I Warned You Not to Touch That

Essays


Hard Time

by on Mar.12, 2010, under Essays

Security was tight. A stack of green dog food bowls awaited my wallet, cell phone and keys. Then they asked for my belt. Ordinarily, I find the prospect of a strip search liberating but, since the Tampa air temperature was 49 degrees, I balked. I believe they wanted to check my belt for nuclear explosives. Reluctantly, I complied. I asked the attendant how often people’s pants fall down. After evaluating me as a potential security threat, she replied, “Its happened.”

They ran my meager offering along the conveyor belt through the x-ray machine. I hoped they couldn’t detect how little money I had in my wallet. Poverty is not pretty. If only I’d stopped at the bank first. I walked through the magic rectangle that, I imagine, detects terrorist leanings. I passed without incident, with my pants still on.

Far from flying down to Rio, my destination was the Jury Auditorium at the District Courthouse. I took the escalator to the second floor and gave my summons to Sandra. She seemed happy to see me. I told her we have to stop meeting like this. I scanned the room looking for a comfortable chair, preferably next to someone impartial. These were my peers? They seemed mostly white, overweight, and unhappy. I settled on a fifty-something woman named Karen who was reading from her Kindle.She gave me the kind of welcoming look religious fanatics get when they knock on your door. Since moving to a home with a three mile long driveway, I’ve noticed this type of traffic has diminished. Occasionally, I’ll get a wholesome young couple who has survived the razor wired fence, booby trapped explosives and trained vultures to arrive at my door. Regardless of whether it’s freezing or scorching, the guy is always in a dark suit and tie. The woman contrasts his look with her long flowery dress. Sort of a good wardrobe bad wardrobe team.

I love when cute couples show up. Especially ones that, with one look at me, have decided I don’t have the intelligence to arrive at my own religious beliefs. I need guidance and, fortunately, they can provide it. To be honest, for these discourses, I’m a bit more receptive when strapped to a dentist chair with my mouth pried open and drugs rendering me barely conscious.

As you can imagine, our conversation was a bit one-sided.

“Can you hand me the mallet and chisel, Doris?”
“Yes, doctor.”
“Thank you. I was praying this last wisdom tooth wasn’t fused to his jaw but, unfortunately, it is. Sometimes, our prayers aren’t answered, are they Bill?”
Unable to speak or even shake my head, I stare groggily at the light.
“Of course that doesn’t mean prayer isn’t beneficial, does it?”
It’s hard to argue with that or with anything at this point.
“Can you attach the radiator tip to the vacuum and hand me the hose, please?”
“Yes, doctor.”
“Why, just the other day, I was seeing a patient with an acute case of lockjaw. Do you know what lockjaw is Bill?”
Much as I’d love to respond, words escape me.
“No? Well, lockjaw is when someone can’t open their mouth. Can you imagine that Bill? Not being able to open your mouth? Of course, it’s bad for the patient but think of how tough it makes things for the dentist. Can you jack his mouth open wider, Doris?”
“Yes, doctor.”
“Thanks, now hand me the prybar…I mean how in God’s green earth am I supposed to tackle a dental problem when I can’t get the mouth open?…Hand me the sledge hammer, will you?…So I prayed, Bill. I got down on my hands and knees beside the sink…Can you vacuum the blood and jawbone up so I can see what I’m doing?…and I asked for guidance from above. At first, nothing came to me…that’s better, Doris…so I prayed even harder. I must’ve knelt there for twenty minutes praying and asking for guidance until finally…electric carving knife please, Doris…I saw the light. It all became clear to me, Bill. I realized I didn’t need to do anything at all. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Why worry about doing dental work on someone who’ll never use his teeth?…I’ll take the hacksaw now.”
“Yes, doctor.”
“It was the answer to my prayers, Bill. A huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And I’ll tell you something else. It’s changed the way I view my practice…Can you hand me the pickax?…and my everyday life. I realize I can’t help everyone…Do you think he’s bleeding too much, Doris? You do?…the only person I have to worry about…I thought so…is myself and living my life a certain way…Will you call an ambulance, please?…and so I pray while I’m doing the simple tasks that are before me just like…They’ll be here in ten minutes?…I’m praying now….Doris, come kneel with me and let’s pray for Bill.”

Just when my focus drifted back to Karen and my potential jury mates, a video started playing. It was part pep talk, part information, and part therapy. They told us that, in case the attorneys approached the bench and whispered among themselves, “nobody is trying to hide anything.” I learned not to take it personally if they excused me. I wondered how many went home bitterly disappointed at not having to spend the next three months of their lives sitting in a jury box with eleven others listening to testimony. If they excused me, I planned to celebrate by knocking over a convenience store.

Tons of well-read magazines weighed down the tables between the chairs. I considered American Baby, but settled on an Esquire magazine with the recipient’s address ripped off the cover. It had been years since I dared to venture through its pages. Billed as a men’s magazine, it had an appalling lack of nudity. The current iteration promised me fifty-one pages of fall fashions. Given that it was March, I was sure the styles were now passé.

I turned the glossy pages with a mixture of curiosity, amazement, and shame. I had no idea Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards peddled Louis Vuitton luggage. Condoms seemed like a better match for him. As I viewed the products and models in the ads, I felt embarrassed at my own lack of sophistication. The men were so pretty I thought the publisher should consider touting it as a woman’s magazine. I searched for the index hoping to find the piece on cover boy, Tom Brady. The index was on page thirty-five. Why bother with an index if you have to paw through half the magazine to find it? Just when I was about to learn about the Patriot quarterback’s glamorous lifestyle and fine threads, my name was called.

After three hours and three roll calls, forty of us went to the fifth floor to continue waiting. As I looked around at the granite benches, grey walls, and stainless water fountains I noticed something was missing. Entertainment. Courthouses could turn into profit centers by simply adding a few arcade games. Talk about a captive market. I’m sure, if you look up boredom in the dictionary, there’s a picture of a jury pool standing around waiting to be called. Had anyone considered the appeal of a petting zoo to ease the tedium? I was almost ready to give Esquire another stab when they lined us up and marched us into the courtroom. Finally, some action. Unfortunately, after explaining the judicial process and our important role in it, they returned us to the halls of boredom. I’m sure this is done to make whatever case they’re trying seem more interesting to the jury.

