Hot Plate


Nobody was happy when Chuck got a hot plate except Chuck. He was the manager of the Park Theater and if he wanted a hot plate in the office, he was going to get a hot plate.


At first the only person who was concerned was Tommy the usher. Chuck sent Tommy out to the Roy Rogers on Bloomfield Avenue to pick up roast beef sandwiches almost every night. That was what Tommy did. He was the roast beef sandwich usher, just as I was the men’s-room-mopping usher and Jay was the marquee-changing usher. Of course Tommy, like the rest of us, also tore tickets and stood around, but a chimp can do that. He figured with the roast beef run soon to be a thing of the past thanks to this hot plate, his days as an usher were numbered. Being an usher isn’t the world’s greatest job, but you get to see a lot of movies for free. And Tommy also got to keep the change. Chuck let him keep the change to make up for the gas Tommy used driving to the Roy Rogers and back, but gas was around 35 cents a gallon then; even with his ’63 Corvette Sting Ray (the one with the split rear window and non-functioning hood vents) getting 500 yards to the gallon, I’m inclined to think every dime Tommy pocketed contained 9.9 cents of pure profit.


The rest of us—ushers, candy girls, and so on—were all thinking we’d be able to heat up little pizzas and frozen bagels on the hot plate. Sure, a toaster oven would have been better. So what? This would still be great. We could stop living on stale popcorn and discarded jujubes. We told Tommy maybe he should learn a new trade.


But the thing was, Chuck wouldn’t let anybody else use the hot plate. It wasn’t, he insisted, a matter of him wanting to hog it; he just couldn’t let everybody and his brother wander in and out of the office all night long, reheating their egg rolls and french fries. He had the safe open half the time, for Pete’s sake, and then there was the inevitable mess to consider, et frickin’ cetera. If he’d slapped a pot of coffee on it an hour before closing and let everybody have a cup for the ride home (especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when we had midnight shows that let out at 2 AM), he would have been a hero, but that didn’t happen. It was Chuck’s hot plate, and that was that.


Well, that would have been that, and we’d have all forgotten about it in a couple of weeks, if it hadn’t been for the sausage. I don’t know what kind of sausage it was. Some people said it was Polish sausage, Jay said it was Swedish falukorv (the mustard, he insisted, was a dead giveaway) but whatever tradition it hailed from, it was one pungent comestible. And Chuck liked it. He liked it every single night. I suppose eventually he would have tired of it, just as he’d tired of Roy Roger’s roast beef sandwiches.


He was not given the change to tire of it. Something had to be done. First, Jay and I told him that customers were complaining about ‘that stinky smell.’ This wasn’t strictly true—actually a single customer had mentioned the smell, and he’d wanted to know where he could get one of those scrumptious sausages. It didn’t matter. Chuck was unmoved.


In the end, it was Skip who turned the tide against the hot plate. Skip was an usher, and like the rest of us he had a special function, although in his case management was unaware of it. He was the usher who didn’t rip the tickets when he was supposed to and then handed them back to the cashier to resell, following which they split the resale, sometimes to the tune of two or three hundred bucks a night. Skip could have bought his own hot plate, now that I think of it, but he had a better idea.


“Man,” he told Chuck, “you could get in trouble with that hot plate. Jim the cop says you need a permit to cook inside a place of business.” Jim the cop was the cop we hired to work the midnight shows. We hired a cop because every now and then the crowds would get rambunctious at those late shows and rip the seats off the floor and throw them off the balcony.


“How does he know about the hot plate?” said Chuck, narrowing his eyes. “Who told him?”


“Nobody had to tell him, man. I seen him nosing around the office door when you’re cooking those sausages. He’s got a nose, man.”


Yes, Jim definitely had a nose. Chuck was worried. He began to pay more attention to Jim. He’d come out of the office and look at Jim, and Jim would nod at him, kind of casually. Maybe too casually, like he suspected somebody might be cooking sausages in there. So Chuck stopped cooking sausages on Friday and Saturday.


Then one Wednesday night, Jim dropped by to see the movies—“Casablanca” and “Play It Again, Sam,”


“What’s he doing here?” Chuck whispered. Skip whispered back, “He says he’s getting pressured to do something about the hot plate, man.”




“Apparently some big wig was here the other night when you were cookin’ up that bad boy with the extra onions, and Jim’s back is to the wall, man.”


“But—this isn’t fair, Skip. What can I do?”


“Let me see what I can do,” said Skip. He sidled up to Jim and asked him if he thought the guy who did the Bogart impression in “Sam” was good, and Jim said not really, but it was a funny flick anyway. Skip nodded and went back to Chuck.


“He says his hands are tied. But he gave me the name of a man at the municipal building, and he says I can make this all go away if I show up there tomorrow morning with two bills.”


“Two bills?? You mean twenty bucks??”


Actually Skip meant two hundred dollars, but he could see from Chuck’s horrified reaction that it was just not going to happen.


“Yeah, twenty bucks, and it’s gone. No arrest, no…”


“ARREST?! He was gonna arrest me?”


“Man, the fine would have been fifty bucks, and this way there’s no record, no mug shot, nothing, and you save thirty bucks. Your call, man.”


So Chuck gave Skip twenty dollars, and the hot plate. His record was clean.


After a couple of weeks, the lobby stopped smelling like sausage.


Sort of.

The Basement Is Finished!



My mother realized that the basement was never going to be finished unless she did something drastic. My dad had been working on the basement for years. When he started, it was your standard cement-lined basement, barely one step above a root cellar. There was a massive oil burner that had probably been there since the last ice age. An incomprehensible system of ducts and pipes snaked out of it and vanished up into the house. And there was a washing machine, and that’s how it was for years. And then my dad decided to ‘finish’ the basement, which meant he was going to frame it with two by fours and slap up wood paneling, and build a bar, and even put a bathroom down there. First he framed a laundry room for my mom and got a drier to go with the washer; then he built the bar, and then he put in the bathroom, which had a working sink and an intermittently working toilet. All that took about a year and a half, mostly on weekends. Then the pace slowed.


Okay, let me be frank: he stopped dead. There was wood paneling on some walls, and not on others. There were linoleum squares on the floor in weird random patterns. My father managed to hide most of the pipes and wires with a suspended ceiling, and installed a rheostat to control the lighting, but there were still vast expanses of exposed duct work, and dangling light bulbs. It looked awful, and it really wouldn’t have taken much time to finish it. Working at his old pace, he could have finished it in 5 or 6 weeks. But he wasn’t working at his old pace.


My best guess is that he woke up one morning and realized how unbelievably ugly that wood paneling really was. Just as, 20 years later, he was standing in the parking lot of the Masonic Temple with my mother waiting for the bus to Atlantic City and realized that (a) he was wearing a powder blue leisure suit which (b) was the ugliest damn suit he’d ever seen, let alone worn and yet (c) he had worn on at least two dozen previous trips to Atlantic City. He later told me it was like waking up with a tattoo of a wart hog on your arm and no idea how it got there.


After the work on the basement had been stalled for more than two years, my mother made her move. She sent out invitations to a ‘The Basement Is Done!’ party and didn’t tell my father until two weeks before the party.


 ‘Done’ doesn’t seem like an ambiguous word, and yet… To my father, the invitations to a ‘the basement is done’ party meant that the basement was now officially done, and he could give up all pretense about ‘getting back to it’ one of these days.


To my mother, it meant he had two weeks to get cracking. It wasn’t nearly enough time to do everything that needed to be done, but in the end, he managed to take care of the most egregiously unfinished sections, and slapped up a couple of travel posters to cover the rest. Both of my parents were still frantically sweeping up sawdust and wood shavings and stuffing wires behind pipes with less than two hours to go before guests were supposed to be arriving, so I was—for the first time, ever!—assigned to pick up the food. It was going to be take out from the Chinese place on Stevens Avenue. My father handed me two ten dollar bills—very few places would accept anything bigger than a ten in those days—and told me to get ‘enough for 12 people.’ That was all he said. “Enough what?” I asked. “Food,” he said, rolling his eyes. “And maybe grab a couple of your friends to help you haul the grub.”  He assumed that I would know the only thing anybody ever ordered from the Chinese place was Chow Mein.


I did not know that.


I enlisted Calvano and Picarillo, and we walked along the railroad tracks that would eventually take us to Stevens Avenue and the Chinese Place. Picarillo admitted that he’d had no experience with Chinese food at all. Calvano made fun of him, but I doubt that he’d spent much time cavorting among the egg rolls himself. He was certainly goggle eyed when we walked in and saw the photos of the various entrees hanging above the counter. To this day they may be the least appetizing food photos I’ve ever seen. They looked like food autopsy pictures: you couldn’t look at the egg foo young without wondering about the cause of death. Blunt trauma, probably. Picarillo immediately ingratiated himself with the gentleman behind the cash register by announcing that he could speak Chinese and then barking, “Wong Fong Long Bong Gong Tong!”


Calvano and I conferred and at last selected a dish with prawns, and a duck. The duck alone was 12 dollars, though I believe it came with an assortment of steamed vegetables and a generous container of white rice. “Fly Gly Hi Ji Bly Kly,” said Picarillo. All the way home we congratulated ourselves on our sophisticated taste. We were proudest of the duck, but we had plans for the prawns.


My mother and father were not as delighted with our selections as we’d imagined. “I didn’t even know they sold ducks,” said my mother, over and over. They weren’t angry, just tired and baffled. “Nobody will care about the food if there’s enough to drink,” said my father. As the guests arrived, my mother pressed me and Calvano and Picarillo into waiter service. We passed out her hors d'oeuvres—mostly little cheese wedges, and miniature hotdogs on toothpicks. The duck was stretched out on the bar, as though he’d gotten into the vodka and was sleeping it off. There was a knife and cutting board in the vicinity, but no one made a move towards the duck. My mother took the prawn dish and rinsed off the sauce, and set the prawns out in a bowl with some cocktail sauce.


“If nobody eats the duck, I got dibs,” said Calvano. “I’m gonna bring it to school and stick it in Sandy Muller’s locker.”  We planned to start a food fight in the lunch room the next day using the prawns, which were almost as gross as the uncooked calamari we got from Calvano’s grandmother, but people ate the prawns. Picarillo passed out more tiny hot dogs. “Bong Dong Rong Song Long,” he said. Eventually Mr. Hackess had one boiler maker too many and took a bite out of the duck. Later two wood panels fell off the wall but no one seemed to notice. They were still propped up next to the oil burner when I left for college six years later. The basement was done.

Escape from New Orleans!


ME: Emma, I wanted to interview you about how you handled Hurricane Gustav last week. When did you decide you were going to leave New Orleans?


EMMA: I didn’t. It was taken out of my hands. We hit the road at 11 PM on Saturday night.


ME: We who?


EMMA: There were two cars. Bobby and Mego were in one car with 3 puppies. I was in the other car with Lucy the dog. Lucy was great. One car had to deal with unhousebroken—or unCARbroken—dogs. Hint: It was not the car with Lucy. And speaking of housebroken, none of the gas stations we went to would let me use their bathrooms.


ME: They refused?


EMMA: They were not manned. I got gas okay—I used my Mets credit card—but they locked their bathrooms up before they fled. So you know what I did?


ME: No, and neither do my readers, and I believe we would all like to maintain the status quo in that regard.


EMMA: Did you know New Jersey is the only state where you’re not allowed to pump your own gas?


ME: No, I didn’t. Is that true?


EMMA: Probably.


ME: So at 2 AM you called me to tell me you were zipping along towards Houston at 70 miles an hour.


EMMA: Yes. All the cars were going the other way. It was 1 AM my time, by the way. We were two hours out of New Orleans and maybe 4 hours from Houston. In theory.


ME: But you didn’t get there until 6 PM. Which works out to about 17 hours.


EMMA: That sounds right. Let me call Cody on three way calling. He had completely different adventures.


ME: But… [Emma gets Cody’s answering machine] Ah. So what happened? What was the delay?


EMMA: At Lafayette the ramp to I-10 was closed. So we kept going north, looking for a route west. There wasn’t one. Eventually we drove around a police barricade to go west.


ME: When you say barricade…


EMMA: Well, a cop standing by his car. He waved at us and yelled when we went by. I don’t know what road that was. Anyway, Bobby made a wrong turn in Deriter and we ended up near Fort Polk. Ooh, this is a good opportunity to talk about James K. Polk. Best president ever.  He had a mullet. Also a kidney stone operation, and they didn’t have like normal anesthesia in those days, they just gave him a bottle of whiskey and started hacking away. And then Mego woke up and realized Bobby had gone the wrong way, so we turned around and ended up in Beaumont Texas around 7 AM. Let’s say an hour, hour and a half from Houston. Then Bobby made another mistake. I-10 was open here, and went directly to Houston, but he thought it would be too crowded. He went north. We didn’t know Texas had just ordered mandatory evacuation of 3 counties in the south so all three counties were suddenly heading north on the same road with us and we didn’t move for 4 hours. Worst. Traffic. Jam. Ever. People were too tired to play games with me.


ME: Games?


EMMA: When I’m stuck in traffic I like to play Movie-Off or else Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. So we wanted to bail, as far as that road was concerned. We went around a cement barricade. This time the police chased us and caught us. They said it was… what is this? Are you watching Turner Classics? Who’s this skank?


ME: Lana Turner.


EMMA: No it’s not.


ME: Well, I’m not watching but it was Imitation of Life with Lana Turner 15 minutes ago. Before that it was Under the Yum Yum Tree. I did watch that.


EMMA: I didn’t ask you what you were watching.


ME: So the police caught you…


EMMA: This is not Lana Turner. They said it was a class ‘B’ misdemeanor. But they let us go. I mean not only did they not stop us, they let us continue along the road we weren’t supposed to be on in the first place.


ME: How did you manage that?


EMMA: No idea. I’ve been watching bad movies all day. I’m trying to see all the Paul Newman movies before he dies. But boy there are some stinkers. You’d think because he looks so good you wouldn’t mind if the movie’s crummy but actually you get blasé about him pretty quick. And it looks like he’s got smoker’s teeth.


ME: You mean yellow?


EMMA: No, just kind of gamey. I’m going to try to get Cody again. [Dials Cody’s number. This time Cody answers. Emma explains there’s an interview in progress.]

Tell about how you’re a taxidermist. He was hard-core gypped like the wolf at this last competition. Tell it!


CODY: It’s true. I haven’t competed—I won the national title in ’04, bronze medal world 05, 2nd place… I haven’t competed in a while, though.


ME: How big are the animals you stuff?


CODY: Oh, I just do ducks. Ducks and geese. If it has feathers, I can mount it. I quit in ‘05 because I was burned out. I did one state show in ’06 and I swept it, just hands down won every single award. But I didn’t compete anymore in ’06, or ’07, and then in ‘08 I needed a tax write off. And this judge had it in for me—I beat him so many times. My birds were blue ribbon quality. He knew that. But he gave them second. He’s a short little cocky… never won anything major in his life… The taxidermy world, all politics, I’m telling you… the only show I’ll compete now in is the World show. I want that golden ribbon, and it’s $80,000 in prize money. I’m telling you, 90% of the taxidermy industry is know-nothing, red neck hillbillies, but they think they’re…aahh. Well, it’s quite humorous.


EMMA: I taught his parrot to say ‘bojangles.’


CODY: Yes, she did. So I went to Tennessee, not Houston, but I dropped my birds off in Baton Rouge.


ME: Did you acquire your parrot as a future taxidermy project?


CODY: NO, no, Ally is a pet, she— [Cody hits a wrong button on his phone. We hear several saved messages before he manages to disconnect.]


ME: Wow. So you have no idea how you managed to get out of that class ‘B’ misdemeanor?


EMMA: Nope. We ended up in Beaumont, Texas at one o’clock in the afternoon, on I-10 at last, in bumper-to-bumper traffic. My car broke down, and that’s when I called you crying hysterically. Bobby got the car started again. When we got to Houston, Grum made me hamburgers. She made me hamburgers every single night I was in Houston.


ME: I won’t ask who Grum is because you’d probably tell me. Well, there are several other hurricanes, uh, scheduled to…


EMMA: Scheduled?? Hurricanes aren’t scheduled. They’re predicted or forecast or something.


ME: … they’re headed out your way. What are you planning to do next time?


EMMA: They can BITE me. I’m staying right here. I’m getting a 24 pack of Diet Pepsi and I’m sitting it out. End of story.


ME: You could always come back to Milford.


EMMA: Ooh, I can come back to the earthquake capital of the world! Thank you so much! [Click]

A Tale of Two Shirts


VERY IMPORTANT PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: FIRST you put on your underpants, AND THEN you apply the Ben gay to your knee.


And now, this week’s column.


There’s something I need to nip in the bud immediately. Around three weeks ago I was doing some volunteer something or other at the Hunterdon Complex in Flemington—I’m not sure precisely what I was doing, but as I recall it involved climbing up on a step ladder and being told ‘no, no, to the left! Other left!’ 60 or 70 times. I have no idea if I accomplished whatever it was that I set out to do, although I do have calves to die for now.


My memory is a little hazy because I was not really concentrating on the task at hand. When I arrived in Flemington and asked what they wanted me to do, I was told, “First thing we’d like you to do is turn your shirt right side out. It’s very distracting that way.”


I’m sure everyone has spent a morning wearing an inside-out t-shirt or a sweat shirt. I was wearing a button-down shirt. A pretty decent one, too—we’re talking Brooks Brothers. That’s why, when I’d stopped at the post office earlier to get some stamps, I had no clue anything was amiss when the lady behind the counter said, “That’s a real spiffy shirt there.” Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.


