Monday, January 25, 2010

I heart New York

We love company.  We enjoy sharing laughter around the dinner table, the camaraderie in the kitchen when preparing big meals, the flowing wine, story telling, reminiscing, and sightseeing.  Since moving to New Jersey from Omaha, Nebraska, we bragged to many back in Nebraska how we were just minutes from New York City as an incentive to have them visit and stay with us.  As far as we were concerned, being in New Jersey had little to offer in comparison, and we were homesick.

Over the years, several friends (or friends of friends) or family arrived, stayed, and fell victim to the Chrysostom Family Whirlwind Tour which included seeing highlights of the most well known, and some little known, significant landmarks of New York City.  Trying to tailor our tours to the likes, interests, and wallets of our guests, we would often include a driving tour that included skyline views from one of the major bridges (George Washington, Brooklyn, Verrazano), a side trip into the grittier parts of The Lower East Side and The South Street Seaport, a gustatory experience at noteworthy restaurants on Mulberry Street or in Hell's Kitchen, a bargain hunt for knock-off purses, watches, and jewelery on Canal Street, cultural exposures to a variety of museums including The Metropolitan and the American Museum of Natural History, entertainment in comedy clubs, on Broadway, Radio City Music Hall, or the independent street shows offered by entrepreneurial talent, a pass through Central Park and taking delight in the variety of transportation options by ferry, tunnel, subway, rickshaw-type pedicab, and of course, New York City Yellow Cab.

During a visit several years ago after my mother died, Dad was joined by Barbara Blakney and her teen son, Mitchell, all traveling together from Alma, New Brunswick, Canada--approximately a 12+ hour drive.  As we'd become acquainted over the years with our frequent visits to Alma, Barb had suffered through my endless bragging about the opportunities we had with our family on day trips into the city, and she was eager to share those experiences with Mitchell.

Oh, Mitchell, dear Mitchell.  He is one of the few young men on this earth who we love as a son.  He is confident, very clever, amusing, and laughs easily.  He exhibits no false bravado, and seems to adapt well to any situation.  In the same age group as our kids, they all seemed to get along well, and we wouldn't have discouraged a relationship with either of our daughters.  A fine fellow, indeed; a credit to his parents.

One of the highlights we were especially keen to share with Barb and Mitchell was a fabulous independent street show we'd seen in our very early days when we first moved back east and lived in Manhattan for several weeks.  Set on the side walk in Times Square this show was an unusual combination of boom-box new age music played in the background while an artist created a fantastical futuristic city-scape mural on paper he taped down to the sidewalk.  His medium was only spray paint and a variety of cylindrical vessels such as empty tuna cans and tops or caps from bottles of every size, and some straight edge blades.

He donned a respirator, and began his show with examples of his work available for sale on display behind him. His creation took approximately 10 full minutes, and was quite dramatic as each layer of the astronomical metropolis was revealed with surprising techniques of negative imaging from the placement of the cylinders to give dimension through each layer of color.  His audience is captivated, and "ooohhs, and aahhhs" in concert as the startling effects are created.  If you are very impressed, he will sell you the newly completed artwork for a reasonable fee.  We were very impressed, but offered to the kids that we couldn't afford one this time, but if we ever saw him again on the street, we'd get one then, so we asked his name, and how often he presents his show.  He gave us a card, thanked us in a thick, cheerful, english accent, and we continued on our way.

We stumbled upon Simon less than a week later, at Rockefeller Center, watched his show again, and purchased his newest creation.

When Barb and Mitchell were in town, we wanted to share this show with them, so we dug out the card, and called Simon to see when he might be performing while we're in the city.  He suggested to meet at South Street Seaport at a designated time the next day and we all agreed.  This will knock their socks off!!  So we announced this special side-trip, and briefly described Simon's talents, the artwork, and the dazzling techniques, and prepared them to anticipate an amazing performance.

At supper that evening, we talked about the options for the next day's events.  It would be a full day: but as usual, we offered to cover the cost of the ferry tickets for everyone as we ferried from Stated Island to Manhattan--a courtesy as your generous hosts.  We wrapped up a fine meal, and joked and laughed and shared good Cypriot wine, and prepared for Stephen's famous Creme Brulee dessert.  While he busied himself, I barked at the girls to clear the table and do the dishes, and Barb followed suit to offer Mitchell's assistance.  Dad hushed everyone and jokingly set his plate down on the floor for our dog, Scout, to lick clean, which he did nearly instantaneously.  We all remarked that it was much  faster than washing, and "look how clean!", so we amused ourselves by putting the freshly licked plate back into the cupboard on top of the stack of plates ready for the next meal.  "Ah, ha ha ha, what a funny--oh ho ho", "Now where's dessert?"

We retired into the living room, enjoyed Stephen's dessert, shared some music, and everyone went off to bed for a good night's sleep--tomorrow was going to be a full day.

The next day, we landed in Lower Manhattan, Battery Park, after passing the Statue of Liberty by Ferry.    The whirlwind tour had begun, and we visited The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street--a far cry from the likes of anything in the small fishing village of Alma--, shopped a few boutiques, lunched in Chinatown, and found ourselves running a little late for our set time with Simon at the Seaport so we hailed two cabs, and as everyone hopes to do, said, "Follow that cab, and FLOOR IT!" to our driver.  He did, and we were just a few minutes late as we pulled directly in front of Simon and his show.

"JANE!" he called out as we spilled out of the two cabs and hustled over to his area.  I was giggly with anticipation.  Mitchell will love this; this ain't no stuffy museum, this is ENTERTAINMENT!  Dad circled the families around and the show began.  Cue music.  I'm nudging, Dad---"This is going to be GREAT!"  Stephen shushed me.  Simon tapes down his paper, dons his respirator, and shakes the spray can with its telltale ball bearing rattle.  "WATCH THIS!" I exclaim.  Stephen tells me to stop it, and I quietly settle in for the show. Simon chooses flat black for his first application of paint, and completely covers the paper with it, while he sits on an overturned milk crate.  His cylinders, tools, and music are all in place.  But Simon stands up and turns around to face the crowd--just assessing potential customers no doubt-- but Barb sees this as a "There, my work is done--behold my great creation!" stance, and calls out, "That's IT?  Hell, I can do that!" and crosses her arms in front of her, in extreme disappointment.