To pass the time, I wandered into an adjoining courtroom. I watched as the judge lifted restraining orders and gave defendants a choice between jail or anger management classes. I thought about the classes. Did they advise throwing paper plates instead of china? Was there a discussion of the strike zone when hitting your significant other with a bat? When throwing someone over the fifth floor balcony, should you make sure there’s a pool directly below? Worried that I’d miss my call to service, I returned to the halls to wait.

Later in the day, I slipped back into the same courtroom. This time, it was a completely different cast of characters. I discovered my seatmates were mostly criminals awaiting justice. My eyes lit on a group of seven dressed in bright orange county jumpsuits. Their arms and legs were shackled and they all wore the same beige sandals. I didn’t think the sandals went with the jumpsuits at all.

One of the defendants kept looking at me. He was a young, thin Hispanic guy with pencil line beard, short dark hair and olive complexion. He was mouthing something and used his handcuffed hands to add to the pantomime. I couldn’t decipher if he was speaking in Spanish or English, and the hand gestures only clouded the message. Perhaps he was asking if I brought the hacksaw. I wanted to signal something back, but thought I’d get busted for aiding and abetting. I turned away.

When I looked back, he was still trying to communicate with me. What could he possibly want? Perhaps, this was part of his insanity defense. As a juror, I’d have bought it. He really wanted me to know something. Was he unhappy about the sandals? Did jail food disagree with him? Were his cellmates snoring? I turned around to check the clock and discovered an older Hispanic woman, right behind me, mouthing and using hand signals too. Much as I was curious to be in on the conversation, I refrained from asking her for details. If they were planning to bust him out, things could get dicey. I returned to the waiting area outside the courtroom and thought about my new friend.

Another potential juror worked for Carnival cruise lines. It surprised me when he said business was booming. According to him, it’s cheaper to take the family on a cruise than to go to Disney World. Parents loved the way kids could be in a contained space while adults could slam back rum punches at the poolside bar. I asked if any of the kids ever fell overboard. He said no but that adults did. I thought it would take a good deal of effort to fall off an ocean liner. What could you possibly need to see leaning that far over the rail that was so compelling? The water looks the same against the ship’s hull as it does twenty yards away from it. One passenger fell in the water from eight floors up. After a pleasure boat ran over him, they rescued him as he clung to a buoy. Some people just refuse to die.

When we were finally back in the courtroom, the prosecution and defense did their best to agree on twelve of us. I worked on developing a facial tic. I’d forgotten to wear my, “Guilty until proven innocent” t-shirt. Many in the pool had novel excuses. “I’m a single parent and my child is scheduled for a brain transplant tomorrow.” Excused. “I’m supposed to appear in court on another matter tomorrow.” Two for two. They let me go after I mentioned my ride back to Mars would be leaving the following noon.

I left with a mixture of emotions. I’m sure release from prison feels similar. There’s elation at being, “on the outside” but regret at the loss of free room and board and friendships only found while sharing the same cell. At least felons are exempt from jury duty.

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General Motors

by on Feb.13, 2010, under Essays

I judged a speaking contest last night.  Prior to the formal judging, the organizers served us a catered meal in the hospitality area.  As I scanned the full room for a place to sit, I spotted a chair next to an attractive 40ish woman.  She was blonde, perky, and had a pretty smile.  Sitting next to a stranger can be a wonderful opportunity to pin different personas on the line and see which one’s flap the most. Were it not for the better food and greater seat selection, I might have been on a plane.

Caris decided she was a Christian homemaker, originally from the Midwest, who regretted never pursuing a fashion design career in New York City.  I wondered if her parents were thinking of Paris when they named her.  Sort of a Midwestern twist on the City of Light.  She lived in Plant City.  I’ve never encountered anyone with that for a name.  I always thought it was an oxymoronic moniker for a city.  When I think of cities, I don’t think of plants.  I didn’t doubt that she lived there.  It just seemed like a long way from the Seventh Avenue fashion district in Manhattan.  Her excuse had something to do with her husband’s business.  He needed space for equipment.

The conversation drifted to what I did for a living.  I told her I ran General Motors.  I saw her eyebrows rise a fraction and a glint of increased interest wash over her face.  Perhaps I could help with a recalled vehicle or, better yet, get her a seat on the board.  She asked, “do you run it from here?”  “Here” I assumed meant the office I have in my home.  I explained that, thanks to modern technology, I didn’t need to be in Detroit that often.  Many Fortune 100 CEO’s run the companies from spare bedrooms in their homes.  I paused to let the gravity of my words sink in.  When they still seemed to be floating on the surface, I explained that I’m a pathological liar and didn’t even own a car.  I watched as her pretty smile careened off her face.  How I wished she’d told me she was the Queen of Sheba or even Sweden.  I’m sure I could’ve gotten her a deal on a Saab.

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Hire Education

by on Feb.07, 2010, under Essays

I noticed my educational opportunities had diminished in recent years and considered ways to correct the problem.  I thought about studying medical school billing but I hate paperwork.  Massage school had some appeal except I knew, eventually, I’d have to stop getting them and start rubbing my classmates. 

Medical school seemed like an excellent option except for two minor points.  Well, three.  I hate blood.  I don’t know what it is about the sight of someone’s brains splattered all over a gurney but I’ve always shied away from such things.  Two, I don’t fit the profile for medical school admissions.  I suppose I could lie about being close to retirement age.  Those convictions for racketeering and influence peddling?  They could be a plus if I got into hospital administration.  The big problem I have with a career in medicine is the paperwork.  I might as well be in medical billing. 

What other new and exciting possibilities were there?  Shepherding?  Yeah right.  Try getting in to one of their schools.  What area of learning would accept someone with my obvious deficiencies and allow me to gain some sense of purpose late in life?  After searching my soul and asking for inspiration from my letter carrier, it came to me.  Driving school.  What an opportunity to get back in the academic saddle.  I imagined firing up those atrophied brain cells and connecting with others like myself interested in advancing their educations. 

