right index and middle fingers. I asked my first passer-by for a dime. Later it was reported – for the TA was interviewing people after I approached them – that the pedestrian, a young lady, had told her, “I’m from California and I knew from the beginning he was a fake.”

Yet, one hour later, after I had perfected my gravelly voice and swagger, I swooned down Hillsborough, and in front of the grocery store I fell down across the entire width of the sidewalk.

Let’s see if I’m noticed here, I thought.

A few people congregated, trying to get me up, and I would either not respond or get halfway up and then fall back down. I knew trouble was ahead when I heard a prominent English professor say to somebody, “…no, I called. There’s an ambulance on the way.”

Oh, sh#$. I’m outta here.

I got up.

“No, wait, buddy, we got somebody coming to help you.”

No, you don’t understand, my friend. I am a big fake – the lady from California knows this – and I will ultimately fail the English class I take with you later this year if I stick around and get made.

So I strode purposefully – but not too purposefully for a homeless guy – east on Hillsborough toward the other end of the commercial district.

Standing in front of a convenience store, I solicited one of my housemates for a quarter. He didn’t even look at me and walked by. Later, I buttonholed a man stepping out of a shiny Mercedes on his way into a church. He dissed me as well.

I learned that it was very easy for people to say no when they didn’t take the first step to acknowledge my presence. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fast forward 23 years to Boston’s Washington Street, a thoroughfare limited most of the time to pedestrians and emergency vehicles one block down from the Boston Common. I interacted with this guy who said his name was "Jack", "born on Christmas Day," he claimed.

I said, "Oh, yeah? You and Jesus."

He replied, "Yeah, my first name is Gal, like Galilee."

I thought it was Jack.


Now that we have that straight.

photo: fireball45

Sunday, April 29, 2007

help wanted

Mrs. Moretti was a 5-foot, somewhat plump, frazzled gray hair 60-year-old battleaxe who made my dishwashing life misery but cried when I left her restaurant after two summers of working for her.

She and her husband owned three restaurants, and she had three sons managing them. She knew the prices of everything, and had a colorful way of letting you know.

“Don’t use so much soap; that costs me 12 cents a quart!!!” Everything she said had two or three exclamation points behind it. She never coo-ed. She always screamed.

One time I spilled some food scraps on the brick walk that ran behind the kitchen extending from the porch over the water (this restaurant sat on a bay looking north) down to the concrete walk in front of the building. She saw my transgression and yelled, “Clean that up!!! Don’t you know that I got down on my hands and knees this morning and scrubbed that sonuvabitch clean!!!”

Basically, if you worked your tail off, she liked you. No – better – she appreciated you.

Once, in describing someone who thought a little too much of himself, she quipped, “He thinks his sh@# don’t stink.” That one didn’t have exclamation points since she was probably saying it before Noon, before she could really get in gear.

When I left, I was 20 years old and had worked there two summers during college. Her oldest son, the manager of the restaurant, gave me a cash bonus on my last night. She came over to me while I was still in the office, gave me a hundred dollars in twenties, held my cheeks in her two hands, and kissed me with lips that had never known lipstick, often had well-intentioned venom, but were always sincere. Her eyes started misting up.

After all, a good dishwasher is hard to find.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Even better the second day

I termed it “clothes spam” when I came back downstairs and saw Karen. Not spam as in that junk email we all get, but rather a representation of the canned and oft-avoided foodstuff from which the term is derived.

The clothes were in a solid…block, somewhat rectangular, looking as though they had been frozen, with socks and under-shirts turning corners, the bundle having almost edges defining how they had settled in the clothes basket for some length of time before Karen dumped them upside down on our bed in order to give the emptied basket to Bennett so he could use it as a cage for his stuffed animals. Were this clothes-spam block sitting on a podium in the Museum of Modern Art, intelligent adults would have paid $20 for the pleasure of viewing it.

Once I heated up our bean bags and put them under our covers, I went and found the basket, which was in the guest room (we call it “Memaw’s Room,” because it’s where she and Grandaddy stay when they visit), and turned it upside down over the clothes. I held my hand under the “block” and tipped and…voila! – clothes were successfully back in basket. I felt as though I had put something away and accomplished an easy task when, in fact, I had just prolonged yet another domestic chore for Karen for some future date. Probably when the spam becomes cheese.

Karen tells me she has been embarrassed at times when we’ve had mountains of clothes to be folded sitting on the basement floor next to the dryer. When Maryann comes to babysit, she usually does so much more around the house once the boys are down than a babysitter can be expected to – she was once a nanny, so is used to going beyond the call of only watching kids – and she’ll usually wash any dirty dishes and fold any clothes left around.

