I Warned You Not to Touch That

Tag: personal 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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Email Thread-Fan Mail (I think)

by on Feb.11, 2010, under Other

Don’t ever be afraid to say how you feel about my work.  These emails arrived before my blog was set up.  You, my close personal friend,  can leave thoughts right in the comment sections on these pages.  It’s a snap.  All replies are welcome and appreciated.

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Review of 95 Chances for Love & 1st Chapters

by on Dec.27, 2009, under Book

Amusing and engaging (5/5 stars)

Before reading this book, when I found out about its topic, I thought to myself that there was definite potential in the idea. Learning about the author’s experience after he decided to post a personal ad in a New York newspaper in 1985, discovering the traits of the women who answered, and finally finding out if the quest was successful, definitely appealed to my curiosity. But I never expected the experience to be as good as it ultimately was, since the book delivered much more than what it promised.

Bill Riddle writes with an approachable style, taking us on the journey as if we were his old-time friends, and showing us the good, the bad and the ugly from his experience. He does this while using fine humor that never gets old. Sometimes he made me smile, sometimes chuckle, and in other instances he caught me unaware and made me explode in laughter that drew weird looks from my wife. But it is not only the humorous characteristic of this book that makes it so good, since the author uses the technique of switching topics frequently and efficiently to keep our interest at its max. For me, this aspect moved the work from the very good category into the excellent one.

When I finally found out about the result of Riddle’s search, I felt like I had been a part of the journey and felt sad it was over. I recommend this book wholeheartedly and without any reservations.

Sebastian Fernandez

Book reviewer,  Amazon.com

Below are the first three chapters of a completed manuscript.  I seek representation, should you happen to be or know of a good agent.  Alright, I’d settle for a mediocre agent, I think.   

 

95 Chances for Love 

  

Chapter 1 – Sleepless In Manhattan

     

Finding love can be like eating soup with a fork.  At a soccer match in ninth grade, I saw a pretty, slim longhaired girl who was every preppy boy’s fantasy.  I maneuvered so we were next to each other.  Before long, we were talking and getting along like fish and water.  Her friendliness gave me confidence and she laughed at my witty observations.  I gladly spent thirty minutes watching the boring game just to be in her company.  Finally, I screwed up my nerve and asked if she’d like to go out sometime.  She thanked me for my invitation and, just when I thought I’d closed the deal, she told me something I’ve never forgotten.  “I’m sorry, I thought you knew.  I’m Mr. Domrick’s wife.”  Yes, the soccer coach’s wife.  Talk about clueless.

Perhaps my lack of awareness stemmed from my early years socializing with poultry rather than humans.  My three siblings and I grew up in a rural Connecticut farmhouse, complete with chickens and the classic big, red barn out back.  Our nearest neighbor lived a quarter mile away.  Aside from spilling out of my mother’s muddy green 1949 DeSoto at thirty-five mph, my childhood was reasonably calm and uneventful. 

Of the many benefits to falling out of a speeding car at age five, my favorite was having my head bandaged to look like a swami.  Not many mystics hung out at Hartford Hospital wearing plaid pajamas.  Since they were a rarity in Connecticut, people young and old flocked to me with one burning question.  “What happened to you?”  I divided my answers into two categories.  One for adults and one for kids.  For adults, I had to tone down the story. 

We were on the interstate when my older sister said, “Let’s open the car door and see if the pavement looks blurry.  You go first.”  I grabbed the door handle, swung out, and dangled over the road to get a closer look.  I hung on until she started tickling me.  When I let go, I bounced down the highway like a bag of laundry.

For kids, all bets were off.

My big sister owed money to Tommy Wingurtzman and there wasn’t enough in my piggy bank to pay him.  When I wasn’t looking, she tied me up and told him he could kick me in the head for a dollar a pop.  After paying Tommy, she had enough left over to buy a pony.

Somehow, I survived childhood and, not for lack of effort on my part, went off to college a virgin.  St. Pauli Girl beer has an ad.  The tagline goes something like, “You always remember your first girl.”  Fortunately, for me, there was a first girl.  God bless her.  Sherry Stromberg.  A nice Swedish girl.  Well, not directly from Sweden but who was I to be fussy?  I met her while home on Christmas break.  I’ve always admired the Scandinavians’ relaxed attitude about nudity and sex.  A blonde, Nordic goddess who could have posed for the beer ad, Sherry was an honest-to-God “older” woman.  Poor Sherry.  I’m sure our passion was much more memorable for me than for her.  Still, the drought was over. 

My track record for meeting women was far from stellar.  I managed to bumble along somehow and eventually learned I had better luck in Cambridge than Boston.  Maybe it was the town’s leftward tilt.  Maybe I was more comfortable and familiar with Cambridge since I lived there.  Maybe my small town brain found the scale easier to digest. 

Despite my ineptitude, I met a number of smart, beautiful women at parties, bars, school, even sailing.  In 1983, at the height of the Madonna craze, I went to Miami for a wedding.  I had long avoided Florida, convinced that something in the water turned hair blue.  I spotted a lovely young woman at the posh Grand Bay Hotel’s Friday happy hour.  At the time, they used the Grand Bay in the hit television series Miami Vice.  I figured, if it was good enough for Don Johnson, I should try it.  Rita wore an elegant grey business suit with a porcelain silk blouse.  She drew me in with her whimsical smile and curls the color of wedding rings. 

We began our whirlwind romance with me living in Boston and she in Miami Beach.  After a year of commuting for love, I proposed and she moved to Boston.  I remember thinking how happy we’d be when she left her apartment to live with me.  What did I know?  Living together went horribly awry from the outset.  Things began to unravel when she lost her cat in the move and continued downhill from there.  Conflict was part of Rita’s Jewish heritage.  Three thousand years of oppression and survival.  She told me, “My family always fights at the dinner table” as though this was something good.  Like saying, “our Brazilian chef makes mango chutney that’s divine.”  At one point, after a particularly draining argument, she said, “I know we can make this work.  You can make anything work if you try hard enough.”  Unfortunately, I believed her.  I now understand that theory works no better for cars without wheels than for interpersonal relationships. 