You are probably saying, please. Are you really such a moron that you buttoned a shirt up and you didn’t notice the buttons were all backwards and facing in? And I can truthfully answer, why no, I am not; I’d removed the button down shirt a couple of days earlier by unbuttoning the top two buttons and pulling it over my head, like a jersey, and tossing it on the back of my bean bag chair. And when my volunteering-type day rolled by, I simply picked up that shirt and slipped it back over my head. The sleeves were rolled up—I’ll have more to say about that shortly—and it felt perfectly comfortable. If I were the sort of fellow who wears a plastic pocket pen protector in his breast pocket I would have known the score immediately and taken steps to remedy it. But I am not so I didn’t.


Well, all that, scintillating as it is, barely makes an anecdote, let alone a newspaper column, and I wouldn’t trouble you with it, but this past Thursday night, following a rather busy morning, jam-packed afternoon, and over-scheduled evening, I was running out my front door and went to slip a little package of those citrus-flavored breath strips into my shirt pocket, and it wasn’t there. The package slid right down my chest and landed on the floor. Yet I knew the dynamite green shirt I was wearing had a pocket. What, as the kids used to say, zup?


My shirt was inside out. Again, it buttoned down the front, and again, I’d slipped it over my head to get it off and over my head again to put it on, and there I was. This time I spent 8 or 10 hours inside out, including a job interview which I thought went incredibly well because the interviewer never stopped chuckling.


Remember my first sentence, about how I wanted to nip something in the bud? It’s the inside out shirt FASHION, which, I fear, is about to spring up now that several dozen people have seen me bopping around with my shirt label on the outside. If Joe Doesn’t-Write-a-Humor-Column had been widely observed making the scene in an inside-out button down shirt, everyone would assume he’d just gotten dressed in a hurry and that would be that, but when I am the fellow with the backwards garment, I know a lot of people think, “Wow! Check out the boss threads on that ‘dude’!” (‘Dude’ is the current hep-talk for ‘cat.’) I wish this were not the case, but it is. When I started walking around with the sleeves on the button-down rolled up, the look was everywhere within a couple of weeks. And I’m fine with that, but the inside-out shirt was a mistake, and it should not be copied. Believe me. I hope this column appears quickly enough, and enough people clip it out and mail it to their cutting-edge fashion-plate friends, to prevent this craze from happening.


But what can we do to prevent further accidents of this sort? After all, if I managed to do this twice, in just three weeks, it can’t just be a fluke. There is a serious design flaw in button down shirts that needs to be addressed by legislation. The inside of the shirt should look a lot different from the outside. When I was young, before all this high-tech sewing machine stuff, the insides of shirts had all this fuzzy crap, and seam-type things, and you could SEE all the stitches. They weren’t the stupid almost invisible sissy stitches of today, they were these big freaking Frankenstein’s Monster Scar-type stitches. We need to get back to that. Or else the inside has to be a totally different color. That might work, but I can imagine a situation where I see this cool purple shirt hanging on the back of my chair and I slip it on over my head, and it turns out not to be my cool purple shirt but the purple inside of my white and blue pinstripe shirt. So I think the big stitches and fuzzy crap is the way to go. Or we could print ‘INSIDE OF SHIRT’ on the inside of the shirt. In several places.


I mentioned this idea to a friend of mine and he said, “What about a law against morons dressing themselves?”


I’m not necessarily opposed to that, but of course it doesn’t deal with MY problem.



You know the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times?” The late nineteen seventies were a very interesting time in New York City. There was a public service advertisement in the subway cars showing a thug stealing the necklace from a well-dressed woman. The advertisement said, “DON’T WEAR YOUR JEWELS IN PUBLIC!” The ad didn’t quite say that if you went ahead and wore your jewels in public and got robbed, you might get slapped with a substantial fine and maybe even some jail time, but that was the impression I got it. In terms of public morale there’s not much difference between an ad like that (and there were lots of them) and a simple “YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN!”


The Custom Neon Sign Shop opened, operated, and eventually ceased to operate during that very interesting time. The Custom Neon Sign Shop van was usually parked in front of the Custom Neon Sign Shop, and we felt it was pretty safe there, but sometimes we had to use the van to make a delivery or pick up supplies or buy donuts, and when we did, the radio would get stolen. There were radio thieves in New York who could get your door open and remove the radio in 17 seconds


The first time the radio was stolen, Mulberry Street Joey Clams did not want to replace it.  But it turned out that was not an option. Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ Uncle Danny bankrolled the Neon Sign Shop, and he wanted a radio in the van. In the shop itself, he insisted that we tune the radio at all times to WNEW-AM, where DJs like William B. Williams and Julius LaRosa spun records by Jerry Vale and Billie Holiday. He told us the same rule applied to the van. What if he needed us to transport him somewhere on a Sunday afternoon, when Jonathan Schwartz was hosting his “Sinatra from A to Z” show? How could he listen to it if we didn’t have a radio? So Mulberry Street Joey Clams bought a new car radio for the sake of Jonathan Schwartz, a DJ so obsessed with the sound of his own voice that his voice got a retraining order requiring Schwartz to keep at least 75 yards away. Fact.


Mulberry Street Joey Clams also got a better lock for the passenger side door. This must have been an excellent lock, because the guy who stole the new radio had to break the window.


At first Mulberry Street Joey Clams replaced the broken window with a black plastic garbage bag, but this simply wouldn’t do. “It looks like a garbage bag,” he said. I suggested that clear thick plastic was the way to go, like the plastic slip covers that Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ aunt kept on the sofa to preserve the fabric slip covers. Mulberry Street Joey Clams said that was a great idea and the next day returned with several yards of the floral pattern fabric slip cover. I never found out whether he simply misunderstood me, or his Aunt wouldn’t let him have the plastic, or what. I also knew better than to ask about it, although I did not know enough not to ask when we would get a real window. “Why? This is great. It’s better than glass.”


The pattern was pink and white. From a distance, it just looked like big pink flowers, but when you got close, you saw that inside each blossom was an intricate Italian village scene, featuring blacksmiths, gondolas, and volcanoes. “You know why this is better than glass? Nobody will touch this.”


“Why?” I said.


“Because first, you can’t see through it. So they don’t know if there’s a radio in here or not. And ‘B,’ it’s cloth, so you can’t break it. So it’s not worth the trouble to them, not with all the jerks driving around with glass windows.”


Even though it wasn’t worth the trouble to them, they could now slit the cloth and grab anything on the seat. Mulberry Street Joey Clams continued to insist that it wasn’t worth the trouble so they wouldn’t do it, but they did it at least every couple of days. Sometimes they did it two or three times in one day. Mulberry Street Joey Clams would just replace the slit fabric with a fresh piece and continue to insist it wasn’t going to happen. He must have had enough of the hideous fabric to upholster the Statue of Liberty, but eventually he ran out, and we got a real window.


After that, the criminal class of New York lost interest in the interior of the van. They started stealing the battery.


Well, that’s not fair. They didn’t steal it over and over again, they just stole it once, but that was enough to send Mulberry Street Joey Clams into total battery lockdown mode. He bought an old battery from the Italian Ice guy down the block, a battery streaked with filth and encrusted with whatever it is that batteries get encrusted with. This battery was deceased. It could not have turned the blades on a propeller beanie. We kept this battery under the hood of the van when it was not in use, but if we had to go somewhere, we removed the corroded battery and put it in the back of the van, and replaced it with the good battery, which was hidden under a horse blanket by the wheel well. I kept waiting for him to stop this insane routine, but he never did. “The day we stop is the day we lose the battery,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. He was still doing it when the Custom Neon Sign Shop closed. He was talking about getting a third battery to keep as a decoy in the back of the van, so if someone got wise to the dead battery under the hood and broke into the van, they’d steal the decoy.


And just as I know that Jonathan Schwartz is still out there, punctuating his endless anecdotes with an occasional  Frank Sinatra record somewhere on the dial, I have no doubt that Mulberry Street Joey Clams continues to park the van, pop the hood, remove the battery, throw it in the back, cover it with a horse blanket, replace it with the dead battery, close the hood, and then do the whole thing in reverse every time he goes out to pick up a lottery ticket or a six pack.

Cyclops Lamp


I cheated on the legs. I want to say that right up front and get it out of the way. In the movie, the Cyclops has these incredibly cool GOAT legs, which are furry and bend the wrong way. The Cyclops LAMP, which I built when I was in Cub Scouts, totally by myself with no help whatsoever from my dad or anybody else (aside from some stuff my dad insisted on doing), did not have goat legs, or any legs at all. I fudged the entire bottom half of the Cyclops.  I feathered the wood a little bit to hint at the furryness, but it was basically a lamp base. I didn’t have the skill to carve legs, and certainly not furry goat legs. And I dimly realized that if I had carved legs, when I wired the lamp it would have looked like the cord was going up the Cyclops’s butt. Such things amuse me now but I was a rather prim 10 year old Cub Scout.


Prim or not, though, I loved the Cyclops from “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.” Although the movie was released in 1958 when I was three, stills of the Cyclops were featured in virtually every issue of “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” It was clear even from badly printed black and white photos on cheap pulp paper that this Cyclops—with his scaly skin, goat legs, single eye, and a nasty looking horn on the top of his head—was the real deal. Every Friday I fished the new TV Guide out of the mail box and quickly turned to the back, where all the movies on broadcast TV that week were listed alphabetically. I knew “7th Voyage of Sinbad” would turn up eventually. To my amazement, it turned up on a Saturday matinee at the Oxford Theater, so I first saw the Cyclops in action on the big screen. I’d call it love at first sight, except I’d, you know, already seen him.


In fact there were two Cyclopses—cyclopsi? in the film but I didn’t know that going in. The first Cyclops gets blinded by Sinbad and falls off a cliff fairly early on and I have to admit I was a little disappointed, but later on ANOTHER Cyclops turns up for an epic battle with a fire breathing dragon. I was standing on my chair, jumping up and down. Unfortunately, the Cyclops loses the fight, which I thought then and think now is a bunch of bullbleep, but I didn’t know any swears then so I was unable to express my dissatisfaction adequately. At least in words.


I decided I would, instead, build a Cyclops LAMP. It was a multimedia lamp and my parents must have thought I was insane. The bottom was scavenged from a thick ugly wooden lamp in the basement, and I didn’t do much with that aside from the feathering. The Cyclops’s torso was made from a several bleach bottles, which I painstakingly cut up, and fused together with a soldering iron. I glued broken glass to this, to simulate the scales, and stuck some fuzz on the chest to simulate chest hair. This was the seat of considerable controversy, because some of my friends insisted the Cyclops did not have a body hair of any kind. I maintained that if you have fuzzy goat legs, you have body hair, Q. E. D.


All that took every moment of my spare time for roughly six months. The head took longer, because it was made largely from a glass lemonade pitcher, and this is where my dad insisted on helping, since the temperatures required to change the shape of that pitcher required (HE said) not just grown-up supervision but a grown up working the acetylene torch. He did allow me to use some sort of metal fork to shape the softened glass pitcher handle into the Cyclops’s horn. That broken handle was what had given me the idea to make the head out of glass, which in retrospect was insane. In the end, I covered most of the glass head with rubber kitchen gloves—melted, of course—and sculpted this mess into a plausible Cyclops head. There was an opening for the eye, and one for the mouth. For weeks this lamp, which was not much shorter than I was, stood in the garage while I tried to decide whether the bulb should be in the eye socket or the mouth. One of the kids on the block decided this for me by saying, “If you put the bulb in his mouth, he’ll look like Uncle Fester.” So the eye it was. The bulb socket had to stick all the way out of the eye socket, so the bulb was horizontal, not vertical. All my friends admired it extravagantly, and my mother would not allow me to have it in the bedroom, so it went to live in the basement. Every so often I would go down to the basement and turn on the Cyclops lamp, and read. There was no shade over the bulb so the light was harsh and the experience unpleasant, but I didn’t care. When my parents moved two blocks away, the lamp moved with them. This was not because they liked it, particularly; a vacuum cleaner that had been broken since 1961 also made the move. Eventually, when my parents passed on, the lamp came to me. And last week for some reason I decided to see if it worked, so I plugged it in and switched it on, and it didn’t, so I figured I’d better change the bulb, and when I attempted to unscrew the bulb, the entire head cracked into several hundred pieces. Most of them were bonded to the melted rubber gloves so there wasn’t much of a mess to clean up. Just a lamp to throw out.


Since I made the lamp myself I can’t just go out to Sears and buy a new one, but if anyone else made a Cyclops Lamp and is willing to part with it I am prepared to make an offer. I’m just saying.




The story goes that when Louis Armstrong and his wife were presented to Pope John XXIII, the Pope asked Louis if they had any children. Louis replied, “No, but we still wailin’, Pop.” Armstrong’s biographer, Terry Teachout, says this is an apocryphal story but “certainly in character.”


I was reminded of that story by a headline from New Zealand this week. “Rare 111-year-old-reptile to become a father.”


Although to be honest, my first thought was not Louis Armstrong. It was “Hef??”


Not quite. The fact that the mom-to-be is 80 years old was a dead give away. Hef does not appear on “The Golden Girls Next Door.” He… Hmmm.


Excuse me for a moment while I register that title. Be right back.




Thank you for waiting.


The  REAL 111-year-old-reptile is a tuatara named Henry, who had just been lounging around for the past 40 years, acting like most of my older relatives--  watching reruns of “Bonanza,” wearing his pants up around his collar bone, and biting off his female companion’s tail. He did the biting-off-the-tail thing twice according to news reports. Probably they were arguing about whether or not to turn up the TV when the air conditioner was on, and Henry couldn’t make out what the hell she was saying, and she KEPT saying it, and he still couldn’t make it out, and eventually SNAP, there goes the tail. Again. Which is why that lady tuatara is technically his ‘former female companion’ and not the mother-to-be.


Then Henry had an operation to have a tumor removed, and poof! —he’s going to be a dad. The AFP article says he had the tumor removed from his ‘bottom’ but I’m not sure what that means. If they were speaking about my Uncle Charley, for instance, that would mean it was on his butt, but since Henry walks around on all fours his butt is actually on the top. I’m guessing they do mean his butt, but the news service didn’t want to offend any tuataras by writing ‘butt.’ Since all the tuataras live in New Zealand and I do not, I’m going to go ahead and write it.


The tuatara, which has been around for 220 years, looks like a lizard, but it’s not. Its anatomy has more in common with turtles, crocodiles, and birds. One really cool thing it has, which your standard lizard does not, is a third eye. There were girls in my yoga class who claimed to have a third eye but I don’t think they did, although sometimes we would discuss it:


GIRL WITH THIRD EYE: What are you looking at?

ME: I’m searching for your third eye.



It probably wasn’t, and if it was, it would have been hidden behind the Abercrombie and Fitch logo. But still.


You don’t have to search much to find the third eye on your tuatara. It’s right on the top of the head, and plainly visible, at least if the tuatara is young enough. When they get a little long in the tooth, like Henry, the third eye is covered with scales, but it’s still there.


Well, I could go on and on, because Tuataras are pretty much the coolest reptiles going, but I think I’ve made that plain. Now it seems to me that Milford and the Tuatara are pretty much made for each other. We’ve got the site of the old paper mill, which has been sitting there doing nothing for more than a decade, just like my Uncle Harry, and it would make a great tuatara refuge. Aren’t they happy in New Zealand? Well, yes and no. They seem to like the climate and stuff like that—and why not, they’ve had 220 million years to get used to it—but what they don’t like is Polynesian rats. They eat tuataras. New Zealand is doing what it can to get rid of the Polynesian rats, but New Zealand appear to be chok full of them. Milford, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single one. Let me repeat that. Not. One. Single. Polynesian. Rat. In New Zealand, the Polynesian rats can actually swim from one island (which may not contain tuataras) to another (which does), making tuatara preservation efforts even more difficult. If the Polynesian rats want to eat the Milford tuataras, swimming won’t cut it. They will have to book a flight. Have you checked the air fares lately?


So when the town is done doing whatever it’s doing to Bridge Street this summer, I think next on the agenda is “Project Tuatara.” It’s my idea, but the town can just go ahead and do it. You have my blessing.


“The Golden Girls Next Door” is mine, though. Hands off.

Milford Geocache


You have no idea how lucky you are that I wrote about spiders last week. That means this week is going to be a largely spider-free column, even though the events I am going to describe were not spider free. Far from it. It was wall –to-wall spiders, and some of them were not only the size of your average Chihuahua but blessed with a similar temperament. But, just as I try not to inflict Mulberry Street Joey Clams on you in back-to-back installments, I will not be guilty of consecutive spider columns.


And frankly it’s your loss, because these were world class spiders.


What happened was this: my daughter Emma was visiting from New Orleans last week. Since moving to the Big Easy, she’s started Geocaching.  I had no idea what this was, and no interest in finding out, but she explained it to me anyway. Her explanation took five phone calls and was very entertaining, but left me somewhat confused as well as exhausted. The official Geocaching web page puts it like this:

“Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.”

In other words, when I go to my final reward, the guy with the pitch fork is going to greet me with “Let’s go Geocaching!”

Emma had information that there were Geocaches located in Milford and Upper Black Eddy, as well as several other towns in the area, so she was looking forward to this trip. Her mother took her to some parks and road side areas where they found several geocaches. I’m not sure how, because Emma does not use the GPS technology that seems to be an integral part of this. She goes strictly by the written clues other Geocachers post online.

The ‘hidden containers’ noted on the web page turn out to be prescription bottles and Tupperware thingees. I won’t spoil your fun by telling you exactly where the one in Upper Black Eddy is located, but it was pretty easy to access and contained a bunch of odds and ends—marbles, foreign coins, stuff like that—and a ‘’log,’ that is, a sheet of paper. You add your name to this when you find the Geocache, and remove one thing from the container and add another. Some of these objects, I gather, have been around the world, while others just oscillate endlessly between, say, a jar in Pohatcong and a bottle in Kingwood. It’s fascinating to contemplate if you find that sort of thing fascinating.

The one in Milford was not nearly as easy to locate as its friend in Upper Black Eddy, and the description online did not make me want to run out and find it. For one thing, the guy who hid it referred to the location as “Aragog’s Lair.” Aragog is the giant spider in the Harry Potter books.  I’ve already assured you this is not going to be a column about spiders, and it’s not, but I just want to let you know that if you’ve been under the impression there are no giant spiders in Milford, well, you might want to revise that impression.