"Wait." I lean in to quietly tell her, and using my mother's often used catch phrase, add "it gets better", and Simon returns to his task and the audience is mesmerized, including Barb, Mitchell, and Dad.  Maybe Simon heard Barb's remark?  I don't know.  Maybe because I'd called and asked for this special outing. I don't know.  But for whatever reason, Simon's show was even more compelling than the previous two we'd seen.  The music seemed more intense, the flourishing orchestrations of his paint layering appeared more dramatic, the finished art seemed more surreal. 

Success!  Mitchell took the creation, Dad exchanged business cards with Simon inviting him to Alma, and off we went to supper in Little Italy. I was glad not to have to go home after such a big day and cook for the crowd. It had been a good day and we were hungry, despite having started the day with a big breakfast at home before the ferry ride. I said as much out loud.

It was just then that we remembered that no one had taken Scout's cleanly licked plate back OUT of the cupboard after supper--we silently looked at each other, wondering who got that plate at the breakfast table...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The More The Merrier.

When we decided to include our new Bagpipe Band friends in our Winter and Summer Solstice celebrations, naturally we made a list that included the people we thought were fun company. In our planning efforts, we compiled the guest list, designed the invitations, developed an extensive Greek menu of heavy hors d'oeuvres, and made sure we had buffet tables and party-ware. We chose good card stock and rubber stamps featuring different whimsical suns and spent a Saturday afternoon to create an intriguing party invitation--few of our intended guests had attended a solstice event before and we wanted to share a memorable family tradition with them.  Our Winter party started promptly at 4:23 in the early evening. Sundown.  As the sun set, we declined to use any artificial light, using only candlelight throughout the home, including in the bathroom!

Much to our surprise, nearly everyone we invited arrived, and the doorbell rang promptly at 4:20 our most prompt guests arriving first:  Ron and Kathy Stark.  They have proven to be the most prompt couple we've known over the years.  The guests kept coming, including Jim and Jen McHarg, and Fran and Clive Lay.  Food and drink were offered, and the house got darker and darker.  Just like in our own family when we shared a winter solstice event, we found ourselves all in the kitchen with candlelight ablaze, sharing, eating and drinking around the kitchen table.  Overall, it was a nice party, and we enjoyed getting better acquainted with this new small circle of friends that we'd mostly just attended bagpipe events with previously.

One couple was noticeably absent, however, and we wondered why they didn't join us.  The next time I saw her I asked about it and Mrs. Midgley remarked that she'd never received an invitation!  What?  How was this possible?  Everyone else did!  I was suspicious, and silently questioned her sincerity, though I realize it could have happened.

When it was time to welcome the summer solstice, we dug out our invitation list, and since we were planning an outdoor buffet, were able to add quite a few new names to the list.  Regretting the "lost in the mail" invitation to The Midgley family from the past winter, we made sure they would receive one for the Summer Solstice event.  After all, the highlight of this summer party was going to be a dramatic flaming cheese dish common in the Greek Cypriot culture of Stephen's family.  You may have read about it in a previous blog entry.

Inanycase, determined to make sure there was no oversight in the delivery of this special invitation to the Midgleys, I had it registered and certified so that the recipient would have to sign for it and I would receive a card in the mail showing it had been signed for and accepted.  I received the return card, but no R.S.V.P.

But, more to the point, ultimately I was still rather skeptical at Mrs. Midgley's insistence that they'd never received the first invitation last winter, so to press the matter, I chose other venues for the invitation to make sure all the information would be undeniably received.

We went to our local pizza joint and asked for a large clean plain box, and brought it home.  In the box we put an enlarged copy of the invite with its pertinent details, cut into a circle to fit the box, and drove 45 minutes to their house and had one of the kids knock on the door, announcing "Pizza Delivery", hand it over and we sped away.

Still no R.S.V.P.

Well, I'll show them.

Several days later, we took the invitation to the office supply store and had them make 100 copies on the brightest neon-colored selections of paper available.  With those and staple gun in hand, we repeated the 45 minute drive to their house during the day when they were at work and school and papered their yard, home, trees, mailbox, and garage, with the cheerful reminders about the upcoming event.

No call, no R.S.V.P.

Undaunted, I asked for Stephen's computer skills to make another copy of the original cleverly worded and artistically rendered card stock and have it duplicated on special copy paper that can be used for iron-on transfers.  We ironed these transfers on four brand new brightly colored t-shirts. We then went out and purchased a length of rope, a box of clothes pins and a cheap plastic laundry basket.  In the wee hours of the night, Stephen and I made yet another trip to their house, and parked down the street, tiptoed through a neighbor's yard and found ourselves stalking the Midgley family of four who were peacefully watching late night television in their den.  Avoiding the motion sensitive lighting in their back yard, we strung up the length of rope between two trees, pinned the t-shirts bedizened with the information needed to get them to our very important solstice event, left the laundry basket under the freshly hung 'laundry', and skulked back home, undetected.

Two days later, there was a message on the answering machine from a cheerfully exasperated Mrs. Midgley.  "Uncle!" she announced.  "Enough already!  We got ALL the invitations!  No more!  We'll see you on Saturday."

Since the summer solstice celebrates the longest day of the year, and daylight is abundant, our outdoor party was lively, well attended, and went long into the night. The Midgley family never showed up.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fun is cheap--entertainment is expensive.

My folks always worked hard. Very hard. Pat and Wally's work ethic is one I've never seen matched. But they played hard, too. They laughed easily, could usually laugh at themselves, and enjoyed seeing if others could or would laugh and, I think, saw such as a reflection of character.

In his teens, in the early 50's, Dad worked at a gas station in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Cypress and Boylston streets pumping gas, checking oil, greasing joints, and washing cars. He was trusted with cash and he was reliable so he sometimes worked at any one of the three stations that the owner operated in the area. In Brookline, there was a Pontiac car dealership across the street and frequently Wally would see the salesman out on the lot among the cars. Since a lot of time was spent out of the building dealing with customers who were inspecting or choosing a car, the dealership telephone was hooked up to ring a bell outside as well as inside for incoming calls.