In 1986, I had the frothy idea of going to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City.  For some reason, Columbia wanted students to attend a new, small program in Real Estate Development.  Possibly to ensure its real estate program didn’t devolve into an academic meat market, Columbia decided on a male-female ratio of nine to one.  Two of the five women in the program were married.  If only I’d chosen nursing. 

 It didn’t take long before I realized I was out of my dating comfort zone in Manhattan, much the way I felt when I sought love in Boston.  With opportunities so limited at school, I’d have to get creative.  Try something different.  Go where only the desperate had gone before.  Place a personal ad.

***

      When I opened the large, white, rumpled New York Magazine envelope and dumped the letters on the table, one stood out.  I stared at the replies to my personal ad with a mixture of curiosity, hope, and skepticism.  1987 arrived days earlier in the Big Apple.  My eyes gazed at the 8½ x 11 manila envelope, a lump of hope inside of me.  The sender used Scotch tape as an extra security measure.  God forbid the normal, gummed seal and clasp failed.  This could hold the hopes of a lonely single guy inside its flat, constricted walls.
      Before considering how the writer addressed it, think back to your first grade teacher.  Remember her?  It was always a “her,” at least it was when I grew up in the Neolithic Age.  Mine was Mrs. Richardson.  I loved her.  She looked like Grace Kelly, only with dark curly hair.
      I also loved my classmate Paula McLave.  I’d known her since kindergarten but, not wanting to rush things, waited until first grade to tell her.  She seemed receptive.  The day after I told her, she stopped me with a sad look on her face.  I asked, “What’s wrong?”  She explained, “I’m sorry but I can’t marry you.  My parents said we couldn’t because you’re not Catholic.”  At least our age wasn’t a problem.
      Mrs. Richardson had the BEST handwriting.  Her ramrod straight letters and sublime arcs always ended perfectly. 

      The handwriting on the envelope was almost as perfect as Mrs. Richardson’s.  In fact, for one scary moment, I wondered if she was the one writing me.  My respondent used simple, controlled block letters.  There would be no confusing cursive for this address.  No red ink, felt-tipped pen or other untested way to write.  These were pure letters.  Carefully formed.  Skillfully constructed.  She even spelled out New York twice, just like the helpful guide in the “Personals” section recommended.

      The glue, Scotch tape, and metal clasp gave way to an elegant, 7×10 black, handcrafted card.  She placed a pink hand-cut heart in the center and outlined the edge in a darker pink.  It was a masterwork.  Was her last name Hallmark?  I hesitated.  How could anything inside compare with the sophisticated beauty of the exterior?
      Her card more than met my expectations.  On the left panel was a professionally taken full-length color picture of an elegant, ivory-skinned temptress.  She could have chaired any number of boards or fit in nicely on the social pages.  Her long, slender fingers were, no doubt, the result of years of piano training.  Her turquoise eyes said, “I know you want me.”
      What a dazzling effect.  The right panel had a pink letter to match the pink heart on the cover.  The black construction paper served as the perfect frame for the letter.  Before even reading it, my eyes darted to the signature.  Who was this woman?  Who would take the time to create such a masterpiece and send it to me? 

Jean Carol Shifton.

She said volumes with her exquisite presentation.  What more could she add with words?  

Jean began with:

      “Sure to please” me?  I could see that.  This was the standard to which all future replies would be measured.  The undefeated season.  Bowling 300.  2400 on the SAT.  I read slowly, trying to make the moment last.  Her handwriting was controlled, deliberate, yet soft and flowing.  The blue ink sat well on its pink background.  Could this be the woman of my dreams?  Had I discovered the motherlode of love?
      Why did love and happiness have to be so elusive?  With millions of beautiful women to choose from, how could I not meet someone in New York City?  After all, I had an IQ greater than an onion, lived above the poverty line, and knew enough to refrain from singing.  What’s not to love?  Apparently, plenty.  Despite my best efforts, I was still sleepless in Manhattan and unable to find Ms. Right.

 

Chapter 2 – Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

 

      You’d think writing a personal ad would’ve been easy for a seasoned marketing person like me.  New York Magazine sure tried to make it that way.  They produced an attractive glossy 244-page magazine.  It came with two crossword puzzles, TV and radio listings, and an ad for the Helmsley Palace featuring that loveable future convict, Leona Helmsley.
      The ad for the Helmsley Palace was a classic.  Leona, draped in a shimmering gold blouse and black floor-length skirt, had her hair arranged to best accentuate her diamond drop earrings and coordinated tiara.  Posed at an elegantly set dining table, the look on her face said she might carve up a few guests as appetizers if things didn’t go her way.  The caption said it all.  “It’s the only Palace in the world where the Queen stands guard.”
      You may recall, Leona had an aversion to paying taxes.  In fairness, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Damn, I wish my tax bill was higher this year.”  Plus, I’m sure Queen Elizabeth doesn’t pay them.  Nonetheless, Leona felt taxes were the burden of “the little people.”  I think those were her words and I don’t believe she meant those short in stature.  Of course, it made perfect sense that, as the wife of a billionaire, she’d pay less to the government than a busboy at her “Palace.”
      Naturally, the Feds busted her.  I hoped, when she got out of prison, she would write some uplifting memoir about her life behind bars.  Perhaps she’d include a discussion of haute cuisine in a federal pen.  Possibly, some mention of her tireless work instructing cellmates in the fine art of linen selection.  As a title, Queen of the Slammer came to mind.
      Had I gotten the magazine’s media kit, I’m sure I would’ve learned the publication was a magnet for New York’s finest women.  Consider the advertisers.  Bloomingdales offered 25-50% off on your choice of mink, fox, raccoon, beaver, or coyote.  Coyote?  The Four Seasons, in their “Thirteenth annual love letter to New Yorkers” went with:

“…Chef Renggli’s insistence on hot and spicy flavors as the delicious substitute for salt keeps winning new converts, while our distinctive Spa entrée Skewer of Shrimp and Chicken with Bulghur became one of our most favored dishes.”