Again, I don’t want to spoil your fun and tell you where this Geocache is, but you access it by (1) lowering yourself into a hole, (2) crawling along a tunnel, (3) dropping down into a sort of pit, and then (4) crawling through yet another tunnel. At the end of this tunnel you come out on the side of a hill, which means you could have skipped an awful lot of dropping and crawling, since the Geocache is located in the tunnel you have just emerged from. And by “you,” I mean “me.” By the time I came out, the tunnel was probably much easier to crawl through since about 30 pounds of it were stuck to me.

Just about the only thing that wasn’t stuck to me was the Geocache. I hadn’t caught a glimpse of it. What I had caught a glimpse of were some spiders, which I’m not going to write about, but if I were going to write about them, I’d mention they were so big that I could count their eyes, of which they each have way more than they need. The only good thing I have to say about them is that they didn’t pay much attention to me. They had apparently just eaten. I won’t say what they’d eaten, but if anybody is missing a medium size cow, write me care of this paper and perhaps I can help you find closure.

So the expedition was unsuccessful from my point of view, in that I had emerged without the Geocache and I was covered with filth. From Emma’s point of view, on the other hand, it was very successful, since I had emerged without the Geocache and I was covered with filth.

She returned to New Orleans and emailed with gentleman responsible for the Geocache, in the hope of getting more specific instructions, and he kindly obliged.

“You have to go back!” she wrote to me. “It’s there. But we thought it would be on the floor of the tunnel. This time when you’re in there, you have to look UP.”

I’m thinking ‘no.’

tank  time  share


Picarillo, Calvano and I thought of the World War I Tank Memorial in the park as our secret club house and base of operations; we had a key to the padlock on the escape hatch located on the belly of the tank, because Calvano’s brother Duff removed the original padlock and replaced it with his own. But we weren’t the only people in town with a copy of the key. There was Duff himself, of course, and Duff’s spooky beatnik girlfriend Janine. Sometimes when we were out skulking on summer nights, the eerie flicker of candle light was visible in the ventilation holes of the tank, which meant Janine was there. Usually she was alone, but sometimes she was with her beatnik friends, in which case we might hear someone trying to play the bongos. (Her beatnik friends weren’t really beatniks, they were just kids pretending to be beatniks. But then so, I gather, were the actual beatniks). The next time we were in the tank, we’d usually find a puddle of melted wax or incense sticks, or even one of those little booklets in the City Lights Pocket Poets series by Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti.


The tank at least did not stink after the beatniks had been there, which was not always the case: copies of the key had also fallen into the hands of some of Duff’s other friends, and from there to some friends of his friends, and so on. Sometimes when Calvano and I entered the tank on a Saturday morning, there would be empty beer cans or hot rod magazines someone had left behind. This seemed very un-Beatnik to his, so we assumed the original owners of this debris had been several steps removed from Duff and Janine. Once we found a tube of Ben Gay and some surgical tape, a discovery that puzzles me to this day.


Once, after being away for a couple of weeks, we found a half empty carton of milk that had solidified into a cube of green something-or-other. Who knows how long the metamorphosis from milk to mutant super yogurt had taken; in the summer, the interior of the tank could reach 150 degrees by early afternoon. We didn’t want to deal with the carton, but we understood it had to go or the tank would be even more uninhabitable than it already was, so Calvano and I each gave Picarillo 50 cents to dispose of it. “Okay, but what do you want me to do with it?” he asked.


“I’ll give you another 50 cents if you don’t tell us,” I said.


So although we thought of the tank as “ours,” we understood it was more like a time share. And we also understood that we were the only ones who were willing to tolerate the brutal daytime temperatures, so we welcomed the most intense heat waves. Our brains were fried, but what the heck. They were just brains. We didn’t mind the beatniks hanging out in the tank at night, or the drunken frat boys, even whoever left the Ben Gay (which may have stunk worse than the carton of monster milk). We didn’t mind anything except the giant spider.


There had always been spiders in the tank because there are always spiders everywhere, and the three of us had always had a grudging admiration for spiders, anyway. Webs were really cool and they took care of the flies, which were far more annoying than spiders.


Up to a point, that is. Because once a spider reaches a certain size, it ceases to be an unobtrusive little bug that spins cool webs and controls the fly population and becomes kind of scary. I’m not sure what the precise size is when that happens, but this particular spider was way past it. This fellow was the size of my hand, and as Calvano said, “His legs are hairier than Duff’s, and he’s got a lot more of them.” On the spider’s first day sharing the tank with us, none of us would sit with our back to him. We told each other how cool the web was, but we were just saying that because we didn’t want to get the spider mad. It was a very sloppy web, and there were a lot of bugs in it, and some of them were pretty big. “What if the next time we come back the web is bigger?” said Picarillo. “If we bust it up, he’s not gonna like it.” Calvano nodded. “What if the next time we come back,” continued Picarillo, “the spider is twice as big?”


Calvano told Picarillo he was an idiot, and I snorted, and we got out of there as soon as somebody came up with a plausible reason so we didn’t have to admit we were scared of the spider. We spent a week hoping the drunken frat boys would stumble into the tank one night and engage the spider in a drunken battle that finished them all off, like in “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” where the Wolfman grabs Dracula as he changes into a bat and tries to fly away and they both hurtle down into off the tower onto the rocks below. (Which shouldn’t have killed either of them since it didn’t involve silver bullets or wooden stakes). We considered going back into the tank with cans of Lysol and a light. This guy Ray assured us that if you sprayed the Lysol at an open flame it transformed your Lysol can into a flame thrower, but when he demonstrated it, the can blew up and set the Walker’s hedge on fire, so we decided against it. We checked the tank and the web had indeed grown, although we didn’t actually go inside, so we couldn’t say for sure about the spider.


“Well,” said Calvano, “It’ll die in the winter, probably.”


“What if it lays eggs first?” asked Picarillo. Calvano told Picarillo he was an idiot. We were resigned to losing the tank for at least the rest of the summer.


Then one night after some very successful skulking, we noticed the candle light flickering in the ventilation holes of the tank. We sat down on the big memorial tablet that dedicated the tank to the memory of Little Falls’ World War I veterans and waited for Janine to come out. She was in there for nearly 20 minutes. When she came out Calvano asked her if she was okay. She said she was fine, but her knee was a little cramped. She’d been sitting in something called Lotus Position and she wasn’t that good at it yet. “Did you see a, um, spider in there? A really big one?” asked Calvano.


“Oh yeah. There was a huge one. I think it was a wood spider. I think it’s too dry for him in there. I put him in the bushes over there. He’ll like it better, I think.”


“You put him there??”


“I let him crawl on the wine bottle and I brought him outside. It took me like five minutes to clean up that web, though. It wasn’t a nice one.”


We nodded in the dark. She was even spookier than we thought. We could never ever have girlfriends as cool as Janine. Never.

The Air Conditioner


I don’t know if there’s a real ‘obesity epidemic’ or not, but if there is, I put the blame on air conditioning. When I was growing up, nobody had air conditioning, and nobody was fat except this guy Dolph who owned a gas station. He wore suspenders and a belt. We used to make bets about whether the belt was going to be over the paunch or under the paunch on any given day. He sat on a stool next to the pumps fanning himself with something that looked like a giant ping pong paddle and was an object lesson on why it was a bad idea to weigh 300 pounds if you live in a climate where the temperature gets above 75 degrees. Now everything is air conditioned and you can weigh whatever you want; even the kitchen is air conditioned. You can tip the scales at 350 pounds and cook dinner and not even break a sweat. By cracky.


I was already in high school when my dad decided to air condition all three bed rooms. He’d been thinking about it because he’d recently gotten a raise, and it was a broiling hot summer, and I’d grown two inches since the beginning of the year and he (mistakenly) thought I was now capable of heavy lifting.


So my dad bought three air conditioners. They were ‘slightly used.’ A law office in town had moved to a new location, and rather than schlep the old air conditioners, they sold them to my dad for a song. These were massive industrial sized monsters, probably 5 or 6 years old even then, and it took the two of us more than an hour to get them upstairs, and nearly as long to get them in the windows. The veins in our arms were standing out in such high relief you could pluck them like guitar strings. It was really not a two person job. It was a six or seven person job, and one of them should have been a crane operator. Nonetheless, we did it.


The air conditioners were insanely loud, but they did cool the rooms off, and they did it fast. I spent the rest of the summer in heretofore undreamed of comfort. It was like living in “The Jetsons.”


And then, some time in the fall, we took the air conditioners out and hauled them up to the attic. The attic, even on a cool October evening, was about 150 degrees. I did not look forward to retrieving the air conditioners.


Yet, come the spring, retrieve them we did. In the interim my sister had married and moved out, I had moved into her old room, and my old room had been taken over by my father as a kind of study; he installed a roll top desk and a recliner and a TV set and spent at least part of every evening there, so there was no question about skipping that air conditioner.


I don’t know whether the air conditioners were all the same size or not. Probably not, and they may account for why in later years my father marked them with a grease pencil so we’d know which one went in what room. That was unnecessary in the case of the one that went in the study, because will we were trying to jam it in the window, we misjudged something and it went hurtling down to the drive way. “Awwwwww,” said my father. It sounded like he was winding up to a memorable outburst, but that was it: Awwwwww. We looked at it for a while, and my father said it didn’t look like it was badly damaged. I said it had fallen from a second story window. He said it had bounced off a lot of other stuff on the way down and wasn’t going very fast when it hit the pavement. We went down, and to my uneducated eye it looked like it was a goner, but my father insisted it was fine, the only damage was cosmetic. I didn’t want to haul it all the way back upstairs, and said so, and my father said he’d do it himself then, and I was still capable of being shamed back then so we brought it back up, and put it in the window, and carefully sealed it in place, and only then did my father plug it in. It made a noise like a cement mixer. “It’s fine,” he said. I said it didn’t sound fine to me. He asked me when I graduated from air conditioner repair school, and I said I didn’t, and he said that was what he thought. “Yeah, it’s cooling off nicely now,” he said.


It wasn’t cooling off nicely. My dad spent that summer sitting in that sweltering room with the air conditioner making its horrible noise and the TV turned up as loud as it would go, which wasn’t loud enough. Parts of it fell off when we took it out that fall and dragged it up to the attic, and other parts fell off when we brought it back down the following spring, so it sounded different the next summer. Not better, but different, and it still didn’t cool anything off. My dad refused to replace it until it didn’t run at all, and that took six years. By that point the air conditioner and my dad were like old army buddies. He wanted to keep it where it was and stick the new air conditioner in a different window, but my mother told him he was crazy and it came out.


“Well,” he said, as we pushed it to the curb, “we got our money’s worth outta that one.”



“What is that?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. ‘That’ was a weird little ‘beep’ that went off every 20 or 30 seconds while Mulberry Street Joey Clams was trying to draft an advertisement for the Custom Neon Sign Shop Summer Blow Out. The beep made concentration difficult and after more than 45 minutes, Mulberry Street Joey Clams had not been able to come up with any copy beyond ‘Come One Come All / Big Custom Neon Sign Shop Summer Blow Out.’ This may not have been entirely due to the beeping. Since we made our Neon Signs to order, we didn’t really have anything to sell at the Big Summer Blow Out, aside from several misspelled or otherwise defective signs.


“You think it’s the cat?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“No,” I said. We had a cat living in the shop. We rarely saw it. Mulberry Street Joey Clams acquired the cat in the hope that it would sleep in the window and attract customers, but it didn’t. We left food and water out for it, and every now and then it would sudden appear from nowhere and hurl itself at Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ face. We didn’t know what it did between attacks, but I was pretty sure it didn’t beep. Mulberry Street Joey Clams wasn’t nearly as sure, and grabbed the aluminum baseball bat we kept behind the door. Just in case.


 Finally I discovered the source of the beeping. “It’s the smoke detector,” I said.


“Why is it beepin’?”


“I guess it needs new batteries,” I said.


Mulberry Street Joey Clams swung the bat. “Not no more,” he said.


“No, I guess not,” I agreed.


The Custom Neon Sign Shop had already weathered one fire—caused by Mulberry Street Joey Clams replacing all the fuses in the fuse box with pennies—and I felt a functioning smoke detector on the premises was an excellent idea. Especially considering that we worked with highly flammable gases, acetylene torches, and so forth. I said as much as I swept up the remains of the smoke detector. “And I believe they’re required by law,” I concluded.


“What is this? Russia??” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. “Well, if the law says we gotta have one, the landlord can put one in.”


“I think the landlord already did.”


“It doesn’t work,” he pointed out. I couldn’t think of a suitable reply. His Uncle Danny was our landlord, de facto if not de jure, and I suspected he would not be happy about this turn of events.


We had our Big Summer Blow Out, which was a blow out indeed. The Mets slipped into 4th place. And then one Wednesday morning the fire inspector dropped by. He asked where the smoke detector was. Mulberry Street Joey Clams said in all likelihood it was on Staten Island. The fire inspector slapped a red sticker on our window, which gave us two weeks to correct the problem. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and the fire inspector had a very long conversation. Mulberry Street Joey Clams asked if we had to go out to the Staten Island landfill and bring back the exact same smoke detector, or could we get a different one. The fire inspector said a different one would be acceptable.


“We got him in a corner now,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams when the inspector was gone. “We can make our own smoke detector. It’ll be a lot cheaper than if we have to buy one.”


“No it won’t.”


“Listen. You remember that show on TV about the propellers?”




“There was this show on TV about propellers. See, in World War I, they had these crappy planes with double decker wings and stuff, and they’re shooting machine guns at each other, okay? But the machine guns are mounted like next to the propeller, and every 10th bullet or something would hit the propeller blade and go bouncing around and pilots were getting killed. This is the Germans. So they take this engineer, and they tell him figure out a way to set this up so NO bullets hit the propeller blade. You got 48 hours. Do it and you get a huge bonus, don’t do it and we shoot you. And he figures out the machine gun barrel and the propeller shaft should be the same thing, and no bullets would hit the blades and that’s what happened, and then there was this show about this monkey. The monkey could do sign language, and it wore diapers. That killed me. Anyway, that’s how we work this. You figure out how to make a smoke detector so we don’t have to buy one.”


“Or you’ll shoot me?”


“No! Who said anything about that?”


“I thought you did.”


“You didn’t see this show about the propeller?”




“Did you see the one about the monkey? I think it was a monkey chick. It’s hard to tell. But they point is, you got 2 weeks.”


“Or what?”


“What is it with you and all this ‘or what’ stuff? Just do it!”


As it happened, it was unnecessary because Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ Uncle Danny happened to notice the violation sticker and installed another smoke detector. “Next time the battery goes, buy another battery,” he said, slapping Mulberry Street Joes Clams in the back of the head.


“Why don’t you just take care of the fire inspector?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“’Take care of the Fire Inspector.’ Do you know what a cost benefit analysis is?” asked Uncle Danny. Mulberry Street Joey Clams gave a snort that was supposed to mean ‘don’t be ridiculous, I know all about it,’ but which Uncle Danny interpreted (correctly) as ‘don’t be ridiculous, I’m pig-ignorant.’ “I’ll tell you what it means. It means a 65 cent battery is cheaper than a 5 thousand dollar bribe.”


Later on, Mulberry Street Joey Clams told me if I invented the alternative smoke detector, we could still save a ton of money, if it didn’t run on batteries. I said I didn’t have any idea how to do that.


“You should see that show about the propellers,” he said. “You’d unnerstand right away.”


“No,” I said.


“All right, fine. But you should see the monkey in the diapers, anyway. It’ll kill you.”




Early one morning during the summer between 5th and 6th grade, Calvano decided he would wake me up by throwing pebbles at my bedroom window. Since my bedroom window was open, and his aim was excellent, he ended up throwing pebbles into my room. Unfortunately this was the Age of The Shag Carpet, and while my mother had her reservation about many aspects of the popular culture, she had none about shag carpeting, so most of Calvano’s pebbles landed soundlessly in the harvest-tone deep pile fabric that coated the floor of my room. He says this went on for half an hour. I think it was more like 5 minutes, but I was cutting up my feet on hidden pebbles on visits home from college ten years later, so maybe he’s right.


Eventually one of the pebbles hit my headboard and I opened one eye, and then another one made a ‘ping’ noise when it bounced off the jar of formaldehyde on my night stand in which I kept a cow brain. That brought me fully awake. I checked to make sure the cow brain was okay, and then stumbled to the window, stepping on the first of perhaps 7,000 pebbles buried in the shag. “Wuddaya?” I said.


“Get dressed,” said Calvano. “I discovered something important about Picarillo.” He waved his notebook. “This changes everything.”


Five minutes and three pebbles later I was outside. The morning was still fairly cool, but that wouldn’t last long. We double timed it to the park and climbed into the World War I Tank Memorial, which was an actual World War I tank on a concrete slab near the Wilmore Road end of the Park. In theory, the tank was sealed up but teenagers had chipped through the solder generations earlier. Now the town had it padlocked. Or rather, they thought they did. The town padlock was sleeping with the fishes in the Passaic River. The current lock was the property of Calvano’s brother, Duff, and we had the key. The tank was our Base of Operations.


Calvano opened his notebook and moved the page into a column of sunlight under a ventilation hole. “Item: we told Picarillo he had to tuck his pants into his socks on Columbus Day or he’d get in trouble. He didn’t believe us. I told him to suit himself. He said we were crazy. He showed up at school on Columbus Day with the pants tucked into his socks.”


“I remember that. And he wouldn’t untuck them until Mrs. Ruffalo asked him why his pants were tucked into his socks.”


“Key-rect. Item: I told Picarillo my mom just called and said he had to mop up the mess from the bottle of milk I broke in the breeze way. He said she wouldn’t say that. I said she’ll be here in ten minutes and then you’ll find out whether she’d say that. He mopped up the mess in the breeze way.”