It leaves us feeling a little guilty, so we usually try to “prepare” for her coming by cleaning and tidying so she won’t feel compelled to.

We have maids that come every other Wednesday for two hours, usually in the morning. This is the very least I can do for Karen, and I wish we could have them every week. They are Brazilian and, nowadays, we get the ones who report to the owners, a couple named Alex and Lane. Lane, the woman, speaks little English. Alex is the one we deal with mainly about business matters. They named their cleaning company after Maria, their daughter, which I think is kind of charming. Used to be that Alex and Lane themselves would come and clean; then it was one of them and another person; now it’s two or three others only, and we never see Alex and Lane. A good sign that their business is growing.

While we miss seeing them personally, the ladies who come do quality work. But since the basement got flooded on Mother’s Day 2006, we told them to skip vacuuming the playroom (where there was no carpet for a while), and enough time passed that the rotating crew didn’t know now (since we have replaced the carpet) that that was part of the package of our arrangement. When Karen reminds the ladies to vacuum there, they give her attitude. South American style. Usually with a flourish of the vacuum hose and not in English words.

The maids came earlier in the day before my team from the office arrived for dinner this past Wednesday. That’s always nice when we can get the house cleaned professionally before entertaining. Karen had made chicken enchilada casserole, one of my favorites. It’s like Texas lasagna, which is good when you first eat it and even better as leftovers the next day. We served it with diced vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh avocados on the side, corn and flour tortillas, and pink lemonade. Lemon and pink grapefruit sorbet was for dessert as well as coconut gelato.

Some of the folks who came didn’t exactly know what to do between the casserole and the tortillas. They thought the entrée was to be treated fajita style, with the food placed in the tortillas and somehow wrapped and eaten that way. You need only butter your tortillas and eat them on the side, but I found it fun to watch how people tried to figure it all out.

Sometimes, simple pleasures in the suburbs come down to that.

photo: szajmon

Heid's of Liverpool

I found this helpful advice on a blog called ishbadiddle (

"I'm having trouble getting my ketchup out of the bottle in a timely manner. Do you have any suggestions?

"First, make sure the cap is on tight. Then, holding the bottle upside-down, vigorously shake it from side-to-side, so that the top of the bottle describes an arc. This will force the ketchup toward the top of the bottle through centrifugal force. Next, remove the cap. Tilting the bottle at a 45-degree angle hit the top side of the bottle several times. Hitting the bottom of the bottle is more frequently done; however it is less efficient. Hitting the top forces the ketchup down, enabling air to break the ketchup seal at the top of the bottom. Then gravity will do the trick. Never put ketchup on a hot dog if you are older than 12; they were meant to be eaten with mustard, relish, onions and/or kraut if you are so inclined."

I usually don’t post other people’s stuff here – perhaps some of you wish I would – but I thought this was a novel way of solving the age-old problem of getting Heinz 57 out before it becomes Heinz 58. The remark about eating hotdogs with ketchup, of course, is the blogger’s own, not necessarily that of this author.

Reminds me of driving from Raleigh, North Carolina in 1983 with my college girlfriend Carla and her family up to Fulton, New York, where she was from. Her grandparents lived there. It was eleven hours in the car. Her aunt, her mother’s sister, used to be her mother’s brother – had a sex change operation. I’d never met a transgender person before, though I lived in New York City.

Just outside Syracuse – home to the oldest state fair, I am to understand, and bragging rights to those who are insecure because they don’t live in the greatest city in the world to the south, “downstate,” that is – is Heid’s of Liverpool, where they serve the famous frank and coney.

I remember we got there and I was … hungry. I ordered a “hot dog.” They looked at me. Just kind of stared. So, Carla’s father whispered, “ask for a frank,” so I did and everything went along swimmingly. Now, their website openly discusses “hot dogs,” once a topic not for polite Liverpool company.

Coneys, on the other hand, are white sausage-like hot dogs. I wanted to find more information on them, so I went to Wikipedia, which lacked for specifics, so I added a plug for Heid’s: MSN Encarta doesn’t include this definition among its five for the word. That’s disappointing. I found this site, which has probably the most complete description of this delicacy: All I know is that is was whitish and looked fairly unappetizing, but it was good.