       Was this my target market?  I couldn’t say I’d always hoped for a coyote jacket, or even a date wearing one.  Still, at 50% off, it was tempting.  And what about Bulghur?  That’s something edible?  I thought it was an Eastern Bloc country.  I figured I’d get a better idea by reading the personals myself.
      After wading through the sizable classified area, I reached my destination.  A section called Strictly Personals with five pages of hopeful desperation.  As I studied the women’s and men’s ads, a pattern emerged.  Men and women promoted different things.  Guys emphasized security and women their looks.  I suppose this should come as no surprise.  Even with woman’s liberation, our culture still views men as the primary breadwinners.
      Since the ads sold for twenty-five dollars per line, you could almost guess the writer’s financial picture, or level of desperation, by the ad size.  Mine was eight lines.  That might seem like a lot, but others were even larger.  Consider the following plea lasting nineteen lines:

                              Catch The Rhythm- If you’re shapely
                              and the words are right/we’ll sin in the
                              morning and mambo at night.  This may
                              read unusual but I mean what I say/will
                              it matter in a month that we met this way?
                              I’m a self-made millionaire with sexy toes
                              and I even look better without my clothes.
                              I like my work and you’ll love to play/with
                              this handsome, younger Jewish Fernando
                              Rey.  Strong moral values: I don’t smoke
                              or eat scallions/intelligent gambling won
                              me my millions.  I’ve practiced ‘till perfect,
                              gained a national reputation/now relaxed
                              with my talent, I like to vacation.
                              Suggestions are welcomed, directions are
                              not/lose your mind but keep your work and
                              we’ll be hot.  If you know how to ship but
                              prefer to kiss/let’s gamble more than money
                              in St. Moritz.

      What an ad.  I considered getting a sex change operation, just to be able to cruise to St. Moritz with him.  Well, actually, I did have a few concerns, albeit minor ones.  With a scant physical description other than “sexy toes,” I had a hard time getting a visual on him.  Was he a slab of whale meat?  Who was Fernando Rey?  He wanted me to “sin in the morning.”  What kind of girl did he think I was?
      Let’s face it, he wanted a hooker, and I’ve never charged a dime for my love.  His line, “will it matter in a month that we met this way?” said a lot about how people viewed the personals.  I will say this for him, he did provide a visual cue for those who knew what Fernando Rey looked like.  A quick, present-day online search revealed Fernando wasn’t my type, though he did appear in both French Connection movies.  I’m guessing, the advertiser might have had some luck finding a gold digger, but how likely would true love bloom from such an ad?
      In my opinion, what “Fernando” did wrong was harp on his wealth, if he wanted to find real love.  I know.  Mothers have long told their daughters, “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.”  That said, I always thought women wanted the “sensitive type” who liked to cuddle by the fire and take them for long, romantic walks on the beach.  As long as he was stinking rich.
      I can hardly blame women for wanting it all.  That’s what guys want too.  I once placed a roommate-wanted ad in the Boston Phoenix as a joke.  I made something up I thought wouldn’t attract a single soul, just to see what happened.  The ad went something like this:

Roommate wanted.  Non-smoker.  Prefer a
“never home” mousey type who enjoys tender
moments with bowls of wheatgrass and
contact with hardwood floors.  Apply in
person at 7½ Centre St., Cambridge.

      I deliberately left off my phone number and couldn’t imagine anyone replying.  Weeks after the ad ran my doorbell rang.  It was some tall, underfed guy covered with a light patina of sweat.  He’d seen my ad.  Whoa.  After conducting an initial threat assessment, I determined he was a bit mousey and even had a thing for hardwood floors.  Best of all, he was a professional dishwasher, so my cleanup worries were over.  Learning such bizarre people floated around in society made me realize there was someone for everyone, even me.  The dishwasher seemed disappointed when I told him I’d already found a roommate.  Well, I couldn’t exactly explain it was all a joke, could I?
      Several of the personals ads lacked substance.  Some advertisers took a “less is more” approach.  I suppose, in a Zen way that might work.  If I wanted Zen, I’d have tried the personals section of Zen Monthly.  I couldn’t imagine finding someone with only two lines.  One ad whispered:

                              Fine Arts-And classical music lover, 51
                              seeks lady to share same.

Another said:

                              Accountant, Warm Exciting-60 Young
                              seeks playful friend/lover.

Perhaps this was the skinniest:

                              Dermatologist-Seeks thin, attractive
                              female 20-35.  Phone photo.

None of them gave me much to go on.  The following confused me:

                              Life is Play-For mortal stakes.  Male
                              mid 40’s, divorced, attorney.  Jewish
                              beliefs/Catholic tastes/Protestant ethic/
                              Zen perspective – healthy sense of the
                              ridiculous.  Seeks female teammate.
                              Let’s be one another’s best.  Note/phone,
                              please.  Photo if you prefer. 

      He certainly covered most of the religious cards in the deck.  Catholic tastes?  Did he like the little wafers doled out at communion?  I thought the ad seemed too wordy to have a Zen perspective.  What worried me most was playing for mortal stakes.  He might be better than Fernando, assuming you lived long enough to get to know him.
      Why couldn’t we have it all?  In a city the size of New York, there had to be someone for everyone.  What about the women?  What sort of ads were they placing?  Just as many guys alluded to their fat bank accounts, a number of women promoted their sex appeal. 