I hadn’t given driving schools much thought until I started hearing from them in the mail.  Much like my daughter’s many interested colleges, these schools were looking for students just like me.  Unlike the solicitations sent to my daughter, I’d never heard of the schools contacting me.  It had been a while since my student days and, perhaps this was academia’s new breed.  They had names like Iwannasavepointsonmyinsurance.com and safedriversrus.com.

I sensed the chance to build some lifelong friendships and wondered if financial aid was available.  Thirty dollars isn’t that much money but every penny counts.  I hoped I might qualify for either the aid or a scholarship.  I considered their online learning center but how would I get to know any of my classmates that way? 

I worried how much I’d learn about driving in four hours.  What kind of campus would there be?  I thought any selective school would have a wide assortment of arcade driving games where I could refine my skills.  Besides my fellow classmates, I wondered about my professors.  Would they be ivy-tower types or corporate bigwigs adding an impressive notch to their resume belt?  Is bringing an apple passé?  How competitive was their athletic program?  I always wanted to try fencing. 

After reviewing the many postcard options, it came down to what you’d expect.  The package.  Without grant money, it was difficult to justify the higher priced schools.  Eight or nine dollars, while not much monetarily, represents a significant percentage to save.  Location was important too.  Did I want to attend a school up north or closer to home?  What kind of meal plans did they offer?  What about used textbooks?

I called my first choice and, instead of reaching their admissions department, they prompted me to select from one of the following options:

          Press One for Basic Driver Improvement Class

          Press Two for Defensive Driving class to satisfy a ticket or court order

          Press Three for bail money

          Press Four to repeat these options or to hear them in Sanskrit

I merely wanted to verify the school’s address but the Sanskrit option spoke to me.  I pressed four.  Suddenly, I couldn’t understand a word they were saying and started randomly pressing other numbers, hoping to return to English.  I never dialed the right combination and, after twenty minutes, hung up.  I hoped I hadn’t made a bad first impression. 

To my amazement, someone from the school called me back.  Here was my chance to redeem myself.  I didn’t want to be forced to attend my fallback school.  A Peruvian woman confirmed the address and told me I’d been accepted.  No standardized test.  No costly application fee.  No essay or teacher recommendations.  I was in.  They didn’t offer financial aid but, since this was my first choice, I felt compelled to enroll. 

Think back to your first day of school.  New shoes, new clothes, and writing instruments.  Remember how scared you were climbing onto the bus for the first time?  Letting go of your mother’s hand and waving goodbye to those days of innocence.  What would my driving school professor be like?  Would I know any of the other students?  I was so excited, I lost track of the time.  I had to speed to get to campus for my six o’clock class.  What was more important, bending the traffic laws a little or getting to school on time for the first day of class? 

I looked for the campus.  Keiser University?  That’s not it.  Kiddie Country Achievement Center?  I wish.  There had to be an ivy-walled castle of learning just ahead.  Imagine my surprise when I missed the school completely as I drove by.  I circled around and took another stab at finding it.  I discovered it in the back of a small plaza with Betty’s Bail Bond, The Racer’s Edge Pub and Dominos in the front.  What a perfect location. 

Once in the main administration building Rick, the Dean of the school, greeted me.  He was also my professor.  I discreetly left him an apple.  Only one student preceded me in the registration line.  Barbara.  She worked as a hydrologist, had a boyfriend for three weeks but would consider trading up.  She seemed earnest about finding ways to keep her truck from rolling through stop signs. 

Rick was a smoker.  That was a good sign.  I knew there would be frequent breaks to help keep my mind sharp.  I gave him my license information and ticket number.  These tickets are hard to come by.  Mine was for doing sixty-nine in a forty-five zone.  Well, I was going downhill.  When I entered the classroom, I was disappointed to find only two other students besides Barbara.  Mike was an Egyptian management consultant nabbed for going fifteen over the limit.  He said this was his first offense and he was just helping a sick friend.  With lines like that, I could see how he’d do well as a consultant.  Ramon was a short Hispanic guy from Michigan via New Jersey.  He drove a semi and got caught going too fast.  That was my class.  Except for Barbara, I couldn’t imagine any of my classmates joining me for fencing.

Our professor was a regular guy.  Before he got into the driving school business, he was a retired air force pilot.  He liked going fast too.  He said he’d driven his ‘67 Shelby Mustang 165mph.  I felt honored to be learning from such a speed merchant.  The stories Rick told were the best part of class.  We might as easily have been sitting around a campfire as a dry erase board. 

To illustrate the dangers of unsecured items flying around in a crash, our professor told of one man whose ballpoint pen lodged in his carotid artery.  Rick said, “He bled out in three minutes.”  Perhaps he was a forger getting karmic payback.  You know your time is up when a ballpoint pen does you in.  Then there was the infant with her head severed by the “Baby on Board” sign.  Wow.  Sometimes, you just can’t win. 

I loved the story of the woman who refused to pay for tolls.  She’d rung up $115 worth and showed no sign of slowing down.  She told the judge she wouldn’t pay the tolls.  He gave her a week in jail.  She told him she didn’t care and still wouldn’t pay.  That’s the ticket.  You go girl.  Who is he to tell you what to do?  After hearing her refuse again, he gave her a month in the clink.  Apparently, jail didn’t agree with her because, after that, she seemed fine with the whole toll paying concept.

I learned a lot about Blood Alcohol Content.  It’s hard to believe police have been tipped off by drivers hugging one side of the lane or driving slowly with their brake lights on.  Reaction time amazed me too.  While DUI offenders react three times slower than normal drivers, cell phone users are much slower than the tipplers.  I hoped Florida would adopt California’s innovative approach to deterring drunk driving.  After the first offense, they crush your car and drop the metal cube in your driveway.  I think they let the driver hop out first.

Despite my disappointment with some aspects of school, like their athletic program, others more than exceeded my expectations.  By the end of the four hours, I felt a real connection with my professor and classmates.  We had a brief graduation ceremony, which made me swell with pride.  I did get two beautiful documents, on a high quality velum, commemorating my academic achievement.  Sadly, the original needed to be sent to the Clerk of Court.  Things went so well we all decided to knock back a few drinks at the bar next door before heading home.  I’m looking forward to future class reunions.