Carla’s grandparents lived in a house that was across the street from a crematorium. Many afternoons, the evidence of their business was in the air. This, from Wikipedia: “During the cremation process, a large part of the body (especially the organs) and other soft tissue is vaporized and oxidized due to the heat, and the gases are discharged through the exhaust system.” So this exhaust is what we’d smell during our time on the front porch sipping tea.

My grandparents’ bodies were cremated. I remember being 22 or so and going out on a boat in East Greenwich harbor with my brother, parents, two aunts and two uncles. It was raining. We raised a glass of champagne to toast them – Tootsie and Poppa’s wish that this be done – and then my brother Jim and I poured their ashes over the side, and we all threw flowers on the water’s surface. It was the most peaceful “burial” I had been to.

I don’t remember how long we were in Fulton. Carla's aunt, the transgender person, was nice enough. I don’t recall any outstanding features from that first encounter other than it seemed she was still dealing with some kind of facial skin issue, like razor burn from days gone by.

Coneys, crematoriums and transgenders with razor burn.

Life is not neat and tidy.

photo of hot dog: neadeau
photo of razor blade: brokenarts

Friday, April 20, 2007

Pork Pie

Karen wanted to buy the Mosquito Magnet. I suggested a large pig.

The mosquito population had been bothering us since the office party we had under a tent in our side yard one mid-July. I hadn’t noticed them much before that day, but around 7:00 that evening, they came out in full force for the kill. The citronella candles, part of the overall price tag, were not working. Our dinner for 25 guests became somewhat rushed at the end, with the tinkling sounds of coffee cups against saucers intermingled with loud slapping sounds against bare skin.

Our backyard is about ten feet of inclined grass abutting swamp that the green-minded in Massachusetts call “wetlands.” I once had to remove a pine tree out back that had partially fallen during a wet snow, making its branches too heavy for its roots to support before it toppled over. So I called the town department of conservation, and the administrator in charge told me I could remove the tree, however – since it was in “wetlands” – had to leave ten feet of the butt for environmental purposes. This will make some family of doves very happy. It looks stupid.

Wetlands though they be, they produce mosquitoes like a swamp does. Feasting hoards of them. We needed a solution, and that’s why I suggested the swine.

Karen had read up on Mosquito Magnets and how they emitted carbon dioxide, much like a human exhaling, which attracts mosquitoes downwind, and to dinner they come. I thought that if a large amount of carbon dioxide was what was needed, perhaps a large mammal would suffice, something in the order of a trophy-winning pig.

My reasoning was two-fold. First, the CO2 from the swine would approximate that of the machine and would attract the mosquitoes. Second, when winter came and the mosquitoes had died, we could slaughter the pig and enjoy fresh bacon and ham hocks (not that I’ve ever eaten any, but that would be a good time to start) all season long. One might fault my logic pointing out that we’d have to get a new family pig each year, while the Mosquito Magnet would last from season to season. Nevertheless, the machine would depreciate, need maintenance, and runs on electricity, which lately has been no bargain. The pig, on the other hand, would eat all the meals our three boys refused to. The Mosquito Magnet “Liberty” model, which is the minimum we’d need for our acreage, is $459. We could definitely recoup our costs in the chops that we wouldn’t have to buy from Stop & Shop.

Karen thought this was a ridiculous plan and sarcastically suggested we get a hippopotamus because it emits even more CO2. I have never eaten hippo meat, and while I wasn’t opposed to trying it, I thought the neighbors would object.

photo: muddy

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Icon Singer of Little Italy

On the Friday night of our weekend anniversary trip to New York City last month, we took the N train down to Canal Street and walked east several blocks to Mulberry Street in search of Luna Restaurant.

As we neared it, just north of Canal on the right side of the street, I understood why they hadn’t answered their phone for several days while I was calling to see if they accepted reservations and whether I could arrange a special anniversary surprise with the maître d'.

The interior was darkened and the neon sign was unlit and broken. The navy blue and white striped canopy was ripped. The glass on the door was filthy. Luna was where, I could have sworn, The Godfather’s Clemenza ate lunch before driving out to the sticks of Queens and whacking that guy, followed by the famous line, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli.” I’m pretty sure that was Luna. They had the famous cannoli.

And that was where I wanted to spend our anniversary dinner.

Karen and I had been there before, a couple times, one memorable time with our friends David and Tonya, when the waiter brought out an appetizer that we didn’t order – it was clams casino – and said, “Try it! If you don’ like it, you don’ pay for it!”

Witnessing the shuttered landmark, we walked north half a block to Hester Street to the notorious Puglia Restaurant. Puglia is where I first drank a beer in a restaurant, in 1979, and let us just say that I was not born in 1961.