This is in the days long before cell phones, so telephones were simple, and phone booths were common. The gas station had its own booth, and like everything else in that generation, a call cost a nickel. Somehow, known only to dad, the phone at the gas station had a short in the coin receiver, so it could be jiggled without losing a nickel to place a call.

Wally had the number for the car dealership across the street. When he saw the salesman far out into the lot away from the building, he'd jiggle the coin receiver, place a free call and watch. The salesman would perk up when he heard that outdoor phone bell ringing and run back to the the building, dash inside and catch the phone just as Dad would disconnect.

"Oh! so close!"

Of course, this is also the days way before caller ID, *69, voice mail, answering machines or any other calling feature. It was just a heavy black desk phone, so it was a lost call--and potentially, for that eager salesman, a lost sale.

Dejected, the salesman would head back out to the lot, resume his duties among the cars or customers, and Dad would jiggle the line again, and hearing that ring the hapless fellow would run back to catch the call--but faster this time, and with each subsequent ring his determination increased.

Dad continued this taunt, timing the frequency and duration of the calls with the distance the salesman would put between him and the phone to the point that eventually the fellow would just stand in the doorway, waiting for the phone to chime. He'd get closer and closer with each failed connection until he ultimately stood next to the desk, hand hovering over the phone ready to snatch the handset off the receiver at the first chirp of a jingle. No connection ever made.

It was mostly a harmless prank, and it amused Dad as he watched the salesman shake his angry fist at the telephone and see his shouts, silent from the interior of the showroom. For most teens those days the fad was stuffing themselves by the dozen into phone booths, but that seems so corny--somehow Dad's chicanery satisfies on an entirely different level.

Dad and his pal, Arthur, used that same phone booth to place a free call to his mother. Posing as agents from New England Bell Telephone, they explained that it was time for the annual 'blowing of the lines' and they were calling Bell customers as a courtesy to alert them. They described the necessary process of forcing jets of compressed air through all the phone lines to clean them and avoid the annoying cracking and static in the connection during conversations.

"Mrs. West, if you'd just take a paper sack, and set the entire receiver in the bag, when we blow the lines, none of the dirt and dust that will blast out of the handset will get into your home. You'll just be able to throw the full bag of dirt away when we're done."

Mildred certainly appreciated the advance notice and promptly put the phone in a sack as advised. When Wally and Arthur came back to the house, there it sat wrapped up tightly in a brown bag.

Dad continued these harmless pranks over the years. My mother was often the victim. In the 70's, we'd moved to a new home in Michigan. As with all of our frequent moves, my mother served as forward infantry. Before the moving van would arrive her operations began in an empty house that she would scour, freshly paint, wallpaper, shine, polish and wax floors, and bring all bathrooms and the kitchen to operating-room sterility before we settled in.

Knowing my mother was eager to replace a room full of dated shag carpeting, my father rolled up several feet of the carpet, and laid down several denominations of paper currency, then unrolled the carpet back into place.

Later, when it was time to actually remove the carpet, they knelt side by side to evenly roll it up and out of the house. As each row of bills was revealed, she shrieked and whooped. Thinking that some previous owner had stashed away a small fortune she snatched up the bills while pushing at the carpet roll with the newfound strength a mother would employ to lift a car that had just pinned her child underneath. It took her a few minutes to catch on since Dad didn't join her, but stood watching and laughing, making fun until they were joined by the family who all shared the hilarity.

But she fell for it again when we moved years later, returning to Massachusetts in the late 70's. This new house was in rural central Mass. and had several acres of woodland, complemented with a pond, stone walls, and a babbling brook. To find the septic system Dad purchased a sophisticated metal detector and tromped around the woods on weekends adjusting buttons and knobs listening keenly to various beeps and alerts the machine would offer for whatever was hidden just beneath the earth.

Anticipating a new discovery in Pat's company some day, Dad took a rusty tin can and stuffed it with paper money and coin. He buried it keeping its location in mind for just the right opportunity. Not long after, they walked side by side in the woods, and the telltale alarm was sounded. My mother, prepared with trowel in hand, pounced on the spot and dug to quickly reveal the latest treasure find, the notion of new-found riches erased all memory of having fallen victim to a similar prank.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Our pal Paul's dad, Dwight, seems to be of the same stock.

Paul shared the story with us all about when his native Nebraskan parents were on a trip with another couple. Each couple checked into their separate hotel rooms and as soon as Dwight and Gladys settled in to theirs, Dwight went into the bathroom and unscrewed the light bulb from its fixture, rendering the bathroom pitch black when the door was closed. He then filled the ice bucket with tap water and set it off to the side.

When the traveling couples re-convened in Dwight and Gladys' room to plan the evening's activities, Dwight excused himself to the bathroom, flipped the light switch several times and poked his head back out to explain the faulty bulb, and ask forgiveness for needing to leave the door slightly ajar in order to see in the darkened bathroom.

He then proceeded to slowly and deliberately pour the contents of the bucket in a steady stream from several feet above the toilet bowl creating a clearly audible image of the activity within. Taking several more moments than would naturally occur for even a capacious full bladder, Dwight continued to empty the bucket until half the contents were spent. Then he stopped, paused for a second, and then resumed pouring the remaining water into the toilet.

Emerging from the bathroom, deadpan, they all went off to supper.

I think Dwight and Wally could be very good friends.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In over my head

I have a friend.

After living in New Jersey friendless for about ten years, I finally found one. She's deceptively quiet, keenly aware, brutally clever, and sharply witted.

Sorely missing the one friend and social outlets we'd had in Omaha for so long, I was elated when Jen invited me to a candle party. It's just like a Tupperware (tm) party, except instead of poring over the merits of colorful plastic food storage containers, you look at catalogs and samples of candles of every shape, color, and fragrance, each with a corresponding candle holder while the candle lady hostess describes the moods and atmosphere to create in your home with them. Not one item costing less than $25.00 I genuinely couldn't have cared less, but being desperately needy and painfully lonely I drove full speed to the party and was the first to arrive.