This one seemed seductive:

                              Sweet-Smart-Stunning-Slim – Straw-
                              berry blond attorney, 37, seeks single
                              Jewish business or professional man
                              35-42, who is sincere, stable and
                              supportive.  Photo/phone. 

So did this:           

                              Dark, Pretty, Slim – Dry wit, warm style.
                              36, 5’6”, Jewish.  Aim to enjoy Letterman
                              Show with my 30’s-40ish, sweet compadre.
                              Photo?

      The Letterman Show was her goal?  If she were that pretty, I thought she’d end up there.  Religious preferences were rampant in the ads.  I even considered, for a few fleeting moments, converting to Judaism.  I just thought it might be too much to handle after having the sex change operation to be with Fernando.
      Much as I looked for it, I didn’t find the classic ad I expected.  The profile of what every female wanted.  Were New York women afraid to dream big?  I had nearly given up when the following caught my eye:

                              I am Looking For You-A man, mostly
                              happy in your life and, as myself, fulfilled
                              in your creative work world, but missing a
                              partner to share the special fun two people
                              can share together.  Cooking special dinners,
                              country walks, bicycle rides, traveling to
                              faraway places, fireplace talks, exploring
                              and sharing each other’s eyes and dreams.
                              Fun-loving, caring and wanting to be cared
                              about, this attractive, slim, shapely lady, of
                              50 years is looking for you.  No smoking please.

      She nailed it.  I admired her courage and candor.  What an inspiring, romantic ad. 

      Of course, it was a complete waste of $300.  No guy wants that.  Not even Dr. Phil. Guys don’t care about all the mushy, sensitive, romantic babble.  We pay lip service to it because we have to.  How else can we expect to propagate and ensure the survival of the species?  I think if women were smart, they would get a guy to write an ad for them talking in terms of the male’s highly refined interests.  I’ll throw a great sample ad out, just to be helpful. 

                              Sexy, sexy, sexy, hot, sexy woman with
                              cover girl face and playmate body seeks
                              ATM.  I love lingerie and spending loud
                              mornings waking up the neighbors with my
                              screams of passion.  My job as a contortionist
                              gives me a flexible schedule and body.

      I’m sure most women probably aren’t willing to be so revealing.  Nonetheless, I’ll bet if ten straight, sane, single guys saw this ad, all ten would be interested.  I know.  We’re as deep as a birdbath. 
      So, to be successful, I would have to write a male version of the “I am Looking for You” ad.  Throw in a pinch of visual imagery, stir it up, and submit it to New York Magazine.  How hard could that be?  I thought the most taxing part would be fitting all the letters in the tiny little boxes they made you use in the Strictly Personals coupon.
      But what visual cue would entice women?  I’d have to pick a celebrity most people knew.  Sadly, Fernando Rey was already in use.  Just whom did I look like?  I thought I might stretch things a bit and pick one of the hottest stars of the 80s, Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame.  We weren’t exact look-a-likes, but there was some sketchy similarity.  Although he had much better hair, we were both passable in t-shirts and Armani jackets.
      Despite being on the right side of the law as a vice cop in Miami, Don’s character, Sonny Crocket, had a bad boy image.  He lived off the grid on his boat at the marina surrounded by supermodels, Ferraris, and million dollar yachts.  In real life, Don was a stud too.  An A-list celebrity who dated the crème de la crème.
      I hoped my ad’s visual reference to Don would work but wanted to be careful not to scare away women looking for the stable, romantic guy.  I needed to somehow embrace Don and distance myself from him at the same time.  This would require finesse.  I settled on the following:

 

      I thought it covered as much of what I was seeking as I could for $200.  I wondered who, if anyone, would reply?
      Ninety-five women to be exact.  They wrote from as far away as Baton Rouge and Toronto.  The vast majority were neighbors of a sort, living or working near me on the island of Manhattan.  It amazed me to hear from so many women who were taking a chance at finding love through the personals.  Just who were they?

 Author - On a good hair day

 Don-Great hair every day!  

    

Chapter 3- Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

 

      As I view these women today, I realize they were much more attractive than I’d grasped at the time.  Maybe, at age thirty-five, I hadn’t matured enough to have the perspective I now have.  Of course, that’s a polite way of saying I was an idiot.  While reading these letters twenty-one years later, I often ask myself, “What was wrong with her?”  “Why didn’t you call that one?”  “Are you blind?”  Some were beautiful, some full of wit and some very strange.
      The ninety-five chances for love came in all shapes and sizes.  The largest was a 10×13 envelope from an actress named Jane Vane.  Her 8×10 headshot included her name and phone number.  The next line said, “(On Camera:  Jayne Karma).”  I imagined her as a cast member of some daytime soap like Days of Our Lives, a dramatic outburst simmering right below the surface. 

“But, Ashley, Steve always wanted me.”
“That’s a lie!  Stay away from him you slut…he’s mine.”

      Was she the classic home wrecking vamp?  From her picture, she might have been.  Her steely eyes belonged on a shark.  Her thin red lips and straight white teeth said, “Feeding time.”
      She might’ve been as sweet as Godiva chocolate, but I’d never know.  Along with a brief typed note, she included the following personal ad she’d considered running herself:

                                          RAISED BY NUNS…WDF now a feisty,
                                          vivacious fashion editor.  MA.  Former
                                          model and commercial actress.  5’8” thin,
                                          auburn hair, very blue eyes.  Love sports,
                                          esp. good at tennis, skiing.  Looking for
                                          tall, Caucasian, successful athletic man
                                          40-ish to 60-ish with (PLEASE!) a sense
                                          of humor.  PS:  Looks Count! And I do
                                          smoke occasionally.