Karen agreed that this would be an acceptable compromise.

As we entered the front through a canvas and plastic-windowed vestibule of sorts that has become common in many NYC restaurants since K and I have been there, a form of acute brain disease set in and the following absent-mindedness slipped out of my mouth: “This brings back memories of my bachelor party.” However, my heart stopped after the words hung out in the March air like breath crystals waiting to fall to the cement and shatter. I was referring to the bachelor party prior to my first marriage. I did not marry Karen the day after Puglia in 1990. Our marriage came seven years later. And this night at Puglia in the cold March air was supposed to be our anniversary dinner.

This was threatening to make for a lot of loneliness in a nice hotel room for the next two nights. We had seats the next night for “Rent” and yet there might well be a football field between us. Ever gracious and looking to poke fun at me, K. kind of chided me for the slip and blew it off.

The thing you have to understand about Puglia is that it is really not about the food. It is about shaking your napkin.

Jorge Buccio, a hybrid of Elvis and Johnny Fontaine, has been performing live there seems every night for the past 23 years. He does covers from Neil Diamond to Dean Martin to traditional Italian-American love songs on his Hammond organ. Jorge was honored by the City of New York with a proclamation that named him “The Icon Singer of Little Italy.” But there’s a song that all patrons wait for – wait for as they consume unlabeled bottle after bottle of house red wine and bask over their victories on Wall Street that day or drown their defeats… It is “Get up everybody, get up and shake your napkins!”

K. and I had taken her sister Terri here back when I was courting K. Terri was a high school guidance counselor in Austin, Texas, and had a masters in social work. My guess is that she had me figured out in about the first two minutes, and it was she – after hearing my life story from K over the phone one day early in our friendship – who said, “I see a few red flags.” Like seven or eight. But who’s counting.

K and I had finished our entrees and exchanged photo-taking duties with a group of moms from Westport, Connecticut, who were in for a one-day ladies’ shopping jaunt and sitting one table over.

Jorge lit into The Napkin song.

We got up. We shook our napkins. We sang. We laughed and shook some more.

And spent the next two nights quite together in our nice hotel room. Our seats at “Rent” were side by side.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Circassian love story

Mr. Gorman was an older man who lived across the hall from us in 6D. He was Irish and kindly. His sister, Miss Gorman, lived there, too. He looked at me – 14 and as WASPy as they got – one afternoon downstairs when I was surrounded by a group of young black men in the vestibule of our building at 96th and Madison.

“Everything OK?” he asked.

For some bizarre reason, I said, “Yes.” Everything was not.

Ten minutes earlier I had trippingly left the apartment carrying a dollar’s worth of change and was on a mission to go around the corner to the stationery store, run by a round-face Korean man, from whom I regularly bought Mad Magazines and all my candy. I bounded out the interior locked door – a wrought iron job with glass behind it – down the first three steps and across the 10-foot vestibule floor, out the exterior door – another wrought iron barrier, this one unlocked – and down three more concrete stairs to the pavement and the savage New York City streets. Our building was a pre-war, no-doorman building. It was definitely Upper East Side, but we lived on a socioeconomic border: one street up a girl had been kidnapped and held for three days before being released. I would not walk down that street or any others to the north. I couldn’t tell you what they looked like.

Outside, I was met by a group of teenagers and adolescents who were looking for me. Or someone like me. Anybody like me, with a dollar or two or ten.

They surrounded me and said something probing like, “Got any money?!”

I probably lied. No.

Moments later, a black man in his thirties who was passing by stopped and, surveying a known situation, told the kids to disperse. My black Good Samaritan. Stopping to assist the Jew in distress.

I continued around the block and sought my objective, cinnamon Dynamints. You remember those, don’t you? Like Tic Tacs, only…different. Apparently, not different enough, because they’re not sold anymore.

Back at my front door, I looked to the right and left. Coast was clear. I entered the vestibule, a 10-foot square room with a covered steam heater on the right side and those three steps leading up to the interior locked door. I reached that interior door and – blimey – out of nowhere those kids were around me and grabbed me as I was entering the lobby. They pulled me back to the top step, and that’s when Mr. Gorman came in with a bag of groceries.

We had our verbal exchange, he looking over the kids. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t say something. Pride? Who knows. As soon as Mr. Gorman entered the elevator at the end of the lobby and its door closed, three kids grabbed my arm and threw me down the stairs.

One kicked me in the mouth, and I felt my lip crack open. They were punching, kicking.

“Give us your money!” one yelled.