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Mr. Softee

by on Jan.15, 2010, under Essays

The screech of brakes applied moments before impact with a bicycle is a memorable sound.  Unforgettable as this noise may be, it doesn’t compare with the carnival tones played by the ice cream truck.  Since my childhood home rested in the Connecticut equivalent of Outer Mongolia, these lilting notes never drifted past my ears.  The cost of gas, even at nineteen cents a gallon, made a trip by my house financially imprudent.  I believe that’s the view shared in the assembly room before those crisply uniformed Good Humor drivers hit the road.  Having never been a part of such camaraderie, I can only speculate, but I imagine a rich conversational fabric.  Things like, “Has anyone seen my hat?” and “I gassed up for eighteen cents a gallon down at the Sunoco.”  Possibly even, “I just missed hitting the Hardcastle kid.  He didn’t even look before he rode his bike out into the street.  I must’ve laid a month a rubber on the pavement.”  Followed by, “Next time, try a little harder, Lou.  You’ll get him.”

Did Good Humor drivers have their own union?  Perhaps the United Brotherhood of Amalgamated Ice Cream Vendors.  They are truckers, of a sort, so perhaps they were Teamsters.  Maybe it’s the Jimmy Hoffa connection but I think of Teamsters as a more rough and tumble bunch.  Brawlers.  They don’t seem likely to wear a short-sleeved white shirt, thick black belt, pressed white pants, black bow tie, shoes, and white hat with black band and visor.  The kind of hat the Statue of Liberty would wear, if she sold ice cream.

I’m sure Good Humor drivers were carefully screened.  Besides questions about their driving record, math skills and mental stability, there had to be a joke section on the application.  Maybe they selected drivers after examining their funny bone.  I imagine weeks of classroom time with subjects like, Ten Ways to Break a Twenty, Every Penny Counts, and Stain Removal, Do’s and Don’ts.  Inventory management was critical.  It doesn’t do you a damn bit of good to pull up in front of a sweet-toothed crowd if you can’t find the ice cream sandwiches.  Good business practice means never having to say, “I guess we’re all out.”  Appearance counts too.  In many ways, the uniformed drivers who met the public were the face of the company.  The link between delicious creamsicles and corporate profitability.  

Sadly, they are all but gone.  The trucks, the drivers, the way of life.  Swept under the waves after years of financial imprudence and ill humor.  Washed away by a force of nature known as soft ice cream. 

Ice cream on a stick seemed like a good idea when it first came out in the 1920’s.  The problem with the stick concept is gravity.  Pieces of toasted almond crust would separate from the vanilla core and fall.  If you were wearing grass-stained shorts covered with a fine patina of dirt, the delicious coating would miss you completely on its trip to the ground.  These toppings aren’t stupid.  Why sacrifice yourself on an already trashed set of threads?  They’re cagey, waiting until you’re wearing your Sunday-best, white button-down shirt and black wool pants.  Like a guided missile, the slab of sugar would nail each article.  There was no controlling the stuff.  If you nibbled like a hamster until you reached the wooden stick, you were still doomed.  By then, the bottom layer had melted and chunks would separate and crash into you.  Napkins?  They’re as useful as an umbrella in a monsoon.  These devious fragments have a keen eye and evade all such impediments.  Any way you lick, nibble, chew, you’re beat.  Yes, it may taste good, but this momentary delight comes at a terrible price.  Your cleanliness. 

If manufacturers of ice cream on a stick had devised a solution to this problem, soft ice cream may never have gained a foothold.  But, they didn’t.  The soft ice cream industry not only solved this problem, they eliminated the need to search for freezer-burned flavors.  How?  By limiting selection to chocolate and vanilla, or combining the two and creating vanocolate.

In the 1970’s, to make up for a childhood deprived of such pleasures, and because I was desperate for work, I decided to pursue a career in soft ice cream.  I answered the following ad:

                                       Driver wanted.

                                       No exp. necessary.

                                       Must have valid

                                       driver’s license.

During the Nixon years, opportunities like this were plentiful in the classifieds.  I called the advertiser, a guy named Jerry, and he went over the basics on the phone.  “The route’s all set up.  I been drivin’ it for years.”  That’s not exactly the way he said it because he had a thick accent, no doubt the result of growing up in the Boston suburb of Revere.  Ordinarily, one might assume the correct pronunciation would mimic the tone of Paul Revere, whose name the city appropriated.  “Ree veer.”  No.  That would only serve to identify you as some hapless interloper from Dubuque.  Any self-respecting Greater Bostonian knows the correct pronunciation is “Ree vee ah.”  I don’t know what caused the aversion Bostonians have to the letter “r.”  They use it at the beginning of words.  After that, all bets are off.  The standard, “Shoot at me again an I’ll rip yah haat out thru yah eah” has the proper inflection.

I agreed to meet Jerry where he kept his truck, right off Mass. Ave. in Dorchester.  No one ever says Massachusetts Avenue.  It’s just wrong.  To be a successful driver, knowledge of local parlance is important.  If only Good Humah had known.  I arrived for my interview a few minutes early and discover I’m over-dressed for the occasion.  Gone were the glorious uniforms of the Good Humor era.  With Mr. Softee, every day is casual Friday.  The other driver’s jeans and t-shirts seemed like a breach of trust.  Just what face was this firm showing?  Having driven Good Humor trucks off the road, I’d say a profitable one. 

I waited for Jerry.  Just who was the mogul behind this soft ice cream empire?  Finally, a timeworn Cadillac the size of a parade float pulled up and out crawled Jerry.  He was a stunning mixture of slimy and hangdog.  He was wiry and his thinning black hair seemed immune to the benefits of shampoo.  With a Marlboro dangling from his thin lips, his rodent eyes measured me looking for signs of larceny.  Intelligence was secondary.  Was I, for two dollars and ninety cents per hour (with a possible raise in a month to three dollars per hour), likely to give him the full daily take?  The rest of his face looked so beaten down I had a hard time getting into the spirit of skimming. 