      What happened to my home wrecking hellcat from Days of Our Lives?  Here are my thoughts on Jane from past and present day perspectives. 

Thirty-five-year-old impression:

I don’t know if I want feisty.  My former fiancé Rita was feisty, and we fought like gladiators.  Why the big envelope and picture?  She’s gotta be in her forties.  She wants 40-ish to 60-ish?  I’m only thirty-five.  She’d consider someone my father’s age?  That’s a scary thought.  Raised by nuns and divorced?  That’s a really scary thought.

Fifty-seven-year-old view:

She is rather pretty and seems real.  I suppose she’s right about looks counting.  There must be a physical attraction or why bother.  Anyone with a sense of humor can’t be too bad.  I wonder if religion is important to her.  I wonder what happened in her first marriage.  Does she have any kids?  I wonder if she’s a hellcat.

      As Noah Cross said in Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”   Jane looks much better to me from my fifty-seven-year-old perspective.  Without a time machine, I’ll just have to imagine what might have been.
      Some letters were sublime.  I opened an exquisite Matisse card from a woman named Helen.  She fell into the category of “Are you blind?”  Her handwriting had a graceful flow that showed discipline and beauty.  Her elegant picture, made me think she’d just returned from an afternoon at Sotheby’s, perhaps acquiring a rare manuscript or Victorian bracelet.  She wore an understated ivory long-sleeved blouse, simple pendant earrings, and pleated linen pants.  Her face exuded an air of warmth and thoughtfulness.  Her dark brown hair was so inviting, if I were a wren, I’d build a nest.  She was fantastic. 

      Her note said she was a beautiful and caring lady.  I believed her.  She wanted to share:

      Dancing in Rio.  What a prospect.  Helen was thirty-six, widowed, no children, Jewish, and spent her weekdays as CEO of a major healthcare organization.  Besides travel, she enjoyed, “the warmth of entertaining close friends and family at my home.”  She included a sizable banquet of priorities.  As I scanned them, I wondered where I’d fall on that list.  Dead spouses have a way of becoming more meaningful after they’re gone.  Especially, if they die young.  Let’s see.

  1. Deceased husband
  2. Her family and friends
  3. Expired husband’s parents
  4. No longer among the living husband’s siblings
  5. Dead husband’s ashes
  6. Departed husband’s beloved chihuahua, “Marmeduke”
  7. Lifeless husband’s nieces and nephews
  8. Gone to his maker husband’s friends
  9. Memories of dancing in Rio with late husband
  10. The Healthcare Organization she ran
  11. Her religion
  12. Me

       There were many tantalizing parts to Helen but I got the impression her plate was full.  I knew I deserved to be someone’s priority and never called.
      I can imagine how difficult it must have been to reply to my ad, or any other for that matter.  None of us likes rejection.  Not getting a call back, after baring your soul, is disappointing.  Even the briefest Xeroxed letter in 1987 took more time and effort than an email reply to an online ad today.  No stamp, no paper, no envelope, no pen.  Simply cut and paste your copy and click send.
      One companion stood out.  Her soulful brown eyes stole my heart.  Never had I met such a charmer.  Soft to the touch, her body would arch in response to my tender caresses.  Often, when we walked together, complete strangers would catch my eye and I knew they were jealous.  She was sweet, loving and playful.  She found countless ways to show me her feelings without saying a word.  Her street smarts were acute but her sensitive side could read any mood.  Perhaps, her best quality was her loyalty.  She made the Pope’s Swiss Guard seem detached.  How she grew such long nails, I’ll never know.
      Her facial hair never bothered me.  The colors combined like a butterscotch sundae.  When I rescued her, Scylla was a street mutt.  For many years, including my stay in New York, she was my charming, funny sidekick.  Named after a figure from Greek mythology, she looked nothing like the six-headed monster guarding the Strait of Messina.  She resembled an overweight reindeer with tan barrel chest and spindly legs.  With her ears pinned sheepishly down and head cowering, she brought abasement to a new level.  I felt guilty for implying any malfeasance.
      Scylla could charm the stripes off a zebra.  Before I adopted her, the streets of Cambridge were her own buffet line.  With a regular circuit of backdoors to visit, her menus varied from leftovers to fresh canned goods and, occasionally, even dry food.  Everyone loved Scylla.  Naturally, she was an opportunist.  Her favorite targets were new friends. 

Scylla as hostess:

Ahh company.  Welcome, welcome.  It’s nice to have you here.  Come in and make yourselves at home.  Can I get you something to eat?  A light snack or, perhaps, more filling fare?  I do have a freshly roasted chicken.  Of course not…it’s noooo trouble at all.  I’ll only be a minute.  Make yourselves at home.

Dance of the sugar plum fairy drifts through her mind

There you are.  Why don’t I set it here on the coffee table?  The bathroom?  It’s right around the corner to your left.  Take your time.

      Were she able to read, I’m sure Scylla would’ve helped me sift through the possibilities.  Raquel sent me a Sierra Club card of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.  The tasteful image bore an irresistible classic beauty.  She didn’t enclose her picture but wrote the following description:

 