“I told you, I don’t have money! All I have is Dynamints!”

They stopped kicking and – I tell you the truth, Dear Reader – one said, “What flavor?”

“Cinnamon,” I returned weakly, and handed them to him.

“Aw,” said another. “Give the kid his candy.” And they threw the mints onto my chest and left.

All right. Somebody had had some fun here, but it wasn’t me.

I went upstairs to 2D, where Mom and Dad were having drinks with Mrs. Natirbov. She was Circassian, in her 70s with deep-set eyes and a 2-inch bulging tumor thing on her palm near her right thumb so it was freaky to shake hands. She was Muslim, played poker, smoked cigars, and once said to my parents, “Send down your boys. I want to tell them Russian cowboy stories.”

She met me at the door and her eyes bugged out at the blood issuing from my face. I went into her living room and recounted to the three horrified adults what had happened. Yeah, I told them, I got my a** kicked (I didn’t use the a-word); yeah, there were ten of them, maybe fifty, I’m not sure.

I felt kind of manly, truth be told.

Eighteen years later I learned that Mrs. Natirbov’s son went to college with my future father-in-law.

photo: charcoa1

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

make mine with a twist

It was 1973 in Laurinberg, North Carolina, which is about two hours east and a little south of Charlotte. My family and I were staying at the Holiday Inn with the rest of the out of town family for the wedding of my cousin Reg and his fiancée Melissa. “Cousin” was a loose term. I think we shared great-great-great grandparents or something, but we were family nonetheless. Everyone in North Carolina was family. I was ten; my brother was eight.

On one of the three nights we were there the air conditioner in our room wouldn’t turn on. It was an unseasonably warm March. Our family of four shared a room, my brother and I in one bed, parents in the other. Mom and Dad had a habit, perhaps something borne of the 1950s, of setting up a “bar” in whatever space they occupied. So on the countertop by the bathroom where we all put our toothbrushes and my dad put his deodorant and my mom put her Chanel, they also had their ABC Store-bought fifth of gin and vodka and a couple bottles of tonic water, and a metal bucket of ice from down the outside hall, around by the swimming pool. Mom would put some of the vodka in a plastic flask that had as a cap a man’s head, crew cut, with eyes kind of loopy drunk. She carried this with her to social gatherings down south. Too many teetotalers having dry parties for the likes of that New York socialite.

My mom called the front desk while taking a nervous drag of her Virginia Slim, bright red lipstick leaving its mark as the cigarette left her mouth, followed by a furious exhale of blue smoke.

Short time later a man, apparently the manager, knocked on the door and began dialogue with my parents about the air conditioner not working and mom going off on how were we all going to sleep it was hot and there were two boys and four people in this one room and this isn’t what they paid for, dammit all. Basic New York attitude. Your fundamental dressing down.

So the manager suggested leaving the door ajar that night and letting the cool North Carolina air later that night provide the comfort.

Furious blue smoke. Narrowing gaze.

More words. Gesticulating with cigarette tip glowing red from increased air flow from my mom’s waving hand.

The manager listened. And then, “Bless your heart, ma’am, but this isn’t New York…” You can leave the door open, he continued, and not worry that your offspring will be spirited off by evil-doing city folk, in essence. We’re a kind bunch here, in Laurinburg. In North Carolina. We’re family.

This simple phrase, Bless your heart, has always amused me. I know many have written on it. I am sure many have blogged about it. The man was saying in exchange, “Oh, Silly Yankee Lady, let me tell you…” When I hear friends from different regions than the northeast say, “Bless his heart,…” I know the next phrase coming out of their mouths will say the person referred to is your basic nutjob. Or it comes at the end of a sentence that provides a disclaimer along the lines of, "What I have just said I realize has cut to shreds a dear friend of mine, yes we go way back, even to school days, and yes, I realize I will one day stand before the judgment seat of God and answer for my words, but dammit all, this person is a veritable nutjob." Bless his heart.

The upside is that I think this phrase is a basic societal building block to keep us from killing more of each other.

“Bless your heart, ma’am, because even though your General Sherman burned down my great-grandmama’s house in Atlanta, I’m going to call our maintenance man and have him fix this unit right away.” That’s not what he said, but it’s what he meant.

I’m sure my mother walked away from the manager, allowing my Diplomat Father – “My love,” he would say, “Why don’t you go make yourself a drink?” – to ensure that her two little ones were safe from harm in this small southern North Carolina town, only a few miles away from the border of that vast, lawless territory known as South Carolina.