Upon my arrival, the perfect hostess, Jen offered to take my coat. That's when I knew she needed me. Her coat closet was so crammed full of clutter and debris, most of which didn't even belong in a coat closet, that I wanted to cancel the party and right then and there get it organized for her.

As we became better acquainted (see Pregnant Woman with Lemon in The Cheese Stands alone blog)), I forced my hyper-obsessive organizing skills upon her and on several occasions, we met at her house for a day of sorting, categorizing, eliminating, and cleaning the overwhelming piles and overstuffed drawers and cabinets that had accumulated in a house full of four young children, a menagerie of pets, and two working parents. For both of us, it was a win-win situation. My own four children were grown and out of the house, and I had no outlet for such a wealth of unspent skills. Jen had no such skills, and seemed to politely tolerate my pushy, aggressive, and sometimes insensitive demands to get her surroundings up to the standards of a boot-camp sergeant. No doubt, she was relieved when I left at the end of these days, but as I drove away, my endorphins soaring after the release of compulsive organizing, I thoughtfully planned for the next opportunity and which Rubbermaid (tm) products to utilize for it.

It was in the basement when things went awry. We were doing it all--sorting, cleaning, organizing, and making minor household repairs in the usual way one afternoon, and went to the fuse box to kill the power so we could safely replace a light switch. Finding a blank box panel that should have a notation for the location of each power supply, I remarked that Jen's husband, Jim, should be aware of this, and take the time to identify each one and clearly mark the corresponding boxes. She came over to see, and we both noted the single word POOL on a switch that we couldn't map to any of the house circuits. None others were identified.

Jen exclaimed that it would explain the mystery cement slab they'd always wondered about in the back yard, along with a few other unexplained archeological discoveries in the 8 years they'd lived there. There must've been an above-ground pool! When she brought this new knowledge to Jim, he quickly, flatly, and dismissively denied there'd ever been a pool in their back yard. But that just didn't make sense to me, and I certainly didn't appreciate:

A. The fact that his fuse box labels were blank--what man of the house doesn't mark his fuses?
B. His notion that since HE didn't discover the POOL notation, then the pool never existed.
C. How he dismissed our discovery and Jen's offer of significant household historical information.

After our work was done and I drove the hour long drive back home, I concocted my plan of attack. "I'll show him." and while stuck in rush-hour New Jersey traffic, formulated an elaborate scheme that would require both Stephen and Jen's cooperation.

I described the situation to Stephen and asked for his computer skills to cut and paste official seals and logos from the McHarg's township website to be the letterhead for a sternly worded letter from the tax assessor's office regarding the recent discovery of eight years of unpaid taxes on an unauthorized residential swimming pool. Of course, the discovery revealed from an inquiry to the office to PROVE that there was, indeed, a pool there at one time. "I'll show him."

I required Jen's help to provide the surveyor's map and lot numbers to include with the letter. And for someone who has absolutely no organizational skills, what-so-ever, I was impressed by the immediate presentation and fax transmittal of these documents! This is REALLY going so show Jim.

So we sent this:

Re: Lot 38 & ½ of lot #39 (Lot 4, block 703)

To: Mr. James McHarg

A recent inquiry was made to this office regarding the presence of a residential /single-family dwelling swimming pool on your property. Based on this inquiry, and in accordance with New Jersey guidelines mandating strict discovery procedures, our office conducted a detailed tax history investigation. This analysis uncovered your failure to pay taxes on the residential improvements on the property since the 2000 tax year.
Records for 1987 show that the borough issued a permit to the homeowner for installation and erection of the following: Residential family above-ground swimming pool: 18’X33’ oval galvanized
Gravel foundation

Cement decking

Wooden easement

Chain link safety fencing
Electrical pumping/sieving unit

Water evacuation trough

A follow-up building inspection and compliance review confirmed the work was completed according to the permit.
These improvements upgraded the property to a higher tax base. We are notifying you that current unpaid taxes amount to $14,867.33 (fourteen thousand, eight hundred, sixty-seven dollars and thirty-three cents) including 8 (eight) annual late fees and penalties incurred for failure to pay.

This total amount is now due and payable by May 31, 2009. The amount due for the tax year of 2008 is $1,213.85 (one thousand, two hundred, thirteen dollars and eighty-five cents). Payments postmarked or received by this due date will avoid any further late fees and penalties.

Please include your lot number and property address in all correspondence when contacting our office regarding this matter. We accept cashier’s checks, certified bank checks, and U.S. Postal money orders for payment by mail or in person at 1 Kings Highway, Middletown, NJ 07748, or by VISA/MasterCard at 973-943-7403.

Bill Schrettir
Township Assessor’s Office
Township of Middletown

Vishnu Peyup

Commercial/Residential Taxation

Township of Middletown

That looked daunting enough. So it was sent in March to Jen. She then, in turn, would send it in its official looking township envelope from their post office with the correct postmark. She did, and we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

By August, hearing nothing, Jen sent e-mail that Jim's birthday was upcoming, and hoped I had clever ideas for a silly gift? I immediately responded that I would offer nothing until we got results from "the letter".

She wrote one line back:

I hoped you'd forgotten about that.

Uh, oh. What? Why? So I picked up the phone and called her. Fearful that Jim had gone ballistic upon reading "after a recent inquiry to our office" figuring it was a result of my meddling and he flew off the handle, I asked what had happened.

It was bad. Real bad.
Since Jim often travels about four days a week for his job, he'd tossed the letter in a pile and intended to get to in in the near future. In the aforementioned chaos of that household the letter was promptly mislaid or lost, and Jim put it in the back of his mind with every intention to 'get to it'.

Jen casually reminded him one day about it-- eager for the ensuing hilarity when he called the fake number and the prank revealed-- but again, he dismissed her and went on another business trip. Once back home, while Jen was at work, having lost the letter with our fake names and numbers Jim called the Tax Assessor's office directly--the phone number on our letter was Stephen's cell phone number and Stephen was well prepared with his role once he identified Jim with caller ID.