      From her artistic card, it was clear she had good taste and, while I avoid cannibalism, I’m sure she tasted good.  I called Raquel because these “facts” were enticing.  Ordinarily, I would’ve asked her to send me a picture but the chemistry was so good on the phone I decided to meet her in person.  We agreed to meet after work, six o’clock, at one of Columbus Avenue’s popular nightspots.  I was so excited I got there fifteen minutes early.
      I sat at the warm, mahogany bar watching the door expectantly.  I waited for the 1987 iteration of Medusa to come in.  An exquisite temptress, preferably without the snakes.  I have nothing against snakes.  It’s just that they can be a distraction when they’re crawling around in your date’s hair.  Columbus Avenue was a hot spot, a molten meadow for the beautiful people.  I knew Raquel was one of them.  I even thought her name was sexy.  I kept an eye on the door as I nursed my Glenlevit and, every time a “virtual knockout” entered the bar, I thought it had to be Raquel.  Tick tock, tick, tock.  Was she standing me up?  What would she be wearing?  Where was she?
      Finally, at six-fifteen, the door opened and Raquel looked me in the eye and smiled.  Life is full of moments that bring you from bliss to despair quite unexpectedly.  Falling off the stage after accepting your diploma.  Scoring a goal for your opponent.  Having your election reversed in a recount.
      I remember being at my grandmother’s house in my twenties.  She was one of my favorite people in the world.  A minister’s wife who lived in New Hampshire, Grandma’s home was as antique as she was.  With wavy silver hair and blue eyes that knew the gaze of respect, her smile rarely rose above a horizontal line.  She once mused about mining the gold electroplate on dinnerware bought at a church raffle.  Despite being legally blind, she managed to keep things cleaner than most people with good vision did.
      One evening, Grandma was watching the Lawrence Welk Show.  Because of her partial blindness, she turned sideways to see the TV.  Lawrence loved to play “Champagne music.”  I believe they called it that because it was better experienced after copious amounts of bubbly.  You could tell the show’s demographic by its sponsor, Geritol.  His band had an accordion player named Myron Floren and the senior set loved this wholesome entertainment.
      One of the things Lawrence liked to do was showcase his dancers.  Bobby and Cissy were the stars on the Welk show.  When he wasn’t wearing some outlandish dance ensemble, Bobby wore tight dark pants and floral shirts with elephantine collars.  Cissy kept her hem a few inches above the knee in dresses abloom with orange and gold.  Besides being clean-cut, they ripped up the dance floor.  I watched as Bobby took Cissy for a spin.  They flew out of the wings like an exploding watch spring, whirling, spinning, and twirling like dervishes.  Their footwork and leg kicks were so well choreographed I watched in amazement.
      After Cissy and Bobby finished their number, Lawrence asked if anyone in the audience would like to dance with Bobby.  That’s like asking a woman, lost in the desert for three days, if she’d like a ride to the nearest oasis.  After nearly having a riot, they restored order and picked a lucky woman named Shirley.  Shirley was much younger than the show’s demographic.  Maybe that’s why they chose her.  Maybe her uncle worked the soundboard in the mezzanine.  Whatever the reason, Shirley was surely excited.  Her curly brown hair and bangs seemed more country than polka, although I’m not positive I’d recognize polka hair if I saw it.  She wore a short gold dress with white scarf and heels.
      Shirley ran down the steps to the dance floor like the winner of the polka lottery.  Lawrence decided to build the excitement by asking her, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you like to polka?”  Shirley was so excited she burst into a spontaneous demonstration of her polka dancing.  Lawrence had to pull her back to the interview.  Then he asked, “Are you excited about dancing with Bobby?” to which she again went off doing the polka by herself for a few more seconds and had to be roped back in.  At one point Lawrence tried to keep up with Shirley on the dance floor.  Before he collapsed, he waved off the music and gasped, “This girl is too wild for me.”  I had to hand it to Lawrence.  He knew how to milk things.
      At last the moment arrived and, after a few “and a one and a two’s,” the orchestra started playing a polka.  Bobby and Shirley were off to the races.  From my untrained eye, I thought Shirley was every bit as good as Cissy, and possibly better.  She and Bobby were fantastic.  I feared Cissy might, in a fit of jealousy, grab an accordion and hurl it at Shirley.  But she didn’t.  They were twirling and swinging and everything was going so well.  That is until Bobby started swinging her hard and Shirley got on an angle like a gyroscope.  That’s when it happened.  No, Bobby didn’t let go, but Shirley’s wig did.  It scurried across the floor like a large, curly mouse heading for cover.  Poor Shirley. Her head was a tangle of bobby pins and shards of hair. She went running for cover too.  Bobby grabbed the wig and brought it up into the audience where she was still swirling from all the twirling.  Bobby slapped the wig back on her head and that wrapped up Shirley’s night with the stars.
      I tell you this so you’ll understand the importance of visiting your grandparents.  I’m nowhere near the dancer Shirley was, and I don’t look good in a wig, but I had a somewhat similar sensation when I saw Raquel.  The feeling of going from a high to a low in a split second.  I could have lied and said I was someone else.  I could have said, as we shook hands, “I’m sorry I don’t feel the chemistry,” and run out into the lonely streets.  By any measure, Raquel had oversold herself.  With rounded features, pasty skin and a haggard expression, she looked more like a bag lady than a supermodel.  After twenty painful minutes, I left.  I learned that, despite how charming someone sounded on the phone, physical chemistry is important.   Sometimes, late at night, in a dark bar, with the help of alcohol, loneliness broadens the range of possibilities.  On this day, it was too early, too bright and I was too sober for that to happen with Raquel.
      How I wished all the respondents included photos.  Some of them spent considerable effort describing their appearance when a picture would tell so much more.  Beth was an elementary school art teacher who started with the following:

 

       Life has many lessons to teach and I’ve always tried to not make the same mistake twice.  Since my time on this planet is limited, it’s important that I exercise good judgment when deciding who to spend it with.  Long before I knew what dentures were, I attended a piano recital at Mrs. Rotundi’s home.  My older sister was the pianist along with an interminable number of other students.  As the town’s only Italians, the Rotundis had dutifully opened a pizza parlor.  From the size of their home, it was obvious everyone ate there.
      The recitals were always around the holidays.  Perhaps she chose that time of year because of the Christmas music her students could play to torture me.  I’m not sure who ruined Christmas carols for me.  If I had to place blame, I’d say Alvin and the Chipmunks.  