I am sure my mom walked over to the “bar,” unscrewing the vodka bottle while the cigarette stuck crisply out of her taut mouth like a warning to all comers: Don’t Screw With This Yankee Mother, Cracker.

My brother Jim and I didn’t get kidnapped. We skateboarded by the pool the next day because the concrete was smooth. We went to the service at the church – major BORING, I remember the bridesmaids wore yellow – and to the reception back at the Holiday Inn. At one point, the crowd thinned considerably, and Jim and I went to explore.

In a hotel room on the second floor at the back of the property, the door was wide open and people were jam-packed, shouting at the TV, drinking beer and laughing and elbowing each other. Carolina and State were playing in the ACC Men’s Basketball Championships.

Mom and Dad had been married on Saturday, May 4, 1957, on which the Kentucky Derby was run that year. All the folks had left the reception in the living room at Mom’s parents’ house in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, to go upstairs to watch the most exciting two minutes in sports.

They always celebrated their anniversary on Derby Day, whatever date it fell on, not necessarily May 4.

photo: matchstick

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


For some time now, bedtime with three small children has become a little like a word in German or chemistry.

You know, something with SubjectAdjectiveFurtherAdjectiveObjectVerb that goes on and on. A technical term that contains all the knowledge of western civilization in one utterance.

So, these days, there seems to be no shortening of our evening routine - it just gets longer. It becomes an endless string of BooksPrayers”MiddleTime”(where the boys and I talk)SongsHeatedBeanBagsforColdNightsFreshWaterMoreSongsTuck-inThenConstantRemindersof”QuietNoI-S-A-I-D - Q - U - I - E - T!”

Quiet. Please.

No, really. Please…

Monday, April 09, 2007

"I promise."

I had a hard day at the office today.

Not that you want to read about my tough day. You probably had a tough day, too. At home or at the office.

See, it is Easter Monday, and I wanted to be in a more celebratory mood. Today follows my favorite holiday of the year. Yes, I like Easter more than Christmas (too much stressing over presents or, truth be told, our family budget for presents). I like it even more than Thanksgiving (which I like more than Christmas Day, because on Thanksgiving I get to cook a humongous meal for our family of five, and I gorge myself into a Tryptophan-induced amoeba-like state, and then get to induce that single-cell status for several days following).

I like the holiday because I celebrate something that is so pure, so beautiful, so precious, so real, so hopeful and so deep, that I can only describe it to you by adding superlatives and modifiers and “so” this and “so” that.

Yesterday had everything to do with my not being the same person June 14, 1994, as I was June 13, 1994. Sure, some things stayed the same, but some were mysteriously altered and some I’m only now finding out about.

Yesterday had everything to do with Ron, the coke-head truck driver I met in rehab.

Yesterday had everything to do with my mom finally seeking something deep inside her and greater than her toward the end of her life, when she told me she was at peace. And I believed her.

Yesterday had everything to do with my first son’s birth. And my second son’s. And my third son’s. Yesterday will have everything to do with why I will cry like mad when my wife dies in about a half a century but why my sadness will be only short lived.

Yesterday mattered.

I was going to go into why it was such a tough day today, because it had to do with some pretty heavy sh@#, stuff that a mere few paragraphs ago I was still upset about. But I won’t. Because all I need to do is remind myself that every year, we have what happens yesterday.

It is a promise.

That can’t be broken.

By anything.


photo: datarec

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Zagat-only, please

“Why don’t you say that Howard once worked as a contortionist and you had an eyeball transplant?”

The lovely K. and I were driving to the Peabody Marriott on Boston’s North Shore three Decembers ago for what would surely be another somewhat painful Christmas dinner with the office (colleagues and our boss, and spouses), and we were to play a game called “two truths and a lie.” This was a good thing in itself, because conversation otherwise at these coerced gatherings becomes desert-like and as bleak as the Saharan horizon.

We were having trouble coming up with the lies. So K. called her sister Sandra who – perhaps while not a great liar; she’s a wonderful Christian woman – is a highly spontaneous person with a wicked good sense of humor.

With the cell phone to her ear, K. laughed and I said, “What, WHAT?!” Then she told me the ideas and I said, “PERFECT!”

She wasn’t sold on the eyeball lie, not sure if she could pull it off. She decided to lie that she had a tattoo. (Sorry, dear wife, this is not such a big scandal anymore.) To this day, she regrets she didn’t go with eyeball transplant.