Calvano shut the book. “I have, all together, 14 items of a similar nature. My conclusion: If you tell Picarillo to do anything twice, no matter how crazy, he will do it. In fact, he will not be able to not do it. As long as you remember to tell him that otherwise he’s going to get in trouble.” He patted the book. “Here is the proof. So there’s only one question left: What incredibly stupid thing do we want him to do?”




“Of course I’m sure,” said Calvano. “It was in the paper.” He and I had walked over to Picarillo’s house wearing rubber masks. Not, of course, our deluxe-over-the-head-latex-werewolf-mask-with-movable-mouth-and-real-hair. Just a couple of cheap rubber monster masks.


“That’s right,” I said. “If you want to go trick-or-treating on Halloween this year, you’ve to qualify by July 14th.”


“That makes no sense,” said Picarillo.


“We don’t make the laws,” Calvano said wearily. “We’re just telling you how it is. You’ve got just a couple of days. It’s not that big a deal, Picarillo. You’ve just got to show up at the designated Halloween judge’s house in your costume and do your stuff. You ask for a treat, and then they either give you one or they don’t. If they don’t, you do the trick. Simple. It takes two minutes. Then you’re set.”


“We don’t want to go trick or treating without you,” I said. “But if you don’t do this, it’s out of our hands.”


“Who’s the judge?” asked Picarillo.


Calvano flipped through is notebook. “Let’s see… your last name starts with a ‘P,’ right? Ah, here it is: ‘For letters H through P, the judge is Pete Cook.”


“Awww!” Picarillo was ‘awwwing’ because Pete Cook was a highly unlikely person to be the judge of anything except, perhaps, a sterno-tasting contest. He was 78 years old but looked much, much older. He knew swear words nobody else knew. We had once seen him walking down the street one Sunday wearing a tie and jacket and boxer shorts. The boxer shorts, like Pete, had seen better days. He was everything we wanted to be when we grew up, but he was not a person we would want judging our fitness for trick or treating.


“Tough luck, Picarillo. I hear he demands really excellent tricks.”


“Yeah,” said Calvano. “Like maybe you should, I don’t know, paint the side of his house six different colors or something.” We had no idea what Pete’s reaction to such a paint job might be, but we knew it would be remarkable.


So with great trepidation, Picarillo put on the Deluxe werewolf mask. It was like watching a gladiator suiting up for what he knows will be his final tragic battle. He trudged dutifully towards Pete Cook’s house. Calvano and I followed at a distance. “Maybe this is a bad idea,” I said.




“I mean, what if Pete kills him?”


“We better not let him do the paint thing.”


“Well, he hasn’t got any paint with him.”


“Maybe we should get him some paint.”


“But not let him do it.”




Picarillo rang Pete Cook’s doorbell. There was a pause. The door opened. “Trick or treat,” said Picarillo.


Pete Cook stared at him, blinking. Finally, he said, “I forgot.” He ducked back inside. Then he came out and shoved something in Picarillo’s hand. He ducked back inside again, and pulled down all his shades. Picarillo stood there looking at the thing in his hand.


“Betcha fifty cents it’s a dead rat,” said Calvano.


“No bet,” I said.


It was a twenty dollar bill.


“Does this mean I get to go trick or treating?” said Picarillo.


Calvano licked his lips.


“Possibly,” he said.



A couple of months ago my daughter Emma moved to New Orleans, following 8 months spent living in a tree house in Holland township. This evening I interviewed her and her friend, Beretta Mego, about her first weeks in New Orleans.


ME: Where are you living?


EMMA: On the bayou.


ME: I mean, in an apartment, or a house, or…


EMMA: A house. And they don’t say ‘buy-oo,’ they say ‘bay-uh,’ like Bubba in Forrest Gump.


ME: What about your job?


EMMA: I shot a gun.


ME: At work??


EMMA: I’m a really good shot, it turns out. What?


ME: Where did you shoot the gun?


EMMA: For crying out loud, at a target range.


ME: Well, that’s what I…


EMMA:  No, we were on the street. It’s like Dodge City. We were eliminating the riff raff.


ME: Okay, okay…


EMMA: Drunk Erin was down here visiting and she came, too. She is not a good shot. And, she got drunk on Bourbon Street.


ME: How appropriate. Or ironic. But…


EMMA: She couldn’t hold her liquor. She was unfamiliar with grain alcohol. She’d never had it before.


BERETTA MEGO: Yes she had!


EMMA: Nope. Strictly Heineken until she got here.


ME: Well, if she was drunk, no wonder she was a bad shot.


BERETTA MEGO: No, we went to the target range first.


ME: Did you shoot, too, Mego?


BERETTA MEGO: Well, yes. It was my gun.


ME: A Beretta?


BERETTA MEGO: Yes. It’s got a walnut grip and a polished slide.


EMMA: She hit the heart three times. So anyway, after she got drunk Erin bought 38 dollar Tarot cards, so when she gets back to New York she’s going to fake a bad reading with Ingrid and tell her she’s going to die a virgin!


ME: Um…


EMMA: And Lucy had her puppies. She’s an Australian Shepherd, but the puppies are mixed.


BERETTA MEGO: The father is a yellow lab—mostly. Also some Catahoula.


ME: Um?


BERETTA MEGO: Catahoulas are the state dog of Louisiana. This one is a tramp. He’s been involved with a lot of dogs in the neighborhood. And he’s none too picky…


EMMA: I wanted to name one of the puppies “Puppy Panettiere” but they wouldn’t let me.


BERETTA MEGO: It has a blue merle coat.


ME: ‘Planet-iera?’


EMMA: PANETTIERE, like Hayden Panettiere on “Heroes.”


ME: IS that who it’s named after?


EMMA: No, because they won’t let me name it that, but if they HAD let me name it that, it would have been named after her, yes. Although it’s a male puppy. So we just finished the “We Still Believe You Winona” Festival, which is why Drunk Erin was down here. It was a kind of truncated festival this year. We showed the worst Winona Ryder movie I ever saw—maybe—“1969,” with Robert Downey Jr. He takes LSD and takes off all his clothes in the high school gym. I am not watching this Winona movie again. But, on the other hand, the receptionist from my law firm came to the festival.


ME: How did you get a job at a law firm?


EMMA: What do you mean?


ME: You didn’t tell them you were a lawyer, did you?


EMMA: I’m not going to answer that. I will say that at the office blood drive, I was assaulted. This lady stuck me in the arm seven times looking for the vein, and accused me (falsely) of being dehydrated. She said, “This is the South. This isn’t New York.”


ME: What does that mean?


EMMA: Apparently she thinks up north we don’t drink water. She said she couldn’t find my vein because I was dehydrated. You see how this all ties together? But in fact she couldn’t find my vein because she was morbidly obese and her cellulose got in the way. Oh, and Beretta Mego mispronounces “TV.”


BERETTA MEGO: It’s two letters. You can’t mispronounce it.


EMMA: And yet. She puts the emphasis on the ‘T’ instead of the ‘V.’


BERETTA MEGO: I looked it up and it doesn’t matter.


EMMA: The fact that you looked it up means you were unsure of the pronunciation. It shows a lack of confidence. Therefore I win. And, she wanted to have two Tarot card readings.


BERETTA MEGO: I thought if you had two readings and they came out different it would prove it was all nonsense. But I got a combination Tarot reading and palm reading instead.


EMMA: Her Aunt Rhoda paid a thousand dollars to get a phone reading by Sylvia Browne. Do you think Montel has to pay for readings by Sylvia Browne?


BERETTA MEGO: I doubt it. Anyway, Aunt Rhoda got Sylvia Browne’s son instead of Sylvia.


EMMA: Laurie is trying to lose like 80 pounds and she’s on 7 different diet pills. She has worse eating habits than me. I find that fascinating.


ME: Didn’t Laurie have puppies?


BERETTA MEGO: No, that’s Lucy. Laurie is Rhoda’s daughter. Should we talk about The Compound? I can’t stand to be here. There’s all these ducks.


EMMA: Never mind The Compound. You need to tell people that “The Other Boleyn Girl” isn’t as bad as it looks, and that Natalie Portman has a smirk in the middle that earns it an extra star.


ME: Wait. ‘Extra star,’ got it.


EMMA: Michelle gave it just two stars, but that’s because she has no soul.


ME: Who’s Michelle?


EMMA: We have to go. Goodbye.

A Friend in the Press


It was my second day on the job at the Passaic County I.D. Bureau and at first I thought the fat guy was being friendly. He was leaning against the edge of my cubicle fiddling with the buttons of his vest with a weird little smile on his face, asking me what my name was and how things were going, and how did I like the place so far, and he never looked directly at me, he just kept smiling and fiddling with the buttons. He had to fiddle because he couldn’t fasten them; from the look of things he hadn’t been able to fasten them for at least 40 pounds. “Good, good,” he said. “Listen, I’m in charge of getting a present for Jacques. Nah, you haven’t met him—he’s getting a hernia operation, so we’re gonna get him a nice card and maybe a bottle of wine or something.” I didn’t say anything, so he finally had to look at me. “Hey, I understand if you don’t wanna contribute. Never met the guy, you’re new here…”


“…Haven’t gotten a paycheck yet…”


“Right, right. Of course there’s an old saying. ‘You gotta go along to get along.’ But it’s totally up to you. Young guy like you, you wouldn’t know, but believe me, hernia’s a killer.” He shook his head and went back to his buttons and his weird little smile. I reached into my pocket. He was looking at his buttons again so he must have heard the crinkle of folding money. “Everybody’s putting in five bucks,” he said.


“I’ve only got seven,” I said.


“So you got two left over,” he said. “Thanks. I’m Milt, by the way.” This last sentence was barely audible, as he was walking away with his head down, elaborately uncrumpling my money. My ex-money.


A few days later I was hosing down the autopsy room when Milt poked his head in. “Did I leave the donuts in here?” he said.


“Dr. Fergusson had a box of donuts, on the counter over there.”


“Those are the ones. Aw, no crullers.”


“Hey, did you want me to sign the card or anything?”


“What card?”


“The card for that guy with the hernia operation.”


Milt looked puzzled, then enlightened, then delighted. “No, no, that’s fine. Jacques and you never met, so…” he bit into a donut, said something unintelligible, and left.


By the end of the day I had established to my satisfaction that no one else had contributed any money to the Jacques fund, and that in fact no one named Jacques had ever worked at the I. D. Bureau.


I had also established— ‘to my satisfaction’ seems the wrong way to put it, since I was tremendously unsatisfied about it—that my superiors in the I.D. Bureau were both aware of Milt’s activities and unconcerned about them. One told me I’d learned a valuable lesson, and it was cheap at the price. “He stole five dollars from a teenager!” I sputtered. “It’s five lousy dollars,” said my boss. “For cripes sake, here.” He tossed a five on the desk. “I don’t want your five,” I said. “I want my five.” “Fine, be an idiot,” he said. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I spent the next week fantasizing elaborate, absurd revenge fantasies, and telling everyone I met the story. I didn’t tell as many people the week after that, because so many people I told the first week agreed that I was an idiot for not taking my boss’s five dollar bill and forgetting the whole thing.


But one person who did not agree was Coach Donnelly. I bumped into him in the parking lot of the Willowbrook Mall, where he was trying to get his dog, Rusty, unstuck. Coach Donnelly’s rear window wouldn’t roll down all the way, and Rusty was always getting stuck in it. I moved Rusty’s left paw as per the Coach’s instructions and Rusty was loose. I hadn’t seen Coach Donnelly for three or four years. He was one of my high school gym teachers, and he was memorable for (among other things) having a metal plate in his head. The story was that he got it in the Korean War, but Rusty also had a metal plate in his head, so I had my doubts about the story. In fact, I had spread a counter story that Coach and Rusty got their plates because they liked to retreat to opposite corners of the living room and them charge into each other, skull to skull. Anyhow, I told him the story and he suggested that I write the whole thing up and send it to the newspaper as a letter to the editor. I said they’d never print it. He said you never knew what these crazy newspaper people would do. “Just let me take a look at it before you send it in,” he said. “I can have my kid look at it. He’s a lawyer, and he’ll make sure you don’t say something that’ll get you in deep water. Whether they print it or not, you’ll probably feel better just writing it down.”


Do I wrote the whole story, and typed it up, and brought it over to Coach Donnelly’s place. A couple of days later I was filing fingerprints and the P.A. said that Milt and I were to report to the boss’s office at once.


“This gentleman is from the newspaper,” said the boss. “He dropped by as a courtesy to see if the facts in this here letter are accurate, before they print it. He is a reasonable man and Milt, you give this boy his five dollars and this thing is never gonna see the light of day.”


“The hell with that,” said Milt. Milt and the boss had some more words. The boss showed Milt my letter. Milt said if that letter was printed he’d sue. The man from the newspaper said, “Our lawyers have looked at it and I can tell you we would absolutely love you to do that.” Milt gave me my five dollars. The man from the newspaper said it was good to know a young fellow could find work these days in an office where his boss would back him up and my boss said, why yes it is, and the man from the newspaper said I’m glad we all understand each other, and gave my boss the letter. He told me not to spend that five dollars all in one place, and he’d love to stay around and chat, but his dog was probably stuck in the window and he’d better go get him out.

I the Jury


According to Reuters, last week a drug trial in Sydney Australia was stopped because several of the jurors had been playing Sudoku when they were supposed to be listening to testimony. I can only sympathize. With the jurors, that is.


Many years ago when I lived in Brooklyn, I was summoned to jury duty. In the past I had always been excused, thanks to an excellent collection of t-shirts with memorable phrases (“Kill ‘Em All and Let God Sort ‘Em Out,” “Roy Cohn for President,” etc.), but this time the weather was inclement and I wore a sweater. Thus I became Juror Number 7. That was bad enough, but it was a civil case, a monumentally boring breach of contract thing, made even more boring by the fact that I decided right away that the plaintiff was guilty. He looked almost exactly like this guy George Hill who beat me up in 7th grade. When it was verdict time, this boy-o was going to the slammer if I had anything to say about it.


Whenever the trial was in recess, Juror Number 8 kept talking to me. For one thing, he didn’t like his number. Eight, he explained, was a sissy number. I stupidly asked him why he thought that, and he told me that all numbers had colors, and “8” was sort of pink, or maybe fuchsia. He wanted to trade numbers with me. I refused, although in retrospect if we had gone to the judge right then and asked to trade numbers because his was too pink, I probably would have been home in time to catch the Mets game. There were a lot of criminal (i.e., interesting) trials proceeding throughout the courthouse and Juror 8 would point out some youthful suspect being handcuffed or unhand cuffed as he entered or left a courtroom, and Juror 8 would say, “Where is their parents?” The 5th time he said this I said, “You know what? Shut up.” “It’s a free country,” said Juror 8. “Oh yeah?” said Juror 3. “Then what are we doing here? I ask you.” So from then on Juror 8 would direct his “Where is their parents?” to Juror 3, who would respond with a rhetorical question and an ‘I ask you’ chaser. They both seemed content, but, as events were to show, Juror 8 still coveted my (un-pink) number.


Sudoku had not yet crossed the ocean so I was forced to find some other way to occupy myself during actual testimony. So I began making lists. It was something I used to do to occupy my idle hours. List all the states that border Kentucky, or all the Philip K. Dick books with a floating eyeball on the cover, or whatever. It relaxed me. Although in Australia jurors are apparently permitted to take notes during a trial, in Brooklyn they are not, and during the next recess I was asked to see the judge in his chambers. Judge Hissyfit [not his real name] asked me didn’t I remember being instructed not to take notes? I said yes I did, and I was not taking notes. I was making a list. He asked to see it. What is this? asked the judge. A list of certain Peter Lorre movies, I explained. Just the ones where he’s bald. The judge, to his credit I think, ignored this and said I was supposed to be paying attention to the trial. Well, your honor, I said, I pretty much have it figured out already. Oh really? he said. I thought if I mentioned that I was going to vote to fry the plaintiff because he looked like George Hill the judge might get the wrong idea, so I told him something my Uncle Tug once told me. If you’re on a jury in a criminal case, said my Uncle Tug, you vote ‘guilty’ because dollars to donuts the guy done something. And if it’s a civil case, you find for the defendant, because otherwise somebody’s insurance company is gonna shell out big bucks and it’s just gonna drive up your rates. Is your uncle by any chance a lawyer, asked the judge, or God forbid, a judge? Actually, I said, I’ve never been able to quite figure out what he did for a living, but I don’t think so. Let’s be grateful for Little Miracles, said the judge. Hey, who told you I was writing? I asked. It was Juror Number 8, wasn’t it? The judge said it really wasn’t important. What was important was that I didn’t write down anything else and I paid attention to the trial and forgot about my Uncle Tug’s advice, because he’d surely been joking.


He hadn’t been joking, but it’s a terrible idea to contradict a judge about anything, so I didn’t. I just said, Juror Number 8 wants you to throw me off the jury because he wants my number. The judge blinked. As a matter of fact, said the judge, I believe he did mention that he would like to be Juror 7 if it was at all possible. My God. As I left the judge told the clerk he wanted to see the two attorneys.


When the trial resumed, the judge announced that the parties had come to an agreement and our services were no longer required and he thanked us, and we were dismissed. I never received another jury duty notice while I lived in Brooklyn. And the plaintiff, who believe me would still be cooling his heels in Sing Sing if it had gone to the jury, is undoubtedly still at large.

The End of the Malibu


I can’t quite bring myself to write about the tragic demise of my 2000 Echo yet, but I think I can write about some other cars in my past. And when the psychic scars have healed, or at least scabbed over a little, I’ll bring you up to speed on the Echo.


One evening in 1970-something or other, my sister, suspecting (correctly) that her boyfriend was two-timing her, went to spy on him.