Dave: All right you Chipmunks, Ready to sing your song?
Alvin: I’d say we are
Theodore: Yeah, Let’s sing it now!
Dave: Okay, Simon?
Simon: Okay
Dave: Okay, Theodore?
Theodore: Okay
Dave: Okay Alvin?…Alvin?…ALVIN!!!
Alvin: OKAY!!

      I don’t know about Dave, but I’m sure the chipmunks got a lot more than peanuts for the albums. 

      The Rotundi’s home seemed much nicer than ours.  It was big enough to have a music room, looked like they had actually purchased furniture, and had a paved parking lot instead of a gravel driveway.  After seating us in our gray folding metal chairs, Mrs. Rotondi dimmed the lights, leaving only the piano lit for dramatic effect.  One by one, the students made their way to the gallows.  The boys wore white, button-down shirts, dark pants, and clip-on bow ties.  My sister, Cindy, wore a celadon taffeta dress so wide at the hem, she had to round it up like a wayward calf, just to sit down.
      Church leaders learned in the dark ages that the best way to keep people awake during service was to force them to stand to sing hymns.  With no hymns to sing, recitals can turn to nap time for some.  An old woman sat next to me who could’ve lived in the nursery rhyme’s shoe.  I listened to the strange sucking sound she kept making, rather than the music.  In many ways, I preferred it to the labored chords coming from the front of the room.  It reminded me of the noise kids make when they put one hand under their arm and try to make a fart sound, only quieter.
      It’s always the times when you’re not supposed to laugh when you can’t help it.  Funerals, church confirmations, detention.  Well, that is if you’re a kid.  I listened to the succulent sounds of old fartbag trying to keep from cracking up.  I tried to contain it, but jigs and jags of laughter would seep out.  This was torture.  I thought if I stood up to get away from my scary neighbor, I’d lose it completely – laughter rushing from me like air from a popped balloon.
      Just when I thought I’d blow a gasket, the noise stopped.  Ours is a merciful world.  I listened hard, trying to block out the sound of the piano.  I thought she was still breathing.  I knew if I turned to investigate, I’d betray myself so I sat, eyes glued to the front.  The sound was definitely gone.  In the room, the noise returned to the normal throat clearing, rustling of programs and incessant piano.
      I’d barely brought myself under control when another noise began.  This one I recognized.  Snoring.  Ordinarily, snoring wouldn’t seem funny to me but, because of the circumstances, I found myself desperately trying not to laugh.  It was brutal.  I’d have rather been up on stage forgetting those practiced notes than suffer any more as the seatmate of Grandma Moses.  The snoring continued, gradually getting louder and louder until she added a small fart sound and barely audible plop, like a bird landing in a nest of grass.  This woman had no end to her own recital repertoire.
      By now, it seemed safe to look over.  After all, her snoring meant she was sleeping…right?  I noticed something in the darkness resting on the crease of her lap.  It wasn’t her program.  As I stared harder, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was her teeth.  A slimy pink curve with white mothball slivers planted in neat little rows.  What kind of monster was sitting next to me?  I pulled my eyes away from the spectacle and tried to focus on the music.  The notes sounded sweeter to me…like an escape route back from purgatory.  When the lights finally went up, I made a beeline for the punch bowl, never looking back.
      Just as I learned to choose my seatmates more carefully, I also learned to be wary of rosy descriptions lacking corroborating evidence.  Beth sounded inviting, but I wasn’t willing to take a flyer after my experience with Raquel.  If you’re so attractive, why not send your picture?

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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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Technical Support

by on Oct.31, 2009, under Essays

Any third grader knows the difference between computer hardware and software.  When I think of hardware, I think of things like shovels, electrical outlets, and rubber flappers for my toilet’s mysterious bowels.  I suppose you could add nails, picture hangers, and wingnuts to that list.  As many times as I’ve looked into my computer, I’ve never found any of these items.  I think the term hardware is an egregious display of language misappropriation.  Another example of computers taking over the world. 

Now software is a different thing all together.  In terms of language usage, I have to give technology first dibs.  It only makes sense that other areas of commerce steal this term from the computer industry.  After all, fair is fair.  Linen superstores are a natural.  All those fluffy terry cloth towels and million thread count sheets.  That’s what I consider software.  Perhaps a nice cashmere sweater.  When you think of it, emollient names could sound better too.  Lancome Primordiale skin software.  Condoms?  Maybe not.

I have modest abilities when it comes to troubleshooting technical problems with my computer.  I’m proficient at taking the cover off and peering down into the pile of circuits, wires, and lights.  Give me a can of spray air and I will gleefully blow all the dust and other toxins back into the atmosphere so I can breathe them again.  If I see anything obviously wrong, like a leaking hose or broken fan belt, I might take a stab at fixing it.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I feel these matters are usually better left in the hands of a professional. 

Recently, I decided to delve into one of my computer’s vexing software problems.  It was a small matter but one I felt compelled to address before the warranty expired.  I called Microsoft.  Things went well at first.  After a mere twenty minutes pressing different menu selections to route me to the correct area, I reached Angela in the Atlanta call center.  It’s clear she’s well trained in the art of customer service as her goal was to get me off the phone as quickly as possible.  Period.  She didn’t care how she accomplished it, as long as it was fast.

There are many ways they can get rid of your call.  If telling you the call is being recorded for quality assurance purposes doesn’t do it, they’ll put you on hold for the weekend.  If you’re still there on Monday, they’ll fake a heart attack.  If that doesn’t work, they’ll go with a proven winner.  Transferring you.  I don’t mean transferring you to a different unit, like the military.  I’m talking about, with a few deft keystrokes, sending you across the planet to India. 