After provisional approval, he brought me into the truck.  I felt like I was treading on hallowed ground.  The front was what you’d expect and, I guess, the back was too.  It was, after all, an ice cream truck, not a tank.  Still, I loved my new set of wheels.  I was to become a purveyor of a fine assortment of milkshakes, cones and sundaes.  He spent most of the time showing me how to use the ingredients to create the perfect mix.  This is where skill came in.  Like mixing edible epoxy.  If you put too much hardener in, it would barely manage to worm its way out the machine.  Too little and you were peddling vanilla soup. 

Jerry taught me how to make the ice cream and showed me the route.  Despite this, he breezed over the most troublesome aspect of the entire job.  The music.  It was a twenty second repeating loop of cheerful festival-like tones.  Had this been a union job, the torture would’ve been limited to three five-minute bursts every hour.  Earplugs would be in the contract.  “What flavor did you say you wanted?  I can’t hear you.”  Scarier still is there are words to go with the merry rhythm.  Words.  I’m not making this up.  Fortunately, I didn’t need to sing along.

To control noise pollution on its streets, the City of New York proposed a ban on the wail of the Softee trucks.  The citizens of this beautiful city raised such an outcry that Gotham felt compelled to allow it to continue.  I had no choice but to turn on the twinkling tune when driving Jerry’s route.  I can imagine the gasps of delight, and dread, upon hearing my approach.  For the kids, picture the Pied Piper morphing with Pavlov.  Every young Sean, Caitlyn and Mary on my South Boston route perked up and swung into action.  “Please Ma.  I promise to go to confession.  Can I please get a Softee?”  Parents developed temporary deafness or hid the change jar.

Long before Southie became gentrified, my route encompassed the finest projects and war zones it had to offer.  With some luck and good timing, I might catch a fistfight or an interleague softball game.  Mercifully, I could shut the music off at the game.  Here I could sink back and relax to the calming moan of the truck’s generator. 

At first, I looked forward to sampling the product.  I would make sure I had the mix just the right consistency.  By the third day, the smell of stale chocolate, jimmies and other toppings had taken its toll.  That, and the music.  How much punishment could I bear for two dollars and ninety cents per hour?  Eventually, I found ways to cope.  Thorazine, while pricey, is a lot cheaper than long-term care at the asylum.  After paying for the medication, I figure I netted about a dollar per hour, before taxes. 

I searched for places with large crowds.  Crime scenes, street brawls even the unemployment office.  Barring those, I’d keep my eye out for regulars.  These folks were easy to spot.  Massive ice cream consumption makes for large people.  Sometimes, to boost the day’s earnings, I’d slow down as I passed looking for converts to my sweet religion.  The siren sound of soft ice cream wafting through the air.  I could smell a sale.  They were mine.

One day, I pulled up to one of my usual stops, halfway up the hill on East Seventh Street.  I noticed the mix was particularly hard.  Too hard, I thought.  I’ve learned, short of waiting for it to soften, there really isn’t a solution for the problem.  If you wait, the kids get antsy and will leave.  I hated to lose a sale.  I felt like Jerry counted on me.  Occasionally, he’d meet me at the end of the day asking, “How’d ya do today?  I hope good ‘cause I lost a bundle at the track.”  It took me a while for the meaning of this to sink in.  Even now, many years later, I find it painful to swallow.  The incessant sound of Mr. Softee music was driving me nuts.  My life and limb were at risk on the front lines of a war zone, so Jerry can…gamble?  I felt my enthusiasm beginning to melt.

I began to wonder if a career in the soft ice cream industry was for me.  These doubts surrounded me as I considered my options with the hard mix.  As if sent from heaven, Jackie, a fresh-faced first grader, showed up at my window with a dollar.  A whole dollar!  I sized him up and then asked if he’d like to have the world’s largest ice cream cone.  Well, you’d have thought he’d witnessed the second coming of the Lord.  Or, at least St. Patrick.  His eyes lit up like high mass. 

At the time, a small cone had three loops of soft ice cream and went for fifteen cents.  Twenty cents got you four loops and, for a quarter, you got the large cone with five loops of bliss.  I did some arithmetic and determined twenty loops would be a fair serving for a dollar.  The question was, could twenty loops be done?  This was new ground.  Never in the history of ice cream had anyone attempted such a feat.  If little Jackie was game, so was I.

First, I filled the inside of the cone, carefully bringing the hard vanilla snake up to the lip.  Then I wound it around slowly.  I could hear the machine whispering, “I think I can, I think I can.”  Loop after loop, the tower rose.  Eighteen.  Nineteen.  Almost there.  One more.  You can do it.  My concentration, pure as a Tibetan monk’s.  Twenty.  I made it.

This was a masterpiece.  A landmark.  A structure so memorable you could, and should, sell naming rights to it.  The old Boston Garden became the Shawmut Center, then the Fleet Center and now, TDBanknorth Garden.  Similarly, this cone should become the centerpiece of a corporate marketing strategy.  The Autolight Glass cone or the Pine Sol cone.  It was majestic.  A sight burned into our collective consciousnesses for the rest of our lives.  As I gingerly lowered it out the window, I had to finesse it under the opening’s upper lip.  Finally, it was free.  It was like giving birth to a church steeple – for an arctic church. 

There was hushed awe for young Jackie, the financier of this edifice.  Flagler had the vision to build his railroad.  Ford his Model T and Carnegie his steel mills.  Jackie was the undisputed ice cream visionary of South Boston.  Southie, the poor Irish stepchild of Boston, would now take its place in the world order.  All because of Jackie.  Sometimes, the planets align and the forces of nature combine to make something magical happen.  Jackie, his pals, and I were fortunate to be a part of this moment.  Years from now, when walking into a pub on Broadway, Jackie would hear, “You’re welcome to the best we have Jack but your money’s no good here.”  This moment would change all our lives.  I watched with a mixture of admiration, pride, and joy as this little big man left the side of my truck.  His own distinguished walk into destiny.

After I recovered, I served the murmuring throng.  I knew they all wished they were Jackie.  That they had the guts to see something this big through from start to finish.  Yet, there was an unspoken agreement.  Jackie had dared to be great.  They would not challenge him.  Not on this day.  The rest would have to choose from the usual offerings.  Small.  Medium.  Large.