The clerk at the assessor's office explained that their "regular guy" who sends out those letters was currently on medical leave and she had no record of anything regarding the pool matter.

Wanting to resolve this entire issue as soon as possible, and before another business trip caused another delay and distraction, Jim insisted that the temporary assessor come to their house to visually inspect and report that there is no pool, never has been a pool, and thereby eliminate any taxes, penalties, fees, and other financial burdens involved.

So the tax man arrives clip board in hand, and sees no pool, still having no record of an inquiry, history of construction, or unpaid tax assessments. There, that was easy. However, the construction debris from Jim's current work on a bathroom remodeling project which is sitting in a pile in the driveway causes some concern and the assessor notes no building permit on record. This is a serious violation, and cause for a fine and fees. He starts writing things down on his clipboard.

And while he's noting that, he spies that the originally detailed and surveyed gravel driveway is now asphalt, but does not meet the street properly for drainage and street plowing. Also having filed no permit, this incurs substantial additional fines and fees.

As Jen calmly and quietly explains all of this over the phone, I have gone from laughing nervously, to gasping, to becoming physically unwell, and nearly dizzy. It was like an I Love Lucy episode; Jen couldn't stop it, and yet, couldn't explain it away as all being a silly prank that had gone completely haywire.

As kind as she is, she immediately insisted that we could never-EVER mention this situation. If Jim found out the truth, he WOULD go ballistic! They plan to just pay the fines:

I interrupted, "How much are the fines?" thinking we should probably offer to pay at least half. Jen diplomatically and quietly replied, "Enough to hurt. A lot."

I am beside myself. My sweaty left thigh (it's a condition) is saturated and I am completely at a loss. How could this have happened?

Jen, again, trying to relieve my obvious and extreme discomfort, says, "I don't want this to ruin our friendship, so I'm just going to go now." And we hang up.

I am genuinely sick to my stomach, and immediately call Stephen to tell him how horribly, horribly wrong this prank went and let him know that under Jen's strict advice that in the future, should we ever get together again, can never let it slip, "Yuk, Yuk, Yuk!! Hey, remember that time we played that prank on you about that phantom swimming pool in your back yard?" No, we must never forget, and never mention it....EVER.

Meanwhile, Jen was my only friend. Jim is great company at parties. Did I ruin this? What will I do? Should I call her back and offer to pay the stupid fines? But what if they're too much even for us? Can I find out somehow and pay it without them knowing? My head is reeling. I don't know what to do with myself, so I go to the basement and white wash the walls until midnight while my mind replays the conversations, re-reads the letter, the dollar signs whizzing by in my mind's eye, imagining Jim's wrath, Jen's helplessness to admit anything and the angst she must have dealt with. Oh God, Oh dear, this is THE WORST.

As the paint dries, it's the wee hours of the morning. I know I won't be able go to sleep. My mind abuzz. I'll have a stiff drink (or two) and check my e-mail. Maybe Stephen came up with a diplomatic response to this debacle.

An e-mail from Jen is in my inbox. She apologizes for having told me the negative outcome. She never wanted us to know.

Oh, Jen; dear sweet Jen. Trying to assuage my own horrific guilt by taking the blame (well, she was in on it from the beginning.) She knows I'm suffering, yet even with the financial blow they're taking from it all, she wants to ease my mind and relieve me of responsibility.

This won't ruin our friendship, she promises. She writes:

I feel bad about this whole thing. It's JIM'S fault he tried to pull one over and not pull a permit on a renovation that's taken far too long, which honestly deserves some sort of punishment.

It's JIM'S fault he hired a fly-by-night paving company who showed up at our door UNBIDDEN and required payment by check, in full, made out to a third party and when that didn't work out, cash, before completion of repairs.

It's JIM's fault he has left the bathtub out there for so long, waiting, he says, until the completion of renovation because, why have someone come out twice?

It's JIM's flawed character that doesn't allow him to let anything go. All correspondence in the form of mortgage refinance offers, credit balance transfers, Nigerian sweepstakes schemes and, yes, threatening letters from municipalities, must be followed up on.

It is JIM's problem that he has created an atmosphere within our friendship that would promote the execution of this hoax, and it is JIM's great fortune to have married someone well-humored enough to turn the hoax around on her very good friends.

Genius, sheer genius. Best of all, I've still got a friend.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bread (with Wieners)

Over ten years ago, I started doing historical demonstrations of pioneer living. I called it Homesteading 101. I've been traveling to classrooms of every grade, senior centers, museums, libraries, and various venues to share how the hearty Pioneers survived making their own threads and yarns, cloth, butter, cheese, candles, soap, and bread. Quite often I'd have to find my way to a public school in a gritty part of a downtown urban neighborhood, lugging a weaving loom and a canvas bag full of filthy raw sheep fleece. Frequently, I'd find myself lost in transit to distant locations, struggling for nearby parking, battling flights of stairs with loads of cumbersome equipment, or jammed up in New Jersey traffic turned parking lot. I soon learned to leave a big window of time for any such delay.

Recently, on my way to a senior citizen's retirement community with all the equipment for a captivating historical bread making demonstration including a grain mill, several pounds of whole wheat grain, and loaves of freshly baked whole wheat bread, I found myself in fast flowing traffic heading north on the Garden State Parkway. I was ahead of schedule, encountering no traffic problems, and on my way to a group that has invited me back repeatedly for my "edu-taining" programs and workshops. It was a good day.

Shortly before my exit, however, there was trouble on the side of the Parkway. A mini-van was pulled over to the shoulder and I saw a young adult woman standing, a middle-aged man pacing, and a stout black woman my age gesturing and working a cell-phone. Relieved it wasn't my problem of the day, I veered into the middle of the three lanes to pass by, when the woman came around the front of her van held her phone out in front of her with one hand and her other hand out waving. She caught my eye directly as I passed, and pleaded with genuine earnest desperation, "HELP ME! PLEASE HELP ME!" She meant it.