We got to the Marriott and suffered through a Hotel Dinner. I think there is an inside conspiracy by hotel employees to keep all hotel restaurants out of the Zagat’s Guide. Then my boss turned the agenda over to my colleague Barry, who usually rescues us from the ennui of an evening with a game that – were it unattended to – would certainly be filled by my boss’s reminder of where we are or aren’t, financially speaking, that has a lot to do with my department’s performance, all this said in front of my dear wife, whose nuptial loyalty I realize is not dependent on her husband’s performance at work but whose confidence nonetheless I wished to encourage if not by increasing revenue through my department then by lying incredibly good about being a contortionist.

We each wrote down our truths and lies on paper, and Barry read them aloud. He’s the kind of man who could read from the phone book and make people laugh.

It came my turn and people started to vote. My truths were (1) getting mugged for candy as a boy (I lived in New York City – this is standard fare), and (2) singing at Lincoln Center (I was part of a boy’s choir at school).

Several of my colleagues actually thought I had worked as a contortionist. I have no idea whether this should be interpreted as a sign of respect or suspicion.

Thirty minutes later, all of us waiting for the Zagat-banned Hotel Dinner to end, my boss was on a long riff about how income in my area was down halfway through our fiscal year (we ended up in the black, Dear Reader). This, in front of my colleagues and my wife.

A bit like a mugging, a bit like getting kicked squarely into soprano territory, and a bit like getting my right shin stuck behind my left ear with the whole table looking on.

Somebody please get the tip.

Friday, April 06, 2007

through other eyes

The young man climbed the sticky steps of the Manhattan subway station exiting at 86th Street and Lexington.

Recent rain on a summer day had dried too quickly and not cleaned the concrete of half-dried soda, food, spit and slime, and the young man stepped with his head down, moving with the Sunday morning crowd, one of many, not a separate individual so much as a piece of a whole.

“Twenty-five cents for a meal!” shouted a voice at the top of the stairs where the exterior light met the dank of the subway tunnel. The voice had a Deep South accent, gravelly, older, black. Directed at everyone: “Ah fought in the wah faw yuh!”

The young man raised his eyes and saw a man in a filthy dark grey suit. Soiled tie. Silver beard. Yellowed teeth.

“You want breakfast?” the younger man asked.

“Oh. OH! Yes!”


They walked together to a diner a few steps away and, entering, asked for a table for two. The host looked over the grey suit and hesitated for just a moment. The young man eyed him.

Seated, they were given menus.

They ordered and soon the older man was presented with eggs, home fries and biscuits. He exclaimed, “Thank you, Jesus!” and started in.

They ate in silence for a while. The older man made grumbling noises while he stuffed the scrambled eggs in his mouth.

At once: “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, HALLELUJAH!” the man shouted to noone in particular, bits of half-chewed egg flying across the table. Other diners looked their way.

The younger man learned that his dining companion lived in a shelter in Harlem five days a week but was turned out each weekend. The older man had been begging for money to stay somewhere that night. He claimed he had a daughter who lived some distance away who wasn’t in a position to help financially. He had no family in New York City.

The bill was paid and they left the restaurant. They said goodbye, and the young man continued on to his church, where he arrived late for the service.

And didn’t care.
photo: haqit

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Stirred, not Shaken

Out at Fire Island, where my parents had a beach house, we all rode bicycles.
Robert Moses, arguably the most influential man in New York in the 1930s, moreso even than the governor, tried his best to get roads running along what would have been the remains of sandy white beaches, fortunately to no avail.

Here’s where Fire Island is, for those of you reading in Korea, South Africa, and Canada (among other places where Surfcountry readers are):,+NY&layer=&ie=UTF8&z=12&ll=40.669442,-73.126717&spn=0.106245,0.226936&om=1 .

Between Ocean Beach, the commercial center of Fire Island, and Cherry Grove, the Corinth and West Village of the island, lies a small community of folks who escape Wall Street and Madison Avenue each Friday afternoon, take the Long Island Railroad – or drive from Greenwich, Connecticut – and hop the private ferry that goes to the private dock, and they enter a place that has been private and relatively unchanged for a decade of decades. We would go there for the month of July and, once we owned instead of rented, we went there weekends during April, May, September and October. Some of my best friendships were developed there.

There is a small church there, and ministers on summer break come for one, two or even three weeks and preach between the final Sunday of June and Labor Day. In return, they get to stay free in the Minister’s Cottage, enjoy the beautiful white sand beach, and attend all the best cocktail parties thrown by Wall Street executives.