There was a party somewhere, and my sister cruised past at 7 or 8 miles per hour, craning her neck and staring out the side window, straining to see through the walls like Superman.


Unlike Superman, she couldn’t. And also unlike Superman, she suffered some minor injuries when her car plowed into some stationary object.


Far more important than her piddling injuries, though, was the effect on the car. It was a ’55 Bel Air and when it hit whatever it hit, it crumpled like a wad of newspaper.


Now, of course, even a wadded up ’55 Bel Air is worth its weight in platinum, and arguably the most exquisite car ever built in America, but at the time it seemed more like an ugly, clunky car from the fifties (we called it “the Bomb,” when that was a term of derision rather than approval) and it was junked.


Along with my mom throwing out my copy of Amazing Fantasy # 15, this was the darkest moment in my family’s history.


The Bel Air was replaced with a ’68 Malibu. Because it was a wrong shade of green (not the spiffy bottle green her heart was set on, but a drab shade midway between olive and that piece of cheese that fell behind the breadbox eight weeks ago), my sister showed the Malibu little affection—i.e., no oil changes, tune ups, etc.


Within the year, it had developed some interesting idiosyncrasies, at which point she sold it to me for a dollar.


I was rooked.


For instance, if you turned on the headlights, the batteries died. It didn’t stall, it died. You needed a new battery. Another thing: flames shot out of the tail pipe if the left blinker was on and it was in second gear.


Inspired by a Paleolithic vaudeville routine [PATIENT: Doctor, it hurts when I do this. DOCTOR: Don’t do that. Five dollars.], I did not turn on the headlights, use the left hand signal, or drive in second gear.


Some of my friends would not get in the Malibu, while others fought for the privilege.


Well, as the proverb says, “’68 Malibu’s die a thousand deaths, ’55 Bel Airs die but once.”


The Malibu died for the 1000th (and final) time on June 18th, 1974. It happened like this: my friend Jay was coming home from college for the summer and asked if I would pick him up at Newark Airport. I met him at the terminal. He stopped dead in the parking lot.

“My God! You brought the Malibu!” Don’t worry about a thing, I told him. Just get in the back seat. “Why?”


“Because,” I explained, “when you get on the Turnpike, you get a ticket, and if I stop the car, it’ll stall, so I‘ll just cruise by slowly and grab it, but you be at the rear window in case I miss. Because if I slow down below 15 mph, it stalls. So get ready.”


Well, I missed, then he missed, then we stalled, then we started up again, then a cop motioned us to the side of the road and told me to put the headlights on, so I did, and the car died, and we called a service station and got a new battery, and I told the guy how the car died if I put the lights on, so he tried it and the car died, and we got a new battery, and he said he thought he knew what was wrong, and he fixed it, and I put the lights on and it didn’t die, and we pulled out and the guy at the service station was screaming because there was a jet of flame about 60 feet long blasting out of the tail pipe.


My brother in law the ex-cop once told me that cops stop red cars more often for speeding than other cars because a red car looks like it’s speeding even when it isn’t.


Apparently a car with a 60 foot flame shooting out the back looks like it’s going pretty fast, too, because ewe attracted a good deal of attention from the police.


When we were pulled over I shut off the ignition but the flame kept blazing away.


Jay shut off the headlights and the flame stopped.


However, by this time the left rear wheel was on fire.


The cop was pretty nice about it. By now we were in the Jersey swamps. I put the car in neutral and the cop helped us roll it into the muck just beyond the shoulder, extinguishing the wheel.


A few weeks later Jay broke up with his girl friend, got drunk, and enlisted in the paratroopers, but there’s probably no connection.



I usually take my evening constitutional when it’s still light out, but a friend of mine had kept me on the phone longer than I’d anticipated, so I ended up taking my walk in the dark. I was in fact on one of Milford’s darkest roads; the streetlamps were working only intermittently. I didn’t see the drunk until he lurched into the dim nimbus of a street light 50 or 60 yards ahead of me. He was walking away from me, and even at that distance there was no mistaking the gait: this was as drunken a lurch as I’d ever seen. He was back into the darkness almost as soon as he’d emerged from it. I slowed down a bit. From the way he was staggering, I expected to hear him heaving in the bushes at any moment. He appeared again when he set off a motion detector on someone’s garage door and was bathed in a spot light. He was still far ahead of me, still staggering. One of my sneakers scuffed the gravel as he was moving out of the light again, and I just caught the flash of his eyes glaring back at me. I’d seen that look before. Oh boy, I thought, a belligerent drunk. I thought I saw a flash of something in one of his hands. Probably a bottle. Then a car turned onto the street and the headlights swept across the belligerent drunk, who turned out to be a deer. The deer ran into the woods. I have to admit it probably wasn’t a bottle in his hand, but I maintain the deer had definitely had at least three beers more than he should have.


It never fails to amaze me that my eye will see some vague shape and my brain will add all sorts of details, as if it’s doing me a favor. I once hid behind a pillar on the West Fourth Street Subway Station for ten minutes to avoid an ex-girlfriend who turned out to be a vending machine. (If your ex-girlfriends looked like vending machines, you’d avoid them too). Once when I was digging up tulip bulbs in my garden, I noticed some guy out of the corner of my eye staring at me from the edge of the yard. Finally I snarled, “Wotta you lookin’ at?” The rhododendron did not answer. Almost everyone has had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night to see someone standing in the bedroom, who turns out to be a shirt draped over a bedpost or something. (This, by the way, is why guys tend to leave their clothing on the floor. We’re just tired of trying to get the drop on the bathrobe hanging on the door).


All of these observations are prompted by a very odd story that was all over the news this past weekend. A gentleman in Tokyo noticed that food was disappearing from his kitchen, so he installed security cameras. It turns out that a 58 year old homeless woman had been living in his apartment closet undetected for a year.


The news report says she was small, but it doesn’t say how small. I’m thinking maybe as small as those tiny singing twin princesses in the Japanese giant moth movie “Mothra.” In the movie (which is the greatest giant moth movie ever), the girls were so small that they could stand on the palm of your hand while they belted out “Mosura No Uta” (or “The Mothra Song,” as it is known in the US) (It’s sung by The Peanuts, the twin Japanese girls who played the tiny princesses in the movie) (Which I know because I own the record) If the 58 year old woman in the closet was much bigger than that, I’m not really sure how she managed to live in this guy’s apartment for a year without him figuring it out.


On the other hand, maybe he saw this 58 year old woman standing in his bedroom and his brain told him, “It’s a just bathrobe hanging on the door, go back to sleep.” If he’d adopted the American method of dropping all his clothes on the floor, she wouldn’t have lasted three days, and he wouldn’t spent a year wondering what the heck happened to all the SpaghettiO’s.


Maybe this sort of thing is much more common than we know. Maybe there is a middle-aged tiny Japanese woman living in my very own apartment closet. If she’s not here someplace, where do my paper clips disappear to?


If she is here, what does she want with all those paper clips?





The first time anyone called me “passive-aggressive,” I was working as the manager of the Guild 50th movie theater in Manhattan, right around the corner from Radio City Music Hall. Not long before closing one night the gentleman who owned the Guild dropped by and told me to hose down a garbage can before I left. I’m sure there was an excellent reason why the garbage can needed to be hosed down (there always is), but I told him I would rather not do it. He told me to do it anyway. I said, “Consider it done.” He slapped me on the upper arm and said, “Atta boy,” and went home. The next day he showed up and did a triple take at the garbage can in question, which I had of course not hosed down. “Dammit,” he said, “You told me you’d hose it down!” “No,” I said, “I said, ‘consider it done.’ And, sir,” I pointed out, “you  seem not to be considering it done.” That’s when he called me ‘passive-aggressive.’ So I bit him.


Well, not really—not that night, anyway—but the ‘passive-aggressive’ label truly did confuse me. After all, he was the one who said he was going to do something and then didn’t do it. If anybody should have been called some snotty five-syllable name, it was him, not me. But over the years, various other people have called me ‘passive-aggressive,’ and eventually I realized I couldn’t bite them all, so I decided to find out what it really means.


So I kept my ears open for 25 or 30 years, and finally one afternoon Dr. Phil was—counseling? treating? annoying? – this married couple. The wife kept telling her husband to do all this stuff around the house, and he’d say “Yes, dear,” and then it wouldn’t get done. He might start it, but he would never finish it. She was at her wit’s end. Dr. Phil said it sounded like a case of ‘passive-aggressive versus aggressive-aggressive.’ My ears perked up.


So that was it. ‘Passive-aggressive’ was a good thing. It was how this poor husband got out of doing all this stupid stuff his crazy wife wanted him to do. Yet, all the people who called me passive-aggressive seemed to think it was an insult. Go figure.


Because, let’s face it, the world is full of people who will not take ‘no’ for an answer. A lot of them will even tell you so, in exactly those words. And when somebody won’t take no for an answer, there’s only one thing to do: say yes, and then forget about it.


And yet, when you do, they act like you’re the crazy one. Or they say, “I’m telling you to do this for the last time…” And you think, ‘Phew! About time!’ But of course, as soon as they realize you still aren’t doing whatever stupid thing they want you to do, they forget all about that promise not to tell you again. They’re perfectly happy to tell you to do it again, this time with the veins sticking out on the forehead and one eye three times bigger than the other, like something in the margins of MAD Magazine. The only way to handle this sort of behavior is: tell them ‘yes’ and forget about it until they go away.


And, incredibly, this perfectly rational way of dealing with—what’s the technical term?—pushy morons gets you labelled “passive aggressive.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls it ‘Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder.’ PAPD. And it lists a whole batch of behaviors to look out for including:

Disorder? This is the behavior that I aspire to. After it checking out, I hope and pray that someday I will be worthy of the label Passive Aggressive. Disorder indeed! You might as well say that Bill Gates has “Extremely Large Bank Account Disorder,” or that Kirsten Dunst has “Looking Incredibly Hot When Soaking Wet in The First Spiderman Movie Disorder.”


And even Dr. Phil seemed to think the guy he was calling ‘Passive Aggressive’ had some legitimate beefs with the missus. He just felt the guy should be dealing with them in a, you know, healthier manner. And the guy said to Dr. Phil (who is  more or less the poster boy for ‘People Who Won’t Take ‘No’ for An Answer’), “You’re right, I’ll do that.”


Yes, of course he will.


In fact, consider it done.

Wet Shirt


Although it’s difficult to tell from the photo that accompanies this column, I am quite the fashion plate and always have been. In my salad days on East Tenth Street I used to strut through the neighborhood in my Travolta-esque pink-and-purple rayon shirt and my skin tight two-tone maroon bell bottoms, getting many an admiring glance from the passers-by, especially the Spanish guys, who would cry out, “¡Mira! ¡El boto!” Although sometimes it sounded like “¡El pato!” which I looked up and it means ‘The duck.’ But one of the guys at the bodega helpfully explained they might be saying either one: ‘boto’ as a tribute to my intelligence, or ‘pato’ (slang for, they explained, ‘a fellow who dressed really sharp”) as a tribute to my stylish duds, male ducks being held in extremely high regard in Latin American because of their colorful plumage. Although I was touched and gratified by both nicknames, ultimately I decided I preferred ‘boto.’ Because, after all, as proud as I was (and am!) of my sharp clothes, brains are truly where it’s at. For a while I used to introduce myself by saying, “They call me… El Boto,” but folks just looked baffled or laughed or spit out their coffee. I guess they thought I was bragging. So I stopped saying it.


But I didn’t stop looking like El Boto. Even at the gym, the brightly colored shorts I favor are clearly the envy of all, especially the metallic ones. The other day I wore my chartreuse and purple mid-thigh number, and while I was on the elliptical machine I couldn’t help notice the guys by the bench press whispering together and even jerking their thumbs in my direction. Every now and then one would say something and the others would have to stifle a laugh. They were probably trying to get the nerve up to ask me where they could purchase a pair like mine. Unfortunately, they never did. I can be quite an intimidating figure, I guess. (I buy mine at Mr. Bruno’s Big House of Little Pants, in case you’re in the market. And mention my name for a 5% discount on the metallic gym shorts!)


And yet, as knowledgeable as I am about matters sartorial, as excellent as my instincts are when it comes to style, every now and then I miscalculate. As I did last Friday.


To be sure, it was not an error about the choice of evening wear per se. No, the black silk/cashmere Banana Republic shirt (a gift from one of my *many* female admirers) (“Here, I found this at the thrift shop. Now will you for God’s sake stop wearing that polo shirt with the coffee stain??”)(As if!) (You could barely see the coffee stain. If you didn’t know it was there, you wouldn’t see it) was the correct shirt for the party.


The problem was, I decided to wash it. Because it’s a silk /cashmere, I couldn’t just toss it in the washing machine, and I certainly couldn’t toss it in the drier. So when I was done swishing it around in a sink full of Woolite, I shook it out, and set it on a towel to dry. That was Wednesday morning.


By Thursday night, the shirt was still a tad damp. Well, technically, I suppose, you might say it was soaking wet. I began to suspect it might not be totally dry by the time I had to dress for the party.


Late Friday afternoon, the shirt condition of the shirt had not changed appreciably. In fact, it seemed to be absorbing moisture from the air. But I was determined to wear the shirt. It was the right shirt. If I didn’t wear the shirt to the party, I had washed the shirt for nothing.

It seemed to weigh about three times what you would expect a shirt to weigh, but I assumed that would change once I’d been wearing it for a while. My body heat would undoubtedly dry the shirt out long before I arrived at the party, which after all was an hour away, in Union County.


I decided to wear my denim jacket over the shirt. For one thing, it would probably help retain the body heat. For another, it might prevent the shirt from absorbing more moisture from the atmosphere.


The jacket seemed to create a kind of eco system. My body heat would cause water to evaporate from the shirt, but the water would then collect on the inside of the jacket and then be reabsorbed by the shirt.


Not all the water, I’m pleased to say; because in short order I was sitting in a puddle. For a while the puddle got deeper and wider, but somewhere around the Rt. 287 / Rt. 78 interchange, it stabilized. Apparently the amount of water in the puddle evaporated by the heat of my lower extremities and the amount of water dripping down from my shirt reached perfect equilibrium.


I believe by the time I arrived at the party, the shirt was much drier than it had been. Certainly, it was much drier than it had been when it was swishing around in the Woolite. But there is no denying it was somewhat wetter than most of the other shirts at the party. “Good Lord, you’re sopping wet!” said somebody. Well, at one point or another everybody said it. Everybody who was jealous, that is.


Because the fact is, not everyone can carry off the ‘wet shirt’ look. It requires panache. It requires savoir-fair. It requires, let’s face it, a wet shirt.


“I hope you took a shower before you put that on. Otherwise your wet shirt will wick up all the stink.” That is an actual quote, which I wrote down on a napkin. And yes, I did shower prior to getting dressed, so there was no stink to wick up. All the ‘does anybody smell a wet dog?’ jokes were pure spite.


In the end, it was a question of will. If I wore something else—something dry—the shirt would have won. The shirt did not win. I won. I totally pulled off the wet shirt look. I wouldn’t be surprised to see several wet (or at least damp) shirts at the next party.


And now, as I type this, Sunday night, the shirt is dry.




The top part, anyway.

Double Trouble


I was never very good at multitasking. I was capable of putting off cleaning the garage while thinking about how I wasn’t going to do the dishes, but it took a lot of effort and I found it was more efficient to just avoid one thing at a time. Now I can barely even single task. I usually watch TV with the sound off because looking and listening at the same time can lead to my accidentally following the plot, which is technically a third thing, and then if I happen to sip a diet soda a the same time, that’s four things and circuits blow. I wake up on the carpet two days later with no idea what I did with the sofa cushions.


You probably think I’m exaggerating, but this weekend I attempted to watch a movie while walking on the treadmill, and I just couldn’t do it. I watched “The Saint’s Double Trouble” (1940), starring George Sanders as Simon Templar, from beginning to end and I—or rather, my brain—was totally defeated. My brain was overtaxed trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other.


To begin with, George Sanders plays both Simon Templar (The Saint) and Boss Duke Bates, a Philadelphia crime boss. Simon and Duke not only look identical—same hair cut, even-- they sound identical. They both have George Sanders’ suave British accent, although Boss Duke Bates has to wrap it around sentences like, “I say, you mugs, break it up.” First Boss Duke pretends to be The Saint. Then the Saint pretends to be Boss Duke. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a single scene in the movie where The Saint is the Saint and Boss Duke is Boss Duke, except for the ones where they’re both in the same scene, and even in those, I’m not sure. The boss’s henchmen aren’t sure either. The one who limps (“Limpy”) keeps saying things like, “Say, youse ain’t the boss, you’re dat Saint Augustine character!” So does the one who plays the harmonica (Monk “Warren”) (and shouldn’t that be “Monk” Warren? Who the heck was in charge of handing out the quote marks at RKO?). The third henchman, “The Partner,” is played by Bela Lugosi. In fact, Bela was the main reason I decided to watch this thing. “Wow, a low budget detective movie with Bela Lugosi! Yeah!” is the kind of thing you think when your brain is occupied trying to keep you from falling off the treadmill. Anyway, Bela’s not in it much. He’s just there because somebody figured it would be funnier if three henchmen couldn’t tell Boss Duke from the Saint in three consecutive scenes.


In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been more confusing or less confusing if George Sanders has used different accents for Boss Duke and the Saint. I wonder if George Sanders thought he was using different accents. If so, he may have set the gold standard for bad American accents. It is almost the American accent equivalent of Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in “Mary Poppins,” a bad accent that may someday be equaled but can never be surpassed.


The plot involves smuggling diamonds into the country in an Egyptian mummy. Although later in the movie somebody hides the diamonds in the heel of his shoe, and I can’t help thinking that probably would have worked just as well for smuggling them into the country, as well as being cheaper and not involving mummies.