I veered back into the slow lane and immediately pulled onto the shoulder and backed up our Dodge mini-van close to the front of their van and waited while she came up along the passenger side of the car, across the front, and to my window which I lowered with the automatic button as she approached. Holding her cell phone out again, she said, "Help me, thank you for stopping, I need you to call 911." I said, "What's going on?" and she held out her arm, still with the cell phone in hand, and showed me three successive large, deep, well defined, human bite marks that were fresh, raw, and real. The poor woman's skin had been so wounded, that her dark black skin was now sickly pale in the center of each large round raised flesh wound with red blood dotting the teeth impressions.

"Oh, Jesus!!" I exclaimed--"What happened?" she explained that she was a driver for the mentally challenged, and one of her clients had "Gone off" while she was driving.

That would have been Charles. He was the middle aged man I'd seen pacing moments earlier who was now suddenly in the middle of the road in the three-lanes of The Garden State Parkway. Cars started to honk and swerve to avoid him as he ran back and forth from lane to lane.

I dialed 911 on my cell phone. Hers was not working.

"Hello, 911, what is your emergency?"

I described the situation, and advised they'd better send police, FAST.

The woman started calling for Charles, as the cars honked and swerved to avoid him. "Charles, get back here! Get out of the road! Charles, come over here.!" She had the authoritative command of a serious black woman who knew how to take control, but she was worried and hurt and her pitch and intensity grew with every shout.

Charles ignored her and by now had removed his shirt, belt and shoes as cars continued to avoid him and his cast off articles of clothing littering several lanes of the Parkway.

The younger woman who until now had remained calm and quiet on the shoulder approached the car. I told the driver to put the young woman in the passenger seat of my van and pushed my electric lock latch to unlock it. The young woman climbed in, and I said, "Hi, I'm Jane. Sorry, you're having a rough day." and she replied, "Yeah, it is, and showed me her arm that had less severe but similar bite marks." She spoke slowly and without emotion--another client, I surmised. Then she said, "But it's my teeth that really hurts." and looked up at me, so I could see her swollen lips and red jaw. Charles had punched her in the mouth! And HARD.

As the traffic whizzed past, horns blaring, tires screeching, Charles reached down into his trousers and pulled and wrangled until he'd released his large white underwear that he began to swing above his head and holler unintelligibly. This, with the constant pleading of the driver for him to come back to the safety of the shoulder, the horns, the speed, the chaos of the few moments sped past with frantic anticipation. I called 911 again as Charles removed his pants and tore off his t-shirt and bit off pieces and spit them out.

I suggested they'd better send an ambulance; this man couldn't avoid being hit by a car much longer.

The woman's non-relenting pleas to Charles finally connected to him somehow, and he approached the car. He came to my window and stood breathing heavily, sweating, naked. I asked, "What are you doing?" and he replied with a sharp, fierce, strong, blow to my arm that was resting on the window ledge. Nonplussed, and with an unintentional Tony Soprano bellow I hollered, "WHOA!" Oh, man-oh-man, it really hurt.

At this point, I still hadn't even put the car in park yet; these events had unfolded so quickly. I slammed the gear shift into park, and leaned over in my seat toward the poor wounded girl in the passenger seat. Charles reached into my window, through to me and grabbed my shirt collar and started to drag me back toward him, with the look in his eyes that suggested he anticipated that I had a very tasty liver, and he would enjoy every bite.

I mashed him off, back into traffic, and pushed the button to roll up the window.

Unfettered, Charles returned to his private world as he removed his socks and used them as a flag-like accessory to whatever delight he was experiencing in his mind. He was stark naked.

By now, an unmarked state Trooper car had arrived and the Trooper stood with the van by the side of the road as he calmly and sedately put on rubber gloves. Charles approached the trooper, and I steeled myself for a dramatic physical scene. The trooper motioned to Charles, and said, "Hey Buddy, why don't you come over here with me?" and they calmly walked over to the unmarked car, Charles sat down on the pavement, and the Trooper put plastic Zip cuffs around his wrists. As simple as that.

The ambulance arrived momentarily, and the two women went off to be attended to, and I put the car in drive and left. My work here was done. Approximately 15 minutes had passed; I was still going to be on-time for my program!

I arrived at the senior center in less than 5 minutes, and I was trembling, my head reeling. I hauled my equipment, set up my grain mill, dramatically poured a tall pile of whole grain, fluffed a large bouquet of wheat sheaves, and was greeted by the familiar and friendly audience anticipating an entertaining tutorial on the history of grains, breads, and a delightful tasting session of home-baked wheat bread over the next 45 minutes. They welcomed me back by name.

"Hi, Jane!"

"Hello! Phew! A funny thing happened to me on the way to this program today." and I described my encounter from just moments earlier, and took several sips of strong hot coffee in between breaths. The audience was captivated. I wrapped up my story with an 'All's well that ends well', and took a deep breath to begin my program and launched into the varieties of grain around the world.

Approximately 10 minutes into my program, after dispensing invaluable historical information, passing around species of grain plants for inspection and identification, and sharing timeless resources of grain production for our food supply, I took a pause, suggesting this would be a good time for questions from the audience that I might address during the remainder of my presentation. An elderly lady in a wheelchair in the back of the room raised her hand and called out, "Jane, I have a question."

"Okay! I called on her brightly--what's your question?"

"That man was COMPLETELY NAKED?"

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Jugular Vein

In 1985 we'd been living in our house in Omaha for a couple of years. We had the typical complaints that anyone else would have with an older home needing constant repairs, little money, two small children, and all of our extended family living over a thousand miles away. But we were merrily getting along, and welcomed distractions of every kind. Especially company!

Stephen's younger brother, Tim, flew out on a one-way ticket to visit us. We had a spare room to put him in and looked forward to having an extra man around the house to help with repairs or entertain the boys so we could dig in to some bigger projects. We showed him the highlights of Omaha, shared meals,  played games and tried to be fun hosts.

After a week-long visit closed in on two and threatened toward three, we asked Tim what his plans for a return flight were. He confessed he had none. Since his limited handy-man skills contributed little to our concerns, and I began to feel the burden of another person to keep happy in the home, I suggested it was time for him to return home.