I had just finished serving everyone and was easing myself down into the driver’s seat when I heard a disquieting noise out on the street.  I checked my rearview mirrors.  There was a woman screaming about something.  Another day in paradise.  I started the truck and, as I was getting ready to pull away, I heard banging on the service window.  Loud, angry banging.  She must really want a cone.  Then I realized she was directing her wrath at me.  “Whad ya mean takin’ a dollah from my boy for a cone?”  She must be from Revere.  I went to the window and explained his was an extra special cone made to world record proportions.  She said, “I don’ care if it’s made outta gold, there’s no way in hell I’m spendin’ a dollah on a cone!”  She was getting madder every second. 

I started to explain the particulars when I caught a glimpse of Jackie some distance away.  The look of triumph had vanished.  It was replaced with the sheepish look a dog gives you after being caught stealing a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies from the living room table.  I noticed he was cradling some sort of white log in his arms.  A dripping, white log.  I gave screaming Mary her dollar and never looked back.

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Sgt. Tavera

by on Dec.20, 2009, under Essays

I saw Sergeant Joel Tavera when I arrived at the Purple Heart ceremony.  A hero at twenty-two, only he and one other survived when a rocket demolished their vehicle.  With burns over sixty percent of his body, he was blind, had limited mobility and a bandaged head.  In a different era, he would be dead.  As I drew closer to him, I became afraid.  Not by his looks.  I knew, if I tried to speak with him, I’d lose my composure. 

The military mandates a constant state of readiness, so the preparations took less than twenty-four hours.  Imagine creating a celebration for 175 people in less than a day.  Flags displayed.  Programs printed.  Generals flown in.  Family gathered.  To one side, a beautiful, one-legged soloist waited to sing the National Anthem.  Captain Kevin Lombardo, the hero who heard Tavera’s muffled cries and pulled him to safety, stood by his side.

I asked about seating while trying to keep a lid on my emotions.  The first rows were for family with an open area designated for wheelchairs.  Not counting Sergeant Tavera’s, I counted nine of them.  All different configurations.  They made up for what the bodies couldn’t do themselves.

Most of the guests wore military fatigues.  I studied the many versions of camouflage.  The soldier’s ranks clear to each other and invisible to me.  There were naval dress whites, air force blues, army khakis, and a marine in blue and red honor guard regalia.  Sprinkled in among the civilian’s attire, these added colors seemed planned and purposeful. 

Despite my own raw emotions, the mood was upbeat, even festive.  How could the crowd be so gay?  I saw burned faces, dented skulls, and missing limbs.  One veteran arrived tilted to one side with a sleeping baby secured to his lap.  When his wife spoke to him, she leaned close and gently held his face in her hands.  This was her best hope to reach him.  Another father touched the smile of a son he would never see.  Across the packed room, a service dog trailed his owner as he visited other wheel-chaired veterans.  The light mood told me the crowd chose to celebrate the living.  These were veterans.  Veterans of combat.  Of loss.  Of ceremonies. 

We stood as the official party entered.  Sergeant Tavera along with his parents.  Everywhere I looked, I saw smiles, yet my heart ached.  I knew nothing of this kind of bravery.  I looked down at the patterns of the carpet to hide my tears.  They looked like blurred official seals.  The hero endured fifteen months in recovery to reach this point.  He would have the rest of his life to continue it. 

The Invocation followed the National Anthem.  The chaplain was good.  His practiced words were a tribute to the hero and a balm to the crowd.  The guest of honor sat in his wheelchair facing us as the ceremony progressed.  I don’t know what I expected.  They save military flyovers for internments in Arlington National Cemetery.  I closed my eyes to push back a fresh wave of rain and tried to imagine the world as Sergeant Tavera saw it.  Sounds of babies fussing.  Cameras clicking.  A program falling to the floor.  I felt the warmth of the room on my face and wondered how much heat the sergeant must have felt.  Must still feel. 

Tavera’s father pushed a button and up rose his son.  It was a sight worthy of the finest Las Vegas illusions.  Miraculous.  After all he had been through, Sergeant Tavera stood facing Major General Michael Oates.  It didn’t matter that the chair created this miracle.  The effect was amazing.  His once-collapsed body recovered to stand in front of all of us.  It was a gesture of determination, of respect, of pride.

The announcer didn’t mention all the other awards and decorations already given to the sergeant.  When wounded March 12, 2008, he was twelve days shy of his twenty-first birthday.  After many months of pain and recovery, he sat among us.  It was official.  The Secretary of the Army and President proclaimed it.  The presenters carefully placed the ribboned medals over Tavera’s bandaged head.  They pinned the rarest medals to his chest.  The Purple Heart.  The Army Cross. 

 

I thought the ceremony was over.  The proclamations made and medals presented.  Sergeant Tavera wanted to say something.  The audience leaned forward, barely breathing.  Softly, he said thank you.  Thank you to his parents.  To the people who had put him back together.  To the army.  To us.  A young man who had nearly given his life for his country was thanking us.  When he finished, the room stood and cheered.

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I Queue

by on Dec.07, 2009, under Essays

I found myself seduced online recently.  I had no intention of getting so deeply involved.  It all seemed so innocent at first.  Just a few laughs and, perhaps, a chance to get to know myself a little better.  I was researching something when it happened.  An innocent looking box offered to tell me my IQ.  All I had to do was answer the following question: 

            If there are five apples on a plate and you take away three, how many do you have?

What a great question.  They gave me six choices, ranging from zero to five.  The answer was so easy even I knew it.  I imagined the results going directly to Mensa.  I felt a sense of pride swelling within me.  My parents had spawned a genius. 

The more I thought about my answer, the more I wondered if this was a trick question.  I’m leaning toward one of the six numbers I’ve been given.  Still, it could be a trap.  As I thought about my options, I came up with the following: 

  1. Answer the question to the best of my ability and see what happens.

  2. Select an answer using the eeny, meeny, miney, mo method.

  3. Give up on this rare opportunity to learn my IQ.

  4. Use a lifeline and phone a friend.

  5. None of the above.

I gambled on “a.”  I picked my answer and clicked.  To my amazement, there were only more questions.  No virtual parade.  No downloadable certificate of mental acuity.  Not even an indication of whether I’d answered the question correctly.  What a letdown.  I wanted results.  Something specific.  An IQ number.  Preferably over fifty.