A couple of murders take place early on, which Boss Duke tries to pin on The Saint by leaving a card on the bodies saying, more or less, “I killed this guy. (signed) The Saint.” So the cops are all looking for The Saint. It’s a pretty good plan, unless of course you look exactly like The Saint. Then, I would imagine, it’s a pretty terrible plan, since the cops might mistake you for The Saint and arrest you.


Fortunately that doesn’t happen, though.


Oh wait, it kind of does.


So when Boss Duke is in jail for murder, The Saint visits him dressed as a woman and then I had to go to the bathroom, but I was only gone for a couple of minutes and when I got back Boss Duke was leaving the police station dressed as a woman and The Saint was… no wait, The Saint was… um… well, one of them gets killed, and then the other one… well, there’s these diamonds… Well, there are actually TWO bags of diamonds. I forgot that. But it’s okay, because it doesn’t matter.


Another thing I was confused about—besides, you know, everything—is, just what does The Saint do? The movie is kind of structured like a detective movie, but he doesn’t have any clients, and he doesn’t make any money. The police seem to be after him even before the murders, but I have no idea why, and as far as I could tell, neither do they. I also couldn’t figure out why he was called ‘The Saint’ rather than “The Delivery Boy” or ‘The Cocker spaniel” or “The Roll of Duct Tape in the Kitchen Drawer.”


So clearly, I’m going to have to fire up the treadmill and watch this movie again. And this time I’m not taking any chances. I’m turning the sound off.

return of the clammettes


As a rule, we did not make outdoor signs at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. “We make custom signs,” Mulberry Street Joey Clams would explain to puzzled would-be clients. “You don’t hang a custom sign out in the rain for the same reason you don’t hang a custom silk shirt out in the rain.”


“Well,” the p. would-be c. might counter, “You don’t hang a custom silk shirt in the rain because it’ll get ruined.”


“I see we are of one mind on this subject,” Mulberry Street Joey Clams would explain delightedly, which generally ended the conversation. The fact was, there were some aspects of neon sign design and manufacture that we had not quite mastered. Even indoors our custom signs often exploded when they were plugged in. We both shuddered to think what would happen to one of them in a thunderstorm, in a blizzard, or even in a moderately stiff breeze.


And yet, from time to time, someone would ignore all of Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ silk shirt analogies and put down a deposit on a sign that was intended for the outside of a building. We always did our best to come through for them. The “Vacancy / No Vacancy” sign which hung from the marquee of the Prince Street Palace for 18 months or so, that was ours (as was the sign above the desk, “Rooms by the Night or the Hour.” When I was making the sign, Mulberry Street Joey Clams pointed to ‘Hour’ and said, “Isn’t there a ‘W’ on the beginning of ‘Hour?’” I said, “No, and it’s pronounced ‘Ow-or.’ The ‘H’ is silent.”) The very last outdoor sign we attempted was commissioned by a club called Foolish Mortals. It was some sort of after-hours club for theater people on Houston Street and work on the sign went quite well despite all the annoying loops and curly-cues they insisted on, but when the manager of the club arrived to pick it up, he wanted us to install it.


“You probably want an electrician to do that,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“Yeah,” I said. “You don’t want us screwing around with wires and stuff.”


“Ain’t that the truth, said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, and we both laughed uproariously, remembering some particularly amusing near-death experiences.


The Foolish Mortal manager stared at us. “Aren’t YOU electricians?” Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I looked at each other. “You have a certificate on the wall here saying that you are an electrician in good standing and you’ve passed all the New York State requirements for, um…” He took a closer look at the certificate. “Which one of you is Donald Lubachevsky?”


We both shook our heads. “Hey, how about that. I thought you were Donald Lubbazuzu,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“I thought you were,” I said.


“The fact is,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, “Neither one of us is a Donald of any kind. We picked up the certificate at a yard sale in Jersey. We got a beautician’s license, too. Because we’ve considered branching out sometimes, you know? And it’s always good to have one just in case.”


“But that’s…”


“We just didn’t get around to changing the name on the certificate. Did you get that white out yet?”


“No,” I said.


“Well, eventually we’ll get some, and then everything’ll be kosher.”


The manager kept staring for a few more moments, and then he gave a tentative chuckle. “You had me going for a minute there.”


“We had him going,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. We agreed to install the sign in the morning.


The installation went superbly in the sense that nobody was killed outright, but not in the sense of the sign being attached to the building, or the wires hooked up correctly. At some point in the early afternoon Mulberry Street Joey Clams said, “Well, we’re all set,” and instructed the Foolish Mortal manager not to turn on the sign until we were several blocks away. Actually he said to wait until it got dark, but we weren’t concerned about the dark, we were concerned about being several blocks way.


“You know what I think?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams when we got back to the Custom Neon Sign Shop and took the phone off the hook. “We should hire electricians ourselves to do this kind of stuff. But not just any electricians. You know what kind?”


“The kind who work for no money,” I said.


Girl Electricians.” Mulberry Street Joey Clams started doodling on a legal pad. “This can’t miss. They would all wear hot pants.”


“Hot pants.”


“Don’t repeat the ends of my sentences. It bothers me. They would wear hot pants, and those kinda vest things that bull fight chicks wear.”


I wanted to say ‘bull fight chicks’ but managed not to.


“We could start out with maybe 5 of them. On the back of the vests, you know what it would say?”


“Um. ‘Custom Neon Sign Shop?’”


“Huh. It should say that some place, shouldn’t it? But I was thinking it should say ‘The Clammettes.’ That’s what we could call the girl electricians: The Clammettes. Like ‘Mulberry Street Joey Clams and the Clammettes.’”


This was not the first time Mulberry Street Joey Clams had envisioned The Clammettes. Sometimes when he told me about his plans for The Clammettes, they just kind of hung around the Custom Neon Sign Shop, sort of like The Gold Diggers on ‘The Dean Martin Show.’ Sometimes he imagined them as a fleet of drivers, delivering custom neon signs all over the tri-state area. This was the first time he considered using them as electricians, though.


The manager of Foolish Mortals was banging on the window. He had apparently ignored our advice about waiting until dark, and something had gone amiss.


“Are we going to pay to get the girls their electrician’s licenses?”


“Nah,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. “I think we advertise for girls who are already electricians. It would break my heart to have to let a Clammette go because she couldn’t cut the mustard as an electrician, you know?”


“Absolutely, Mulberry Street Joey Clams.”


“And sneakers. They gotta wear sneakers, for insulation. Really sharp sneakers. Are you writing all this down?”


“You’ve got the pad,” I said.


“I’m designing the uniforms,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams. “You’re just gonna have to remember all this.”


“Not a problem,” I said.


The Foolish Mortal manager was still banging on the window, but we didn’t pay any attention to him. He’d go away. Eventually they all did.



You know what I don’t like? Bonus tracks. Even if it turns out that I like the track itself, it messes up the flow of the album, and most of the time I don’t like the track because it’s an alternate take (= not quite as good) or a demo (= interesting once). That’s the reason I give in public for not liking bonus tracks, anyway. In fact, I don’t like them because I am old and crabby and I hate new things. In fact, it’s a measure of just how old and crabby I am that I think of bonus tracks as ‘new things’ when they’ve been around for 25 years and the whole CD thing is on the verge of bring obsolete already.


I was going to spin that paragraph into an entire column. And I could do it, too, but I received a couple of emails from my faithful readers and they must be dealt with immediately.


Email number one, from H.B., opens up with a greeting, like a good old fashioned snail mail letter. I heartily approve. Many emails I receive just start in without so much as a ‘Hi there.’ Although I approve of greetings in general, Ms. B.’s greeting, “Dear stupid moron,” is problematic. I found it a little off-putting. Ms. B. wrote to complain about my column “The Worst Pizza Ever.” This was published on February 28th, so Ms. B. has been stewing about it for a while. “There is nothing funny about a dead cat,” Ms. B. said. I heartily agree. The column in question concerned (among other things) a dead dog, not a dead cat. Well, it’s been a couple of months. Then Ms. B. went on to call me names for a while before telling me she’s never going to read my column ever again (though I bet she makes an exception for this one). I wrote back thanking her for her interest and pointing out that the dead animal in question was a dog, not a cat, and she wrote back and called me some more names (well, actually she called me the exact same names), and said it was SO a cat, and I wrote back and said what kind of cat, and I haven’t heard back and probably won’t. Ms. B. gets points for spelling everything in her emails correctly and for not dropping any F-bombs, but once again, I have to take issue with the greeting. In general, when writing crank letters, you should start politely and slowly work up to the insults. ‘Dear Sir,’ and then a sentence or so in the ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ vein, and then express your dismay that my toilet training was clearly unsuccessful. I treasure every communication I receive from my readers so I will continue to read well past the ‘Dear Stupid Moron,’ but many people will not.


The second email is a suggestion for a column. I get these fairly regularly, and some of them are pretty good. Which is a way of saying, alas, that some of them are not. Ever so often folks will ask me to write a ‘heartwarming’ Calvano and Picarillo story, and I never know what to say to that. I think they’re all heartwarming, especially the ones about eating beans and stealing bottled cow brains and so forth. I guess it depends on your heart. I suppose that I am not really in the heartwarming business. I am in the seat wetting business. I understand that a lot of people would rather have their hearts warmed, but unless the bean eating and cow brain stealing does it for you, you should probably look elsewhere. I also get suggestions to the effect that I should write about, for instance, the political situation in Tibet or the healing effect of blue-green algae. All I can say is, no I shouldn’t. Trust me.

This week’s suggestion came from Mr. F.F. and he begins his letter “I HAVE AN IDEA YOU MIGHT USE FOR A COLUMN.” The entire email is written that way, and I’m not sure if his caps lock was on, or if he was yelling at me.


Either way, it makes me uncomfortable.




I follow it up to the point where the man keans over, then he kind of loses me. I wrote back to Mr. F. for clarification but it has not been forthcoming. Maybe he’s had second thoughts. Maybe he feels it’s perfect just as it is.


No argument from me.

A Little Going Away Present


When my daughter was about 10, I noticed that she didn’t throw a ball like a girl any more. My job was done. There was nothing more I could teach her. All I had to do was sit back and wait for her to grow up and move out.


As it happens, I neglected a few items in her education. Who would have thought, for instance, that someone who could throw a decent fast ball wouldn’t know the difference between a garbage can (okay to put food in) and a waste basket (not okay to put food in)? How can you consistently hit the cut off man game after game but not realize that to dispose of a piece of gum, you first wrap it in paper?


Still, aside from a handful of blind spots—most of them related to waste removal—she was fully equipped for adulthood from a very early age. In some respects, in fact, you might say she was too well equipped. Books and records that should have been of no interest to a 12 year old began vanishing from my shelves and magically reappearing in her room, hidden behind dressers or beneath stuffed animals. I would say, “How did this get here?” and she would reply, “Why ask me? I wouldn’t read that stupid book if you put a gun to my head.” It was puzzling. A little later, items of clothing began to vanish, especially my white socks. I never caught her wearing the white socks. It’s possible that she didn’t wear them, just as it’s possible she didn’t read “Laughter in the Dark,” but I confess I can’t think of many things you can do with socks besides wear them.


No, I retract that. I can think of way too many things.


Anyway, I assumed that once she became an adult for real, my possessions would stop disappearing. And this turned out to be true—sometimes. When she was living in another state, for instance, I could go to sleep and when I woke up, everything would be right where I left it. When she was living ten or fifteen minutes away, ‘not so much,’ as the kids used to say.


She spent last summer living in a tree house a few miles down the road—I have no idea why—and while this wasn’t ideal (ideal would have been a tree house in, oh, South Dakota), at least it meant that when I came home from work and couldn’t find my Fats Domino ‘Fats Is Back’ CD, I just had to search the tree house. Most tree houses are pretty small, and this one was no exception, so I found ‘Fats Is Back’ without too much fuss. It seems to me, incidentally, that every third Fats Domino album is called ‘Fats Is Back,’ but I suppose we can wait for another column to explore just why that is.


The worst possible scenario, it occurred to me recently, would be my daughter living ten or fifteen minutes away, taking all my best stuff, and then moving hundreds of miles away with said stuff in hand. It occurred to me because it was happening. She was moving to New Orleans (home of Fats Domino!), and there were things she needed. White socks, and so forth. I offered to buy these things, but she’s an adult and doesn’t need me to buy things for her. Not when I have them on hand and she can just stuff them into her knapsack while I’m in the shower.

I dealt with this in a variety of ways. I did not, despite what you may have heard at the gym, stop showering, but I did hide a lot of things that I thought my daughter might want to take to New Orleans. I hid things, and I rehid them. The Mister Clean Magic Eraser, which my daughter expressed an unhealthy interest in and which you can probably pick up in New Orleans for a buck or so, just like here, I duct taped to the bottom of the freezer compartment. She didn’t find it. I taped a lot of things to the bottom of other things, and it turns out I forgot about them. I removed some of my favorite CDs from their jewel cases, for instance, figuring she would steal—or ‘borrowed,’ let’s say—the  empty jewel cases and not realize they were empty until she was across the Mason Dixon line. About half the empty jewel cases vanished, but so did about half the hidden CDs.


As for the other half, I have no idea where I hid them. From time to time I come across them. The one I taped to the bottom of the tea kettle, for instance. I found that one while I was boiling water for my oatmeal.


It doesn’t play any more, and it smells awful, but it’s still in New Jersey, and it’s mine.



It had been a nasty winter. One miserable freezing overcast day followed another, the monotony punctuated once or twice a week by brutal ice storms. These stopped the town dead in its tracks and kept us all home from school. This seemed like a gift the first few times but half way through January we were told that every snow day from here on out would be made up in June. Still, the sledding was incredible. TV antennas were coated with ice that pulled them out of true and reduced television pictures to a blur of static and white noise. Still, this had its compensations: after every ice storm Mr. Appledorn was up on his roof, secured by a rope looped around the chimney, trying to knock the ice off his antenna while his feet frantically tried to find purchase. Every time he went up there my vocabulary grew by at least half a dozen words.


Spring eventually arrived, and although the ice storms stopped, the weather remained cold and raw. We were still freezing but we couldn’t go sledding.


“At least we don’t have to wear those stupid snow suits anymore,” said Calvano. We were skulking along the slope of Brookhill Place, which had been a spectacular sledding spot all winter but was now a steep mess of mud, onion grass, and tree roots. We made no effort to avoid the mud. We belonged to the last generation of Americans whose mothers expected them to come home caked with mud. Not that they wanted us to come home covered with mud, but since they threw us out of the house at dawn on Saturday and allowed us back in only for lunch and bathroom breaks, they realized it was inevitable, and they had protocols set up for it. At my house, for instance, I was expected to enter via the breezeway and remove my boots or sneakers and leave them there, and to carry my muddy jeans into the basement and put them in the ‘soiled’ bin. There was a similar routine at Calvano’s house.


Picarillo’s mom, on the other hand, expected Picarillo to keep his clothes in decent shape, and he usually did. He loved his clothes. His mother dressed him as if he were going to the party on “Laugh-in.” Striped bell bottoms, polka dot Nehru shirts, moron pleated jeans—if it was tasteless and looked ridiculous on someone with a crew cut and a body shaped like a gourd, Picarillo wore it. Proudly. Calvano and I were often embarrassed to be seen with him, which is why it didn’t bother us that he was walking on the crest of the hill, on the sidewalk, 30 feet away from us, even though in theory we were all hanging out together.


Calvano and I were muttering about how it would be great if you could go sledding in warm weather—at least warm enough that you didn’t have to wear a snow suit. He sat down on a pipe sticking out of the hill and said, “Well, if you were on… let’s say some kind of greased metal… so you could just go shooting down the hill over the grass…” And I was going, “Uh huh, uh huh,” when suddenly a flood of soapy water shot out of the pipe and down the hill. We later found out this was the outflow from the Stiles family washing machine (they lived at the top of Brookhill), and after a year or so of its carving a soapy rut into the hill, the town made them re-route it, but now it seemed like a miracle. I looked at Calvano, and he looked at me, and we knew we were both thinking the same thing: if we could find the right vehicle, we could ride this river of bubbles down the hill like a rocket.

The three of us went to Picarillo’s house to figure it out. Picarillo, of course, had no interest in going down the hill in the spring, in what he called his ‘fancy clothes.’ He correctly realized that what Calvano and I called a river of bubbles might just as accurately be called a river of mud. “Let’s go to the dump,” said Calvano. “We’re bound to find something perfect.” The dump never let us down.


We found the door of drier. Well, we found the entire drier, but the door was what we wanted. It seemed exactly the right size. You could sit on it, and there was room for your feet on the front if you kind of scrunched yourself up, and there was a bit of a lip on the inside that might allow you to hang on with your finger tips as you went down the hill at (we estimated) 200 miles per hour. What else did we need?


“It appears to be made of titanium,” said Calvano. “The hardest substance known to man. So it won’t dent or break.” Calvano had an enviable ability to make up things like that on the spot; as well as a not-quite-so-enviable ability to believe with all his heart the things he’d just made up. “This should be preserved for posterity. Doesn’t your dad have a movie camera?” he said to Picarillo.


“Yeah!” he said. “It’s great! You have to wind it up!” Picarillo would go get it. Only there was one thing: HE wanted to be the first person to ride the drier door down the soapy river. And he wanted to change into even fancier clothes. If no camera had been involved, Picarillo would not have been involved in this under any circumstances. The thought of being in a movie just made all the crazy little monkeys in his head run completely wild.


An hour later I was crouched at the bottom of the hill, and Calvano and Picarillo were waiting for the Stiles’ washing machine to get going. It had already gone once that morning and there was no reason to imagine it would go again, but Calvano had knocked on the Stiles door and tearfully told Mrs. Stiles his mother would kill him if he came home with mud on his new baseball jacket and gosh, wasn’t there somethin’ she could do? She was, as we used to say, a nice lady.


The soapy water poured from the pipe. Calvano set the drier door in the middle of it, and beckoned Picarillo to sit down. His butt sent the aft-end of the door into the soft mud and the water shot down the back of his pants. “Nngghg!” he cried.