I didn’t realize I was being sent there at first.  When Angela assured me she was going to connect me to someone who specialized in my problem, I assumed she’d be sending me to Fred down the hall.  Evidently, Fred no longer works down the hall or even in the same building.  In fact, his entire department is gone.  Cost-effectively relocated to Bangalore, India.  Things in Bangalore are a little different than they are in Atlanta.  Despite some small differences (cuisine, clothing, standard of living, government, time zone, mores, culture, currency, language, religion, etc.) we have one common thread.  Technical Support!

My first clue that I’m not in Kansas anymore is the greeting from my new best friend.  “Hello, my name is Rajib.  I’m here to provide you with excellent service.  What version of Windows are you using?”  To be fair, I don’t care if I’m being transferred to Satan, as long as he can fix my problem.  My beef is having to repeat, ad nauseum, all the wondrous details about my computer, tax bracket and shoe size.  I just spent twenty minutes browsing through the menu options and submenus to connect to Angela.  If these were the right choices, why not connect me to Satan in the first place?  Oh.  Because Angela would no longer be needed?  All right.  I guess I could bear a small inconvenience so Angela can feed her six kids.

So here I am with Rajib.  A time of new beginnings.  Of tremendous hope.  We are in the honeymoon phase of our relationship.  I’m not sure Rajib feels that way, but I do.  He’s polite, well trained, has a good job and possibly his own six kids to feed.

After asking me to repeat, for the third time, all the details of my troubling situation, he asks me to check some of the settings on my computer.  He’s like a doctor whacking my knee with a mallet asking, “Does it hurt when I do this?”  Once all the settings have been verified, I’m asked, “Would you mind if I put you on hold for a minute while I check something?”  I hate that question.  I really do.  If I say I don’t mind, I’m tacitly accepting that Rajib (training, politeness and good intentions aside) hasn’t the foggiest idea how to solve my problem.  This sad realization comes after investing four hours of my life in the matter.  I’m sure there’s a legal term for that, like tempis fugit.

So I wait, listening to the white noise of celestial satellite connections.  Finally, after watching hell freeze over, my accomplice returns with a bold new plan.  He asks, “Would you mind if I took over your computer’s desktop?”  He’s going to magically transport himself into my office?  I thought he was in India.  I’m in my pajamas.  He reassures me, “I’ll only have access to the extortion notes you’ve written, dark neurological wanderings and lascivious leanings even your therapist doesn’t know about.”  Well, I guess that’s okay.  He asks me to close any programs I’m currently using and click something that hands things over to him.  My computer.  To a complete stranger.  What if something happens and technology can’t return it to me?  Given that my alternative is waiting on hold for a few more days, I let him run with it.

I must say, it is impressive.  Someone ten thousand miles away breezing through my desktop like it’s his own private desk.  He effortlessly opens and shuts all kinds of windows and doors.  He looks in the attic, junk drawer, even under the bed.  Damn this guy’s good.  He knows where everything is in my whole house and he’s just met me.  Finally, after he dug up pesky old Mrs. Goodhue in the back yard, he asked, “Would you mind if I put you on hold again while I check something?”  God.  Now I’m terrified.  I know he’s calling the police.  Maybe Interpol.  He’s probably sending the Pac Man virus to nibble through the maze of my sorry excuse for a life.  I consider slamming the phone down but he still has control of my computer.  I’m stuck.  After I agree he says, “It may take me a few minutes.” 

A few minutes.  That’s how long it’ll take Rajib to destroy the very fabric of my being.  All those years of hard work have come down to this.  Rajib from Bangalore, opening up my life like a can of tuna.  I begin quietly gathering a few personal belongings.  I guess I won’t be needing my complete twelve volume copy of Favorite Usernames and Passwords.  Can I at least bring a picture of my beloved dog, Bubbles?  This is torture.  The waiting.  My nerves are shot and eyes sandy from hours staring at my monitor. 

At last, he returns.  Judgment Day.  He tells me, “I’ve spoken with my supervisor about this problem.”  Yes?  Your supervisor.  Okay.  Well, tell me.  Please.  The suspense is tearing me up.  Then he says something I never expected to hear.  “I want you to know that I’m assigning a case number to the matter and that I, Rajib Ghandi, am taking ownership of this issue.”  He’s taking ownership.  You mean I’m getting off with just a reprimand?  What do you mean ownership?  Like a time-share?  He continues with, “I’m going to escalate things and someone who specializes in this area will be contacting you within forty-eight hours.  When would be a good time to reach you?”  No wait.  Please.  Don’t leave me.  I’ve got seven hours invested in our relationship already.  God, Rajib.  I’d hate to have to start all over with someone new.  He’s so good he’s already anticipated my concerns when he says, “Don’t worry.  I’m preparing a trouble ticket so you won’t have to repeat all this when our specialist calls back.”  A trouble ticket?  That doesn’t sound good at all.  Within forty-eight hours?  What if I’m out?  As if he’s psychic he adds, “I’ll put you in the system and someone will call you back at an agreeable time.”  Yeah right.  With my arm now atrophied and ear molded to the shape of my telephone’s receiver, I’m forced to accept defeat. 

And what about Rajib?  I’m sure he wanted more from our relationship than this.  He relinquishes control of my computer and promises me an email highlighting the details of our time together.  I worry about my new friend.  Lying awake, drenched in sweat on a hot Indian night.  Mosquito net keeping all but a few of the man-eaters at bay.  A fan swirling the dusty hot air so that it cakes to his skin.  All the problems he’s taken ownership of.  The trouble tickets stacked in his virtual inbox, like so many mouths needing a nice hot curry.  I take comfort in knowing, with a small enterprise like Microsoft and my very own case number, I’m not likely to slip through the cracks.  It’s true it has been a few years, but I’m sure I’ll be hearing from them any day.

 

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