Stephen was in the Air Force at the time and it was nearing the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday weekend, so we decided that we'd drive Tim back to Massachusetts in our car and have a quick visit on a long holiday weekend with our families. So we loaded up the car with the two boys in their car seats with Tim in-between. We were facing approximately 24 hours covering nearly 1,500 miles in our compact Ford Escort together.

By the time we'd traveled over 400 miles non-stop, we were in Illinois. We had been in the car about 6 hours since we'd left in the early evening after Stephen had already put in a full day of work. He was tired, tired of driving, and we all needed a break.

Traveling from Omaha to Massachusetts is pretty much a straight shot. Our house was less than a minute from interstate 80, but driving along from Nebraska through Iowa, and much of Illinois at night is monotonous, at best, with little to look. Mile after dark mile took its toll, and Stephen was forced to exit and we found ourselves in a remote intersection where there was a boarded up service station.

And just like where all good horror stories begin, we wearily got out of the car to stretch and get some bracing cold middle-of-the-night late-November air. Since the boys were asleep, we stayed close to the car and just stretched and walked around taking deep breaths, and swinging our arms out windmill style to get the circulation going and our minds alert.

Tim bounded off into the dark.

After a good 5 minutes, I offered to drive again, but feeling rejuvenated, Stephen declined my offer and we assumed our travel positions and Stephen started the car. He suggested we'd need gas soon, and we'd swap then. A quick check on the boys in the back seat, still sleeping, we tooted the horn to alert Tim that it was time to go. And we waited.

And waited

And waited.

Stephen revved the engine, and tooted the horn again.

Then we saw it. There in the beam of the headlights was Tim running full speed back to the car with the white hot look of sheer terror on his face. We knew immediately there was trouble; big trouble. Tim reached the car, never slowing, and stopped dead at my closed and locked passenger door.

He grabbed at the door handle and frantically lifted it up and down with his face close against the window pleading for us to let him into the car. We both screamed back at him, "Get in! What's going on? What happened?"

But he insisted with fierce intensity that he get into the front seat. "Open the door, NOW! Let me in, let me in." continually snapping the handle up and down. Our panic immediately escalated. I was certain someone else was going to emerge from the dark bearing a weapon at any moment so I screamed back, "Just get in the BACK!"

Tim would not relent, and looked at me dead on, pounded on the window and said, "Open the FUCKING door." Clearly this ordinarily mild-manner young man was absolutely terrified, and I saw it and shared it. As I pulled on the lock latch he pulled on the outside door latch at the same time and the door just jammed up. Now it wouldn't open. Meanwhile, Stephen is banging on the steering wheel and demanding to know what was going on.

Defeated, Tim leaped to the back passenger door, swung it open and lunged into the car. Stephen stepped on the gas and we slowly rolled forward "Tim, What or who is out there? What happened?" but he still wouldn't tell anything, but instead pried himself forward between the two front seats, and flipped down my sun visor.

WHAT? I could NOT understand in the sped-up frantic scene how in the world this made any sense and told Stephen, "GO! JUST DRIVE! GET US OUT OF HERE, NOW!"

Not finding what he wanted Tim said, "OH SHIT!" and slammed the sun visor back up into position and grabbed the rear view mirror sharply adjusting its angle and contorting his neck to see his reflection while he was still nearly prone between the two seats.

Tim's door remained open, but Stephen drove to the edge of the parking lot to the driveway entrance under the street light and stopped and turned to us.

We just sat there and watched as Tim inspected his face, head, neck and hairlines. Had he been attacked? Had he taken a bad hit of acid in the dark? We had no idea, and were truly frightened. Apparently satisfied with what he saw in his reflection, Tim relaxed. He collapsed into the back seat, again, between the two sleeping boys in their car seats.

"It's okay." he said.

"What the Hell was that?" Stephen and I said nearly in unison. Tim closed his door and said, "It's okay, you can go." And just sat there. "No, no, no" Stephen said, "You scared the shit out of us, what happened out there?"

Tim calmly explained that when he'd bounded out into the darkness, he'd gone out behind the dark boarded up building to relieve himself, but got caught up in some tall grasses and in his attempts to become untangled had felt a cut from a wayward piece of barbed wire on his neck.

We immediately looked at Tim's neck and there was a small scratch with a slightly raised welt surrounding it.

Tim genuinely thought he'd sliced open his jugular vein and was going to bleed out right there in the cold at this abandoned service station while Stephen and I sat in the car, unaware, in the parking lot. Hence his terror and panic to return to the car, get to a mirror (my sun visor had none), and see the gaping wound and aortic spurts of blood. But it wasn't; it was just a scratch that raised a welt. In 1/2 an hour, there'd be nothing to see.

Completely consumed with relief that we weren't all about to be bludgeoned, and our children taken in some horrific bloody mass murder, Stephen and I laughed. We laughed loud, and hard. We caught our breath, looked again at Tim's wound, and laughed louder and harder.

Tim was not amused; in fact, he became furious.

We apologized, and explained our point of view of the entire event. If only he'd just stopped and said something! Unforgiving, he turned his back to us, gazed out the rear window and we continued on our way. Tim sat that way for nearly the remainder of the trip. Since he had no driver's license, he contributed nothing to help with the long drive ahead, and now, he refused to even speak to us. The miss-spent adrenalin would keep us alert for several hundred more miles, and it only took a glance in the rear-view mirror at Tim's dejected reversed position to keep us entertained.

Eventually, the road took all we had, and by the time we'd reached Pennsylvania, we were too tired to be safe drivers, so we decided to take a hotel room for several hours to nap. Still angry with us, Tim waited silently while we booked the room, unloaded the boys, and settled ourselves in. He finally joined us in the room where he promptly put himself to bed.

The next day we arrived in Massachusetts. When we delivered Tim, we were invited to Stephen's mother's house for Thanksgiving dinner where she and Tim lived. They shared the home with other women who stayed in for the meal and Stephen's sisters and their families joined the crowd. It was a full house.