“Lean forward!” said Calvano, and he stood in the middle of the river and shoved Picarillo. The door came lose and started down the hill. Picarillo was still screaming “Nngghg!” as the door his a tree root and stopped. Picarillo did not stop. He went belly flopping down the hill, leaving a Picarillo shaped groove in mud.


“Still some kinks to work out,” said Calvano. “Did you get that whole thing?”


“Oh yeah,” I said.


“We can study it later. I’m sure there’s much to learn,” he said, and went to retrieve his jacket from Mrs. Stiles.




The first clue I had that I was not going to be writing my column this week came when I was balling up my socks at the Laundromat and a woman with whom I’d been chatting smilingly asked what my next column was going to be about. I said that I was working on something about the Miss England Pageant, and how the contender from Surrey, Chloe Marshall, had ignited something of a firestorm in the British press because she’s a size 16. “Hmmm. Why don’t you write about what a stupid jerk you are?” she said, her smile still in place, and then she spent a couple of minutes slamming drier doors a bit more vehemently than perhaps was absolutely necessary.


Since I write about what a stupid jerk I am just about every week I was confused. Some people just want the same thing over and over, I mused. When Abbott and Costello had a weekly radio show, it was in their contract that they had to do their “Who’s on First?” routine at least once every three weeks. But still, if they’d done nothing but “Who’s on First?” every week for the whole show, wouldn’t people have gotten a little bit sick of it?


Not the lady at the Laundromat, apparently.


I was relating this anecdote at the bar a little later, but I didn’t quite make it to the drier doors slamming, because as soon as I said I was working on a column about a size 16 beauty queen, the barista made a sort of ‘oink oink oink’ noise and accidentally spilled my beer into my lap. Back to the Laundromat!


Well, you don’t have to hit me in the head for me to get the point. One beer down the pants will do it. I am NOT writing about the size 16 beauty pageant contestant, even though it was going to be a really funny column and it was going to be totally about the big brouhaha in the British papers, and not making fun of Chloe at all.

I was going to talk about how various English pundants are foaming at the mouth about what a terrible example Chloe is setting for The Youth (“What she's demonstrating isn't bravery but a shocking lack of self-control. Instead of flaunting her figure, Chloe ought to own up to the truth. She is fat and she got that way by over-eating.” –Monica Grenfell, the Daily Mail). Chloe looks great in most of the pictures I’ve seen, although maybe the bikini shoot was a mistake. No, wait, I didn’t say that. Man, am I glad I’m not writing that column this week.

What’s interesting—well, it would be interesting if I were really writing about this, which I am not going to do—is that the British size 16 is the equivalent to the American size 12. (Some online sources say it’s equivalent to an American size 14). In other words, Chloe wears the same dress size worn by Marilyn Monroe in the mid fifties. (According the urban legend site Snopes.com, Marilyn is often reported to have been a size 16, but the available data doesn’t back that up. It may be due to confusion about British and American sizes). I was going to make a lot of really good points about all this, and believe me, it would have been puh-ritty hilarious. And in good taste. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to write an uproariously funny paragraph about how if Chloe won and the Plus Size thing caught on, skinny girls were going to get love handle implants.

But after you get a half dozen drier doors slammed in your—well, not in your face, maybe, but certainly in your general vicinity, and a beer dumped in your lap, you figure it’s time to take a week off and let everybody just cool the heck down.

Twenty years ago I did a column about my great new idea, the E.L.F. Diet. E.L.F. stood for “Eat Less Food.” I made the mistake of implying that people got fat because they ate too much food, and they could loss weight if they ate less of it. Well, I got letters. Lots of letters. None of them were asking me for details about the E.L.F. Diet. They all just wanted me to know I was incredibly stupid, extremely ugly, and that for my information they did NOT eat too much food and eating less of it wouldn’t make any difference about how much they weighed. The only column I ever wrote that prompted as many letters was one about how I liked dogs better than cats. The cat owners also thought I was incredibly stupid and extremely ugly, and they aren’t getting any argument from me.

There are some subjects I not only won’t write about, I won’t even mention them. I won’t even think about them, honest. I only have so many pants, after all.

So I’ll be back next week with a column—not about size 16s, or cats—and meanwhile, Go, Chloe, Go!



My cell phone has been slowly dying for about six months, and it has not been pretty. For a while I wasn’t sure what was happening. It used to hold a charge for a couple of days, and then sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Maybe I’m charging it wrong, I thought. Finally it wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 4 or 5 hours, and I realized it was on the way out. It’s an old phone—three years and counting. Nobody hangs on to a cell phone for three years. It’s like holding on to a car for three decades—it’s possible, but not advisable. My phone is now a crazy old coot. I plug it in, and it flashes at me. “Battery Low!” it says, “Can not charge.” This seems to me like saying, “Hungry! Can not eat,” I’ve been telling myself that the next time I’m in the neighborhood of a phone store, I’ll get a new one. I’ve been telling myself that, but myself hasn’t been paying any attention to me. I had lunch in a restaurant that was next to a phone store yesterday, and I didn’t get a new phone. I thought about it. I took my phone out of my pocket, saw it happened to be working (sometimes it does), and figured, “Eh. No rush.” And tonight? My phone is plugged into a wall socket beeping like C3PO and displaying an unencouraging “No Service” message. If the phone isn’t working the NEXT time I’m eating next to the phone store, I’m definitely getting a new one. If I have time. Maybe.


And suddenly I understood Jake Holmes.


What I’m about to tell you is true. It’s not only true, it’s undisputed. It’s totally documented up the wazoo, as they say in law school.


Jake Holmes was a song writer and folk singer—he still is, in fact—and his credits include, among many other things, an entire Frank Sinatra album (“Watertown”), the U.S. Army commercial jingle “Be All You Can Be,” and the Led Zeppelin song “Dazed and Confused.” “Dazed and Confused” is on the very first Led Zeppelin album, it’s one of the numbers where Jimmy Page plays the guitar with a cello bow, they performed it on virtually every tour—sometimes in versions lasting nearly an hour— it’s on various ‘Best of’ compilations and live albums and concert videos, all of which have gone double and triple and quadruple platinum. I’ve never owned a Led Zeppelin album but “Dazed and Confused” has been played on the radio so much over the past 40 years that I know it by heart. You’d think the writer for a song that successful must be pulling down a 100 grand a year just on radio play. And yet, so far Jake Holmes hasn’t gotten a dime.


Nobody disputes that in August 1967, Jake Holmes opened for the Yardbirds at the Village Theater in Greenwich Village and performed his song “Dazed and Confused,” which had appeared on his “The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes” LP, released in June of that year. Nobody disputes that the Yardbirds— especially guitarist Jimmy Page— liked the song so much that they incorporated it into their act during the next year, changing some of the lyrics and adding a berserk guitar solo. Or that the group Page formed when the Yardbirds went poof, Led Zeppelin, continued playing the song and kept it in their repertoire right up to the end. The inexplicable thing—well, the first inexplicable thing—is that on that first Zeppelin album, it’s credited to Jimmy Page.


The second inexplicable thing is that Jake Holmes was aware of this, and kind of shrugged it off.


In an interview he gave a few years ago, he said:


“In the early 1980's, I did write them a letter and I said basically ‘I understand it's a collaborative effort, but I think you should give me some credit at least and some remunity.’ But they never contacted me.”


Oh well. I guess that’s that.


Jake must be a really thoughtful guy. He waits until Led Zeppelin has broken up to bother them about this. Prior to that, I guess he figured they were just too busy.


(Incidentally, if you’re wondering if Jake’s “Dazed and Confused” is really the same song as Zep’s “Dazed and Confused,” just go to http://www.itsaboutmusic.com/jakeholmes.html  and you can hear his 1967 version).


Meanwhile, Jimmy Page has mentioned in a couple of interviews that “Dazed and Confused” is a Jake Holmes song. He seems to be unaware that he’s listed as the composer. Or that he’s been cashing the royalty checks.


You would think, with all that, all Jake Holmes would need to collect on what must be a 7 or 8 figure pay day, is a first year law student. You would think that was probably true the day after Led Zeppelin I was released.


Maybe Jake is just so fabulously rich from writing Charmin tissue jingles that he sneers at 1o million dollar royalty checks.


And then again, maybe Jake’s approach to this is just like my approach to getting a new cell phone. He’ll get around to it real soon. If he has time.





About 15 years ago I opened a box of breakfast cereal and poured myself a bowl of wheat flakes and sun glasses. The sun glasses came as something of a surprise, although when I took another look at the cereal box, I discovered that they had been packed among the flakes deliberately.


I was slightly disappointed. I had already mentally composed my complaint letter to the cereal folks. “One of your employees at the packing plant seems to have misplaced his sunglasses,” the letter began. “Probably it’s the one who wears his shades inside. They ended up in the box of ****** Flakes I purchased at the Grand Union this week (see circled item on enclosed receipt).” I considered saying that I’d bitten into the glasses but rejected it as implausible. “If this fellow would like his sunglasses returned, please have him contact me at…” I’d figured I was going to get a carton of wheat flakes, or at the very least a generous 50% off coupon. That’s what happened when I lived in Brooklyn and found a spider web with a mummified spider inside a box of cereal. I felt terrible for the spider, of course, which had starved to death in a box filled with nutritious oats and corn flakes. There were even corn flakes suspended in the web, as though the spider had given the cereal a try but had found them unappetizing, and so starved to death. . Just as you or I would starve to death if we were locked in a room with a dinner plate on which the peas and the meatloaf were touching.


But since the sunglasses were a premium, I wasn’t going to get free breakfast cereal or coupons. I was just going to get the glasses.


I keep calling them ‘glasses,’ but they were really slip-overs—a tinted semi circle of plastic which I was supposed to slip over my prescription glasses. They looked much more attractive than the ‘clip-ons’ I’d been using. They made look really cool. And they must have cut out awesome amounts of ultra violet light, since they were all but opaque unless you were looking directly into the sun. I walked into many a telephone pole while wearing those slip-overs. I suspect that people watching me were going, ‘Wow, that really cool looking guy just walked into a telephone pole.’ Yes, I looked that cool. I looked so cool that I’m a little puzzled that everybody didn’t start walking into telephone poles in emulation. I know, you’re thinking, ‘Oh please—YOU start a fashion trend?’ Well, for your information, it wouldn’t have been the first time. Remember that trend a few years back, where all the cool guys like Marky Mark were wearing their underpants hiked up so you could see the band above the regular pants? I was going that way earlier. Of course they usually didn’t get it entirely right, since they didn’t remember to tuck their shirts into their underpants, but I think I should still get the credit.


Eventually I lost the cool slip overs, and I had to go back to clip ons. I didn’t walking into any telephone poles, but I also didn’t look particularly cool. I’d say it was a net loss.


And then, just weeks ago, I accompanied my daughter to the eye doctor, and right there in the office I saw them—slip overs! New slip overs for a new millennium. They differed from my old slip overs in that they did not come in a cereal box and you had to actually buy them, but in most other respects—especially the ‘I look really cool in these’ aspect—they were identical. If anything, I look even cooler in my new slip overs. I look like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, in fact. (Just the first Matrix. I don’t look anything like Keanu in the crappy sequels). I am giving serious thought to getting a long black coat and leather pants, just to subtly point up the resemblance.


These new slip overs are an improvement over the old ones in another way, as well. I can see through them. At least when I’m outside, in day light. Inside, I tend to walk into things. Which is okay, because when I walk into a door, the blood on my shirt makes me look like I’ve just been tangling with, you know, Agent Smith. (Or it would if I weren’t wearing these Matrix-type black t-shirts and you could actually see the blood). Yes, it’s a little annoying, but if I just wad up some tissues and cram them up my nose, the bleeding stops in due time. So I’m walking around with all these tissues wadded up my nose, and I have to wait till the bleeding stops before I can go outside. Keanu didn’t have tissues in his nostrils.


On the other hand, I just might start a new trend.

Green Food


From an early age I’ve had a love-hate relationship with green food. I imprinted on “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss and I would have been delighted to chow down on them, had they existed. In the drawings the green eggs and especially the green ham had a comforting heft and solidity to them that was missing from most real food. A lot of real food was soft and gloppy when you didn’t expect it to be. Tomatoes, for instance, looked like redder, shinier apples, but when I (age 6) bit into one, I got a mouthful of mush and seeds, which I immediately spit out all over the kitchen, making appropriate gagging noises. My dog Cinderella, a Shetland sheepdog, wandered in, attracted by the sounds, and sniffed around, and I went out in the back yard to play, assuming Cinderella would clean up the mess. She often did, but not this time. Her lack of interest in the tomato glop just confirmed my initial impression that there was something very wrong with the whole concept of tomatoes, and whatever lingering doubts I might have had on the subject were obliterated when my mother made me mop the kitchen floor.


And that was a tomato, which was not even a green food (although a couple of weeks earlier I suppose it would have been). Real green foods, or “vegetables,” as they are sometimes known, were even grosser than tomatoes. Without exception, they were soft, squishy, and smelled awful. I would have nothing to do with them, and often went without dessert and/or television because of this. Growing up I didn’t realize that the problem was not with the vegetables themselves but with the way they were prepared at my house. My mother simply boiled them until they were mush. I have no idea why. It may have had something to do with a fear of germs. It may have been that she didn’t want us to injure our jaws with excessive chewing. In any case, if there were green things on my plate, I wasn’t going to deal with them, and if the green things happened to touch something else on my plate—say, the meatloaf—I wasn’t going to deal with that either. Between my mother’s virtuosic cooking and my splendid attitude, meal times were a treat at the Grimshaw residence. The high point, perhaps, was the night my mother spooned some lima beans or string beans or asparagus onto my plate—believe me, after 45 minutes in 400 degree water, there’s no sure way to tell the difference—and said, “Just try it.” I replied, “It looks like squished caterpillars.” Remember Linda Blair spewing split pea soup all over the walls in “The Exorcist?” She had nothing on my sister. In fact, I’d have to say my sister was by far the more impressive spewer, as she did not have the assistance of a state-of-the-arts Hollywood Special Effects Team. Nonetheless, I was the one who was forced to do the cleaning, and I was warned never to do that to my sister again. “How do I know what’s going to set her off?” I protested. “She’s a human time bomb!” Even though to all appearances I was the loser that evening, there seemed to be an understanding afterwards that it was a very bad idea to put vegetables on my plate. It wasn’t until I moved out and discovered that there were other ways to prepare vegetables that they became a regular part of my diet.


Still, there was one green food I loved, and that was green bread. My mother baked it every St. Patrick’s Day. As far as I can recall it was the only time she baked bread, and it was green thanks to a few drops of green food coloring. The only disappointing thing about it was the crust, which appeared to be the same dark brown as every other bread crust. But since my mother cut off the crusts when she made sandwiches—something which makes me suspect that I was correct in guessing that she boiled the vegetables into mush due to a fear of chewing—it wasn’t an issue. My sister and I always brought sandwiches made with green bread to school on St. Patrick’s Day, and for a couple of days afterwards. The green bread tasted exactly the same as regular bread, but I convinced myself it tasted somehow “greener.”


I was 10 or 11 the last time I ate green bread. My sister was taking home economics and they were working on what she said was a new green bread recipe, so she asked my mother if she could make the green bread this year. My mother was delighted. I couldn’t imagine how you could screw up green bread. Add four drops of food coloring instead of three? So what?


It turned out that the recipe was not for green bread per se, but for zucchini bread. Yes, it had green food coloring, and at a distance of 40 years I am willing to entertain the possibility that it was delicious, but when I bit into my peanut butter sandwich I was surprised. I liked surprises, but I did not like to find them in my mouth. It might as well have been a tomato. I swallowed my first bite, put the rest of the sandwich back in the bag, put the bag in the waste receptacle. I felt light headed. I saw my sister watching me from across the cafeteria with a smirk. I’d thought about telling her I traded the sandwich, unsampled, to Victor Santella for his ham and Swiss, but obviously that wasn’t going to work. “What did you put in that?” I said.


“Caterpillars,” she said.


I knew she was lying, but my stomach was appallingly gullible.


At least I was able to tell the school nurse that my sister’s sandwich made me sick.




I’m not happy about the robot situation. I’ve been reading about robots since I was 11 or 12, and I’ve been giving advice to my friends about them for almost as long. “Don’t buy a robot just because it looks like a hot chick,” I would tell them. “That’s like buying a new car because it’s a pretty shade of blue.” Most of my friends thought I was kidding, but I seriously expected robots all over the place by the time I was an adult, and by the time I was 30 they’d be so cheap that everybody would have at least one. I could point to dozens of great short stories and novels on the subject, and these weren’t just stories, they were visions of the future, and the visionaries who wrote them were smart cookies. That was what my mother said about Isaac Asimov when he was on the Dick Cavett Show one night. She called me into the living room and asked me, isn’t that the guy with the stupid name who wrote all those books you read? Why, yes it is, I said. Well, she said, he’s a smart cookie. This was back before a smart cookie was something that Amazon.com slipped into your hard drive so it could figure out what kind of spam to send to your inbox. Back when ‘spam’ was meat. Sort of.


When I was 12 I really did think that by now we’d have robots to do the vacuuming for us. And I was correct. My mistake—and the mistake was shared by pretty much all the writers who shaped my thinking—was in thinking the robot would take the vacuum cleaner out of the closet and get to work. It never occurred to me the robot would BE the vacuum cleaner. But it is. And if you happen to own a robot, the odds are that it’s a vacuum cleaner. They scoot across the floor and look like smoke detectors.


Of course, in the back of my mind there was always the concern about robots running amuck.  And if I was disappointed that today’s robots look more like expensive Frisbees rather than Yvette Mimieux, at least I could take comfort in the fact that there was no way one of those little vacuum –robots could go berserk.