I remember years ago one minister in particular, a man I was very influenced by and liked very much. I was in college, and was considering the ministry myself, and I asked him why he didn’t give a more clear call for people to follow God. He said that he had to balance his message so that he would get asked back the following summer.

I still don’t know whether this was cowardice or wisdom.

Today is Maundy Thursday.

photo: scataudo

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Karen always liked the "big cats" on Discovery

Oreo is going to school tomorrow.

Oreo is our 2-year old, black-and-white cat, which we gave to Bennett for his 6th birthday last fall. We adopted him from a woman in Newton who was moving in with her mother and couldn’t keep him any longer. The lovely K. transported him from the transfer point at the Burlington Mall parking lot to our home in a rickety cat carrier in our minivan. Word was that he howled the entire way. Standard for cats. Got him home and let him out in the living room and Bennett’s eyes about jumped out of his head.

He was stoked.

Oreo – Bennett’s name for a black and white animal named after his favorite black and white dessert and renamed from the cat’s former moniker of “Figaro” – spent the first two weeks of his life with us under the living room couch. This did not sit well with Bennett, who must have decided that a video game or dinosaur puzzle, which does not tend to hide or scratch when petted, would have been somewhat of a better birthday present.

Yet all ended well. Oreo and Bennett became fast friends. So fast that Bennett wants the cat to come to his kindergarten classroom tomorrow for “Show and Share.” K. needs to buy a new cat carrier tomorrow prior to going over to Bennett’s school. She wanted a cage open on all sides. I pictured a creature having nowhere to hide in a wire box exposed in a room full of screaming children missing their front teeth. It was not a pretty sight in my mind. I decided to eat a yogurt.

Will Oreo howl the whole time?

Will he pee in his cage? Will he pee outside his cage?

Will my middle son repeat kindergarten because the teacher is angry with my wife for bringing a pee-ing, howling feline into a class of already wild 5- and 6-year old little people?

These are indeed burning questions. We shall see.
photo: ftibor

Monday, April 02, 2007


[WARNING: This post contains graphics examples of promotion of the new book Lullabye but contains no YouTube videos. The one nut in this post is relatively uncontained.]
I was feeling writer’s block, so the lovely K. suggested I write about writing.


So I am trying to get the word spread about my book coming out and decided to scope out various blogs where I might post an innocuous word or two in the Comments section, like on a site for cooking rutabagas and how I know nothing about rutabagas – in fact, truth be told, Dear Reader, I have never eaten a rutabaga and would probably only do so if my dear father were still with us and cooked one up for me to eat when I was an adolescent and threatened that I could not have a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert unless I ate this turnip thing – but even though I know nothing about rutabagas, I might post a comment on the blog about them and say something like, “Gee, I never knew there were so many people interested in cooking rutabagas or even reading a blog about cooking rutabagas isn't that just lovely, so…um…please read my blog at where no rutabagas are featured and so that you can be innocently subjected to a shameless promotion about my book that’s coming out this spring.”

I find these blogs on cooking rutabagas, or fly fishing for rainbow trout in northern Maine, or fixing the septic system on recreational vehicles, and I basically go anywhere where people have two eyes, a functioning brain, and approximately $13.95 or so plus shipping and handling in their checking account, in addition to whatever they need for their mortgage this month, and I try to win them to this blog here.

This blog, which you are now reading.

Now reading, and have the power – the unbridled, democratic, fully global power – to spread the word to all your friends on your email list.

Oh. And another thing.

I was reviewing what blogs out there are getting the most page views. You know what gets the most views? I’ll tell you, Dear Reader. You will hang your head low or, if not, if instead you are piqued, I will be glad to send you the hyperlinks but rest assured I will tell your mother.

What gets the most views?

Blogs that show YouTube videos of Pamela Anderson Lee and another one showing a funny, white-coated man blending up unusual objects like annoying wind-up toys, which he apparently did on Leno and now everyone wants to see it for themselves. (Okay, it was kind of funny.) There was another one with a video of a 747 going off the end of a runway in Medellin, Colombia in 2004. Still being watched.

THIS is what people are really interested in seeing, or ostensibly “reading,” on blogs.

So if you want your voice to be heard, my friend, ringing across purple mountain majesties and above the fruited plain, that occasionally someone writes something that can bring a smile to your face that isn’t measured in bra sizes or burning fuselages, then tell your friends about Surfcountry, and tell them about Lullabye.

The alternative is airing a YouTube video here of my tradition of dressing up as a turkey on Thanksgiving morning and letting my sons hunt me with nerf guns.

So help me, I will go there.

photo: chris2k
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