As I feared, the questions got harder.  Consider the next one:

A rancher has 33 head of cattle standing in a field, when suddenly a bolt of lightning kills all but 9 of them.  How many head of cattle are left standing?

I wondered how a lightning bolt could kill twenty-four cattle at once.  I suppose, if all twenty-four were touching each other, lightning could hit the first one and travel through the rest.  The question was growing on me.  What were the nine survivors thinking?  Perhaps one murmured, “That was a close one Lou.  Lou?  Are you there, Lou?” 

There were seven more challenging questions on the page.  I wanted to skip the last one but it wouldn’t let me.  My choice of answers required me to disclose whether I was a man or a woman.  I wondered what that had to do with my IQ. 

As I reached the bottom of the second page, I found myself faced with another odd question.  To determine where the smartest people live, it asked for my zip code.  Compared to some of the questions, this was within my reach.  I didn’t mind divulging personal information if it would lead to a higher IQ. 

When I reached the bottom of page three, it asked, “Do people get smarter with age?  How old are you?”  What a great question.  Best of all, I think I knew the answer.  It looked like I was one step away from getting my personalized IQ results. 

It coaxed me saying, “Almost done!  We are generating your results.  Here are some optional offers while we process your information.”  Since I told them I was ninety-two, they asked whether I wanted to receive diabetic supplies.  I’m not a diabetic but who am I to turn down such an offer?  I wanted to impress them with my intelligence.  In small print it said, “No thanks, skip this offer.”  That would be the dumb thing to do.

The site went on with page after page of additional offers.  I started to feel listless and sallow.  I clicked “continue” hoping finally to learn how smart I am.  I reached a page telling me “Internal Error 404.”  404 seemed high for an IQ number.  After nine grueling hours, I concluded only an idiot would go through this torture to find out their intelligence.

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Food For Thought – Smithsonian 8-24

by on Nov.30, 2009, under Essays

I’ve never been good at sending back food.  If it comes before me with no visible infestation of maggots, I really am fine with it.  I’m not even upset when the portions are microscopic.  To be honest, I’m more of a quantity guy but small, artfully displayed “meals” are so complex and sublime that I can’t turn them away.  In fact, if I suspect that I’ll be dining at Chez Starvation, I’ll make a point of eating before stepping inside. 

While dining out with friends recently, I had the misfortune of ordering the Chilean Sea Bass Maria.  I’m not sure who Maria is.  For all I know, she may be an innocent victim in this blasphemy.  Perhaps she has a licensing agreement to allow the use of her name, taste concerns notwithstanding.  Maria’s Bass was best suited to those whose diet required high dosages of salt, like deer.

One of my dinner mates asked, “How’s yours?”  I replied, “It’s okay” which is the polite way of saying, “It’s swill.”  Since they chose this obscenely expensive Italian restaurant, “okay” was far from good enough.  They pressed further, a note of alarm creeping into, “Is there something the matter with it?”  I said, “No, really it’s fine.”  Now everyone wanted to taste the disappointing fish.  For some reason, there’s an irresistible allure of food on other people’s plates, good or bad.  The server could be bringing a bucket of lard to the couple on the far side of the room and it would look better than anything already ordered.  After descending on my meager helping like vultures, the critics agreed unanimously, “It’s really salty.”  “That’s not right.”  Then the dreaded, “You should send it back.”

My primary reluctance to returning food is that I’m afraid some underpaid chef will season the replacement with his or her spit.  Like political scandals, a bad plate of food has a way of taking on a life of its own.  The masses wanted justice.  The bass was salty and needed sending back.  I could hear a coliseum of gastronomes chanting, “Send…It…Back.  Send…It…Back.”  Bowing to the groundswell of increased pressure and, despite the obvious risks, I returned my finless friend.

The waiter didn’t blanche at the request.  I asked if I could replace it with the day’s special, Lobster St. Pierre.  If there is a Saint Pierre, I’m not familiar with him.  Perhaps he knew Maria.  Maybe they had the same agent negotiating the naming rights to these dishes.  I tried to imagine saints dining out.  Did they go as a group or split up?  How would they dress?  What would they order?  I wondered if St. Pierre would’ve returned the bass. 

My dining companions and I were in the honeymoon phase of our acquaintance.  This stage of the relationship is a time to be spoon-fed tantalizing appetizers of what lays under the top shelf of someone’s personality.  Little snippets about your pending cure for world hunger or the feeling of re-entry after nine days in orbit.  Your last three spouses or finer points of prison cuisine should unfold more gradually.

Jackie went with her experience working as a state employee.  “I thought, when people were getting paid to do a job, they should work hard for the money.”  She chose to rant about this despite leaving her job five years earlier.  It turns out Jackie has a long memory.  She covered the time her parents walked in while she was having sex with her high school sweetheart twenty-five years earlier.  “They weren’t expected back from their trip until the following day.”  If that wasn’t enough, I learned about her brother’s license being revoked after too many DUI’s.  More wine please.

Just when it appeared things couldn’t get any worse, my Lobster St. Pierre arrived.  By now, everyone had finished their dinners and was looking expectantly at me for a “thumbs up” on my replacement meal.  It had ¼ pound of buttery lobster meat drizzled over angel hair pasta with a creamy saffron sauce and, I thought, a mild hint of spit.  It was delicious.

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Famous

by on Nov.20, 2009, under Essays

My editor sent me an email.  She wanted to make sure I knew Shakespeare would be speaking in Tampa.  The news represented progress.  A few months earlier, she’d never heard of him.  This despite many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and numerous published works to his credit.  She told me classic literature wasn’t her genre.

My primary problem with Mr. Shakespeare is his use of language.  It’s deplorable.  I’ve been around long enough to know there’s a direct and indirect way to say something.  Can he be any less direct?  I hate his blather.

O Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?

Cut to the chase.  “Romeo, where are you?”  That wasn’t so hard.  What a hack! 