After the meal was cleared and people settled in for the evening, someone asked Tim how the trip was. Stephen and I looked at each other, curious how Tim would recount the Jugular Vein incident off highway 80, but he said nothing! So Stephen and I offered our version. We described the frigid November winds whipping across the plains, the endless ribbon of highway, the lighthearted car games, all leading up to that fateful decision to stop in the middle of the night at the foreboding desolate abandoned gas station, what dangers lurking in the surrounding grasses of the Midwestern plains soon to be revealed.

Everyone was riveted. Stephen described the scene as if he were making a pitch for a Hitchcock movie. He let their fearful anticipation grow, and BAM! drives it home with a gripping and accurate portrayal of Timothy racing out of the dark, and with fevered pitch, we both replay the fresh scene with all its intensity for the gap-jawed crowd around the living room. Tim sat silently.

At the denouement, we described Tim's wee scratch, slight welt, and our overwhelming relief of raucous laughter with raucous laughter fully expecting everyone else in the room to join in.




No one laughed. In fact, the room was silent. Tim sat rigidly. His sister put her hand on his knee and quietly said, "That must have been really frightening, I'm very sorry that happened." And everyone turned to look at us as we were still breathing heavily and wiping our tears from laughing and giving such a fabulous performance of the previous night's events, still raw and fresh. Wait? What? Are they frowning? Is that displeasure? One of the women in the house stood and said, "I really don't see how that's funny at all." and the room slowly and silently emptied until Stephen and I were left sitting alone.

This happened in 1985. We didn't get invited back for Thanksgiving again by anyone until 2001.

Monday, January 4, 2010

One Ringy-Dingy

At first it was just an "Oh, sorry, wrong number." Sometimes it was just a hang-up. But there were enough of them to notice.

A few times we'd crossly get asked, "Who is this?" when we'd cheerfully said, "Hello!"

That's annoying. Don't they know who they called? So, naturally, we'd asked right back, "Who are YOU? You called me!"

Hang up.

Then it started to become a little more clear. "Hi, is this Pottery Barn?"
"No, sorry, you've got the wrong number."
"Wait, not Pottery Barn, but the catalog delivery service number? I'm asking about my order."
"No, sorry, you've got the wrong number."

But the calls kept coming.

Not hourly, not even daily, but it happened frequently enough that we realized we must just be one digit off from Pottery Barn's Delivery service inquiry number. We would just politely and concisely say, "No, sorry, try again", and they'd re-dial and get it right.

But a few times they didn't, so we were prepared when the second call came.

One weekday afternoon, I answered the phone.
"Hello, is this Pottery Barn delivery?"
"How can I help you?"
"I want to know where my couch is!"
"Well, I'm quite sure I don't know--did you look in your living room?"
"No, the couch I ordered, it's supposed to be delivered today, and I want to know where it is"
"What couch did you order?"
"The green one on page 34."
"Oh! YOU'RE the one who ordered that! HAHAHAHA! ah, sorry, ahem. It hasn't been delivered yet?"
"No, it hasn't and I've been waiting all morning."
"That's a shame."
"I want to know when it's going to be delivered!!

She's getting louder, and a little more insistent with me. tsk."Honestly, I don't know if it is going to be delivered today."

"WHAT?!! I was told that is was going to be and I took the morning off from work!! I'm STILL waiting."
"HM....I really don't know what you want ME to do about it."
"Like, I said, I really don't know, and I have no idea when and IF it will be delivered."
"I want to talk to your supervisor"
"I don't have a supervisor, I'm a housewife."
"I believe you've dialed the wrong number."
"Oh, you're a riot, a real riot."


That was really fun. After all, she called me! And I didn't lie.

It has long been a fun rule in our family to not-lie. It isn't really easy to do, actually. When someone asks you a question, you're conditioned to answer it, and you usually answer it honestly. But sometimes, you don't want to give the real answer, or you need to distract away from the real answer but give information that will satisfy as an answer. We call that a not-lie. For example. One of the girls was asked if the generously sized stones in her earrings were real diamonds. Not wanting to admit that they weren't genuine, she quickly replied, "Oh, these are my mother's; I could never afford diamond this big!". Both statements are true. The earrings were mine. I'd given them to her after I'd worn them just once. They were large stones, so she never could afford real diamonds of that size. So the lady thinks she got an answer. But she didn't really. She just heard two true statements, in response to her question. She made her own assumptions after that.

Asking too late for a weekend off at his job, Andrew's boss asked why he needed the time off. Andrew replied that 'my biological father is going to be in town and really wanted to see me'. The boss inhaled sympathetically, and lowered her voice suggesting she would see about changing the schedule. Andrew didn't lie. Stephen was going to be in town, and he always wants to see Andrew! A not-lie can be very effective.

And the calls kept coming. We could take the call, as long as we continued to not-lie.

"Hi, I ordered a dining room table and eight chairs for delivery"
"When would you like it delivered?"
"Next Wednesday."
"Oh, I'm afraid that's impossible; there's no room in our vehicles for deliveries of furniture that large."

If Stephen was home, we could 'transfer the caller' to someone 'who could try to help you'. Most people were patient, but a few really were downright nasty, and if they weren't nice, we'd start taking their information:

"I'm sorry, what was your name again?" Shuffling papers to elicit searching attempt noises.
"What was the delivery address? Uh-huh, Uh-huh..."
"From what catalog did you place your order?"
"Did you use a Visa or Mastercard? What number then? Uh-huh----Uh-huh; expiration date? right....."
Just a moment please.
a transfer to a pleasant voice "good afternoon, how can I help you?"

If they got especially nasty, we'd 'transfer' to Stephen, and he'd put on his best Jersey Guido persona, and hand it right back.

"Look, Pal, I'm busy, you say you live in Connecticut? Well I'm right outta Newark, and I don't ever drive to Connecticut unless I gotta; you know whadeye mean?" "I mean, it might be awhile. In da meantime, I got your information."

Ultimately, people would either catch on or hang up out of frustration. One fellow caught on, and even played along for a few minutes, asking if I could deliver my ironing board, he needed a new one of those, too.