Consider this drivel:

Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy, as a squash is before ‘tis a peascod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple.

A codling is a baby apple?  I’ve heard of a codpiece but never a peascod.  It sounds more indecent than codpiece. 

The funny thing is, no one ever complains about Shakespeare.  Is he some sort of sacred cow?  I think his writing is a comedy of errors.  Much as he troubles me, I had to spend the money to see him.  I wanted to know what he wore to these gigs.  Would he don something Elizabethan or go with a more contemporary look?  Perhaps a smoking jacket, ascot, and pipe.  What could he possibly have to say?  I worried the evening might be much ado about nothing. 

Perhaps he’d offer insights about, “the ending I didn’t choose.”  That would interest me.  The alternate ending to Romeo and Juliet.  Juliet wakes up just in time to give Romeo CPR?  Instead of drinking hemlock, they get hammered with ale until oak-cleaving thunderbolts singe their heads.  I think he needs to pay attention to two words that have guided Hollywood for ages.  Happy endings.

This guy is a literary morgue tour.  How much tragedy does he think people can handle?  Consider what would be the television equivalent of these fateful writings.  Some talk show or reality program that makes its money on the suffering of others.  The nightly news?  That’s almost cheating it’s so obvious.  Speaking of cheating, what about Cheaters?  For my money, the deception is the best part of the show.  I love when the wife calls the husband to see how he’s doing.  It’s always when hubby has his lover right next to him in the motel room.

           Wife:               Hey, how are you?

            Hubby:             Pretty good and you?

            Wife:               I’m okay.  When are you going to be home?

    Hubby:             I thought I’d be there by now but I’ve been trying to finish my proposal to give the merchant of Venice.

I love being in on the secret.  Of course, the wife is well aware hubby is involved with the taming of the shrew.  She feeds him additional rope to hang himself:

I wish we got to see more of each other.  It seems like you’re always gone lately.  This is the twelfth night you’ve worked late.

Maybe hubby enjoys the deception too.  He answers:

I know.  The two gentlemen of Verona have been hounding me.  If I can just make it through the next month, I promise to make everything as you like it.

His sweet concessions are a waste of airtime.  His fate sealed.  Love’s labor’s lost.

I think Mr. Shakespeare would reach a far wider audience if he dumped the Elizabethan shtick and got with the times.  Write about subjects that interest today’s readers.  Like weight loss.  Here’s a topic most people read about.  If he did some before and after photos, he could call the book Measure for Measure.  The Tempest?  With a name like that, no one will grab it off the discount table.  Jazz it up.  Try something new and compelling like, My Hurricane Katrina Nightmare.  No one knows where Windsor is.  Go with, The Merry Wives of Orange County.  The key is to lighten up.  Start speaking plainly.  Get a blog going.  With a name as catchy as Shakespeare, it won’t be long before people will know it from every city to hamlet.

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Birthday Smithsonian

by on Nov.07, 2009, under Essays

A party invitation arrived the other day.  Beth, a friend of my daughter’s, wanted others to help her celebrate sixteen years on the planet.  I thought the Build-A-Bear workshop was an unusual choice, given I’d expect to find kids that age working there.  Still, it seemed more wholesome than the popular Build-A-Methlab workshops. 

There’s a show called My Super Sweet Sixteen.  Besides deciding on a guest list of a few hundred, the big stress-maker is the entertainment.  A girl in Los Angeles brought in Cirque de Soleil.  I almost choked on my chicken.  Perhaps kids in Washington take Air Force One up for a spin.  It seemed excessive until a kid in New York countered with Usher.  The tension built as little Richie Rich circled the block in his Rolls trying to time his arrival perfectly.  My heart went out to him.  Riding around in the back of his father’s car, all alone except for the chauffer and MTV camera crew. 

Manhattan has a surprising number of Rolls Royces.  When I was in school there, my classmate Calvin offered me a ride from W116th Street to W110th Street.  Six blocks isn’t far but our project to take over the world’s economy was due and needed some tweaking.  Calvin had a Rolls too.  I’m sure the cabbies all have them by now.  When we got to his car, a beat up Chevy was double-parked and blocking him in.  After settling inside, he started the engine.  It was as quiet as a spinster’s voicemail.  The dashboard clock was the only disturbance.  Lambskin floor mats caressed my shoes.  Connolly leather hides adorned the sumptuous seating.  I thought, as I searched for the Grey Poupon, this is refinement. 

I was getting ready to lower my window to see if someone would take my picture when it happened.  Calvin cut the wheels hard.  I couldn’t believe my luck.  I finally get a ride in a Rolls Royce and he’s going to use it to ram a $500 Chevy.  As I braced myself for impact, I worried about the sixteen coats of hand-sprayed lacquer.  Add a few more if you count the Chevy.  Then, instead of putting the car in forward, he hit reverse.  Yes, reverse.  Slowly, the stately carriage began backing up over the curb.  The right front wheel followed by the left.  As he went forward the back wheels climbed up.  We were like some icebound liner freed in the spring thaw.  I was riding down the sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in Calvin’s Rolls.  Even I didn’t believe it.  I suggested we detour from W110th Street to try mudbogging in Central Park.  Calvin declined.  We never conquered the world’s economy.  I think Richie Rich’s father did.  After throwing a bash that had to run well into the six figures, his son got a new BMW.  The kid didn’t even know how to drive.  Perhaps Calvin could teach him.

Richie Rich bypassed the Build-A-Bear workshop.  Maybe his dad said it would be too much.  I remember them being on the pricey side.  Apparently, nothing was too good for Build-A-Bear Beth.  I noted the location, time and the last line.  “Bring money to eat (and if you want to build a bear).”  I was stunned.  Bring money to eat.  These people had so much money, they assumed my daughter’s friends used it as food.  I thought dollars would be easier to digest than quarters.  Still, paper money would cost more to eat. 

This party is going to top all parties and, best of all, cost my daughter a fortune to attend.  That’s assuming she digests the money without surgery.  Beth and her family are onto something.  Have a party where the guests pay for everything.  I looked forward to my daughter’s Sweet Sixteen celebration.  My only question was would her friends pay more than twenty dollars for a cover charge?

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