Or so I thought…


This is a true story. We will call the family under discussion The Appledorns. They love their little vacuuming robot and sing its praises at every opportunity. If you have spent more than 3 minutes with Mrs. Appledorn, you know how silent the V.R. is, how pleasant it is to turn it on, go to bed, and wake up with a perfectly vacuumed house. You know how the V. R. gently bumps into things, changes direction , leaves no mark, how it senses the presence of dust and dirt, how it even has a little broom that allows it to get at the dirt under the fridge. “Watching the V.R. at work is relaxing, like watching a tank of tropical fish—if fish could vacuum!” says Mrs. A., at least twice in every conversation.


Every conversation until this week, that is.


This is the week the family dog had an ‘accident.’ Of course, when you or I experience what the dog experienced, we do not refer to it as an ‘accident.’ We call it ‘diarrhea.’


I do not know what the vacuuming robot calls it. I only know that the vacuuming robot seems not to be equipped to deal with it. The problem seems to be that little brush for getting under the refrigerator. It turns out to be quite a spiffy little paint brush.


The dog, to be fair, did what he could. He made his way to the door, but of course he could go no further. He did his best. And the robot then did his best.


The Appledorns are now convinced, if they were not before, that in the course of a night the vacuuming robot will indeed scoot over every square inch of the floor. It will cover your entire living space, as the ad says. In every sense of the word.



Last week I came across the heart-warming but head puzzling story of an Irish gentleman by the name of Bob McNichol of County Mayo, Ireland, who had his sight restored after being blinded two years ago in an industrial explosion. His vision returned after an operation in which a tooth was inserted into his eye.


Let me repeat that. A tooth was inserted into his eye.


In fact, I only bothered to read the article because the headline was “Blind Irishman sees with the aid of son’s tooth in eye.” I figured it was either a carnival routine or a bar fight, but nope.


According to the article, the procedure is called Osteo-Odonto-Keratoprosthesis, OOKP for short. The “P” is totally pointless and is clearly there because the kind of people who become doctors are the kind of people who refuse to say “OOK” under any circumstances, even when they accidentally stick their hands in a plate of lasagna. I know this because I have seen it happen, and the doctor did not say “Ook.” Fact.


But your undersigned is not a doctor, so for the duration of this article, it’s OOK all the way.


The OOK was developed by Italian doctors in the 1960s, which means this sort of thing has been going on for 40 years, but apparently not too often, since I never heard of it and the Associated Press figured it was worth a feature story. It says “the technique involves creating a support for an artificial cornea from the patient's own tooth and the surrounding bone.” I’m not sure what the first part means. I was under the impression that “Cornea” is a brand of beer, but I guess it has some other meaning as well. Anyway, in this case, the tooth was donated by Bob’s son. My first thought was, ‘Hey, Sport, too pretty to use your own teeth? Don’t want to spoil that Pepsident smile?’ Then I recalled that he lost his sight in an explosion. So it could be Bob’s teeth are at a something of premium. So his son Robert donated “a tooth, the root, and part of the jaw.”


A tooth, the root, and part of the JAW? Just how big is Bob’s eye? I don’t think I want to know.


What I do want to know is what genius Italian doctor came up with this, and how did he do it? Why would anybody think of this? “Hmmm. I wonder… if we crammed a TOOTH in that eye, would that improve matters?” I can’t imagine any Italian doctor would say this unless he wasn’t really Italian, but was played by Chico Marx. “Hey-a boss, we’re a-gonna putta the tooth inna the eye. See, it’s a EYE TOOTH! And if it-a don’ work, thas-a all right. We putta in some more-a teeth an-a you have a new mouth. For when-a the other one is-a too tired to-a chew. A chew? Hey, did-a somebody sneeze?”


I’m not saying that’s exactly how they came up with this, but it’s at least plausible.


When I was in sixth grade I got into a fight in the playground at P S 3 in Singac, in which George Miller attempted to insert a tooth in my eye. George was not trying to restore my sight—quite the contrary, in fact. But maybe around the same time (Spring 1967) a young Italian doctor got himself into a similar situation—possibly also involving George Miller, who got around—and he went to the emergency room to get the tooth out of his eye. Then he realized that he now had 20 /20 vision for the first time in his life. “Don’ a-touch-a that-a tooth!” he (perhaps) said.


I think that’s how we do it in the movie, anyway. That big fat guy with the tattoos who always plays bikers holding broken pool cues could play George Miller. Johnny Depp could play me. The Italian doctor could be played by some Italian actor. Big emotional finish with the Irish guy (Colin somebody or other) getting like 6 pounds of teeth and jaw stuffed into his eye while his son  looks on, smiling bravely with whatever they couldn’t fit in the eye . Man, this practically writes itself.


Believe me, there won’t be a dry tooth in the house.



The first and worst Oscar party I attended was in Chinatown over 30 years ago. It wasn’t the horrible apartment or the 6 flights of (rotten) stairs you had to climb in order to reach it. It was the pizzas. The pizzas I brought.


I was catching my breath after the climb and the host, a jolly fellow who hadn’t yet realized that the shoulder length curls he’d been sporting for 8 years didn’t really work with the receding hairline he’d been sporting for 2, said, “We need somebody to pick up the pizza. Who’s got a car?”


Nobody had a car. We all looked at each other. We were all NYU film students. Everybody at the party lived in Manhattan and was broke, two things that were antithetical to car ownership.


“Where is this pizza?” said someone.


Jersey,” said our host. “I know, I know, but these are the finest pizzas you can find on the East Coast of the United States.” They were, he said, Japanese pizzas. Incredible as it sounds, he continued, the Japanese had actually improved upon the basic pizza. They had reinvented it totally, from the crust on up, and the result was not to be believed. The inventor had opened a Japanese Pizza Place in Jersey City. Initially this guy from New Jersey was going to pick them up on the way to the party and drive them in, but his alternator crapped out on him.


To my right, hovering over the rancid onion dip, Tom Bixby said, “Gerstenmier has his car in the city tonight. He needed it to pick up something for a film shoot tomorrow morning.”


“Great!” said our host. “Give him a call!”


And ten minutes later, Bixby and I were walking over to Gerstenmier’s place to pick up the car. I was going to be the driver because I was the only person at the party who was both willing to drive and in possession of a valid driver’s license. Bixby was coming because that was the deal: Gerstenmier knew Bixby and he didn’t know me and if we wanted the car, that was how it had to be.


“Here are the keys,” said Gerstenmier. “Two things. Don’t put it in 2nd gear, because it’ll just stop dead. I think there’s a problem with the transmission.”




“And don’t open the trunk. That’s where the shepherd is.”


“Okay.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I didn’t care. As Bixby and I entered the Holland Tunnel, I noticed a foul odor.


“What is that?” I said.


“It’s the shepherd,” said Bixby.


“What’s wrong with the shepherd?”


“Dead,” said Bixby. “We needed a dead dog for a shot tomorrow. Gerstenmier is a smart cookie. He figured the garbage men must find them all the time and dispose of them some place, so he called up the sanitation department and they said if he spent the day at the transfer station, they’d let him know if any crews called one in. Well, around 4 o’clock they found one in a dumpster on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. So Gerstenmier went up there and tied a bunch of garbage bags around it, and brought it back on the subway.”


“Why didn’t he drive up there?”


“This was last week. He went up to Connecticut to get the car yesterday, for the shoot.”


“So he’s had this dead dog stored someplace for a week??”


“Just four days. Yeah, he said it wasn’t quite there yet.”


“Well, it’s there now,” I said. “What the hell do you need a dead dog for?”


“We’re doing this…”


“Forget I asked. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Later I found out it was for a faux Alka Selzter commercial they were making for the ‘Non Narrative Film’ class. That was as much information as I ever discovered, or wanted to.


We picked up the four Japanese pizzas and ran into some traffic returning through the Holland Tunnel. The smell from the trunk and the smell of the Japanese pizzas… I was going to say ‘blended,’ but that’s not the right word. There is no right word for what they did.


I had to park about three blocks from the apartment. As Bixby and I walked down Elizabeth Street we kept waiting for the trunk smell to dissipate, and for the pizzas to smell the way they had at the pizza place. This never happened. Apparently the Japanese Pizza dough was specially formulated to absorb trunk smells.


“Maybe it won’t affect the taste,” said Bixby.


“Let me know,” I said. “I’ll take your word for it either way.”


To my surprise, reaction to the Japanese Roadkill Pizza was mixed. There were several people who said it was the foulest smelling thing they’d ever encountered, and they wouldn’t go near it. There were also several people who dug in and said it was ‘tangy,’ which way very well have been the case. I wouldn’t know. Two people pronounced it the most incredible pizza they’d ever had, which I certainly hope remains the case.


The Japanese Pizza Place in Jersey City closed less than three months later so it’s possible the recipe had other issues that did not involve anything in Gerstenmier’s trunk.

Hearts of Neon


We had a permanent ‘25% off’ sale on what we called “Pre-Customized” signs at the Custom Neon Sign Shop. Some customers refused to accept delivery of the signs they ordered because of insignificant spelling errors or minor technical glitches, such as the sign not working when it was plugged in. You could argue with these people all day that the second ‘n’ in ‘anniversary’ was redundant, or that even a neon sign that didn’t glow was still a perfectly good sign (as long as you put near a window or something so people could read it), but for the most part they proved impossible to please.


“We made it the way you spelled it over the phone. I got the slip right here,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams to a disgruntled customer. “A-N-T-H-O-N-Y. Same on the sign as on the paper.”


“You spelled ‘birthday’ with an ‘e!’” said the D.C.


“You didn’t bother to spell that one,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, “So we assumed you were leaving that one up to us.”


The conversation ended, inevitably, with the ‘Happy Berthday Anthony’ sign joining the 25% Off Wall of Fame. I sometimes argued that 25% off wasn’t enough of a discount for a misspelled sign. Actually even 99% off wouldn’t have been enough of a discount.


“What amazes me is that you went with a capital “E” that takes about 6 times as long to make as a capital “I.” If you were lazier we would have sold that sign,” I said.


“Nah, I screwed up the wiring. It woulda blown apart like a hand grenade when he plugged it in.”


“But then why—”


“There’s a principle involved here!”


There was always a principle involved here but I never found out what it was, for which I suppose I should be grateful.


Shortly before Valentine’s Day purchased a box of Valentine cards at the drug store and spread them out on his desk like a poker deck. “You see this?”


I said I did.


“25 cards. We got 19 pre-customized signs. That works out to 6 cards too many, but I don’t see any way out of that. We just have to deal with it.” He took 6 cards and envelopes and put them in a drawer. “I dealt with it. Okay. So here’s my thought. Hearts.”


“Hearts,” I said.


“Exactly. We can re-work each one of these signs into a neon heart, and give it away when somebody buys a Valentine card. Only when I say ‘give away,’ I’m being cagey. Because we’re actually gonna charge like twice what these cards go for.”


“Very cagey.”


“You said that like maybe you think it isn’t very cagey.”


“I’m just thinking if it’s so easy to take a neon sign and re-work it, we could have just corrected the spelling or made totally new signs. The reason we didn’t do that is because we have no idea how to do it. We tried it a couple of times and we just ended up with broken glass.” To be fair, we sometimes ended up with melted glass, too.


“That one time we got the “F” to look a lot like an “R” before we gave up.”


“We set the blinds on fire.”


“It’s always ‘NO’ with you. I don’t want any more ‘NO.’ I want hearts. I want 19 neon hearts.”


“It’s got going to work.”


“They don’t have to be big,” he said. “We don’t have to use every letter in the sign. I’m thinking we slap an “M” on top of a “V” and we got a heart, you know?”


“Well, that would put us in the ballpark,” I said.  I knew it wouldn’t work, but I agreed to try because I knew that ‘it’s always ‘no’ with you’ was Mulberry Street Joey Clam’s final gambit before ‘What are you? A woman?’ and I was just not in a mood to deal with that right then.


We destroyed three signs fairly quickly. With each defeat, Mulberry Street Joey Clams slipped another Valentine into the drawer. “Maybe a ‘B’ would make a better heart than an ‘M,’” I said, scanning the wall for another sign.


“Nah, forget it.” He stacked up the Valentine cards and went into a sulk.


But it was a productive sulk. I had not even finished putting away the acetylene torch when I sat up and cried, “I got it! They’re WHACKY SIGNS!”


“Yes,” I said, “I’d have to agree.”


“So that’s what we’ll advertise. Start writing this down: ‘This Valentine’s Day, give your Honey-bunch a Whacky Sign.’ Whack should be all capital letters.”


Honey bunch?”


“Just regular letters for that. ‘Free Valentine card with purchase of Whacky Sign.’ Only you know what?”


“We’re selling them for twice what they go for.”


“That’s right! Because we’re actually giving away the signs, not the cards. That’s the beauty part. They’ll never know! Write that up and get to the copy shop. This can’t miss.”


When I got back from the copy shop Mulberry Street Joey Clams was putting red stickers on some of the signs, and yellow stickers on others. “What do you think?” he said. “Should we charge more for the ones that are gonna blow up when they plug them in?”



It had been a long winter with lots of snow and we made over 18 dollars shoveling people out. We were rolling in money. If we’d been a little older we would have blown it all on records or girls before the first thaw, but instead we went for novelties. We’d been scrutinizing the ads on the inside back covers of our comic books for years, wondering about the x-ray specs, the onion gum, the sea monkeys... and now we could afford to find out. “We can buy everything on this page for less than TEN BUCKS,” said Calvano.


Picarillo jabbed a stubby finger at one of the advertisements. “Look! Look! Get this-- ‘the Incredible Assortment of Novelties BOX!’ It’s only 3 dollars.”


“Yeah, I said we can get every--”


“This IS everything,” said Picarillo. “See? ‘25 Different Gag Items! Terrific Value!’ It’s gotta be all the other stuff on the page, and only THREE BUCKS.” There was an illustration, very badly reproduced, of various items spilling out of a box; most of the items were too blurry to make out, but the ‘Big Nose & Glasses’ disguise --on sale near the top of the page by itself for 75 cents -- was discernible.


“I think you’re right,” said Calvano. “We can just spend 3 bucks and get--”


 “We could spend NINE BUCKS and EACH get a BOX!” I said. There was something about having all this stuff in its own box that appealed to me. It appealed to Picarillo and Calvano as well, so we bought a money order at the post office and sent away for three Incredible Assortment of Novelties boxes. Then, with half the money still unspent, we returned to the comic books for other items to buy. We were tempted by the ad for sea monkeys. The ad said they were great pets, very intelligent and trainable, and it showed these monkey-like sea creatures happily turning somersaults. A lady sea monkey wore an apron and was bringing a cocktail to a male sea monkey, who was sitting in a big overstuffed chair smoking a pipe. “No,” said Calvano. “It’s a lie. Duff has sea monkeys. They don’t wear dresses or anything, and they’re really stupid.” Duff was Calvano’s older brother and lived in the basement.


“Wow,” said Picarillo, “Let’s see!” We went down to the basement and knocked on Duff’s door. Duff’s ‘room’ had been created by slapping up some 2 X 4s and nailing left over sheets of crappy wood paneling to them. The door was also a piece of wood paneling. It had no knob; when Duff said ‘come in,’ you pulled it out of the frame and stuck it behind the furnace, and you put it back when you left.


“We want to see the sea monkeys,” said Calvano. Duff was listening to his Nancy Sinatra record. He had ‘programmed’ it by running a nail across all the tracks on side one except the first two (“As Tears Go By” and “Day Tripper”) and the last (“These Boots Are Made for Walking.”) He jerked a thumb in the direction of a fish tank hear the casement window.


“Yeesh,” said Picarillo. “They don’t look like the picture in the comic.”


 “They’re brine shrimp,” said Duff.


“They don’t do any tricks?”


“They’re brine shrimp,” said Duff. “They don’t do anything except eat. They get bigger and bigger, though. They used to be real tiny.” The largest sea monkey was now the size of a thumb.


“Well, then let’s not waste our money on any sea monkeys,” said Picarillo.


 “Everybody shut up!” cried Duff. The descending bass riff of “Boots”-- sort of a “boing boing boing boing boing boing boing boing boing”-- played. “I like that part,” said Duff.


“We’re just gonna--”


“Nobody leaves till the song ends!” As it played (“You been lyin’ / when you shoulda been truthin’...”) the three of us whispered to each other, and by the time Nancy sang “Are you ready, Boots?” we had decided that we would purchase, not sea monkeys, but a Venus fly trap-- “It’s like something in a MONSTER MOVIE,” said Calvano. As we walked to the post office, Picarillo brought up the possibility that Duff’s sea monkeys were perhaps not up to snuff, intelligence-wise. “I mean, maybe REGULAR sea monkeys are a lot smarter. Maybe they can wear clothes and stuff, but Duff’s are... you know, SPECIAL.”


“I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” said Calvano.


“Hey,” I said, making a last minute check of the ads, “There’s an ant farm here, too. Only 4 bucks.”


“Ant farms stink,” said Calvano. “It’s the kind of stuff kids who wear GLASSES get.”


“Yeah,” I said, “but we could maybe hook it up to the Venus fly trap.” I moved my hands energetically about, trying to describe my vision. “You’d have the ants HERE, and the Venus fly trap HERE, and we could sprinkle some sugar or something HERE, and the ants would have to pass by the fly trap to get the sugar...”


 “Wow!” said Calvano. “And BAM!” His right hand, standing in for one of the Venus flytrap heads, swooped down and grabbed an invisible ant from mid air. We could all see the whole thing vividly. We wondered if, after a few ant-generations had gone by, the ants would have legends about the incredible plant monster that lived at the top of the ant farm. Would they tell stories? “We each carried a grain of sugar... and the slow ones, they did not return at all-- a GREAT GREEN MOUTH SWOOPED OUT OF THE SKY...”


We had a somewhat romantic picture of just how active the average Venus fly trap is; they tend not to swoop, or for that matter, to move at all. In my experience, they tend to pretty much drop dead about three days after being planted. This Venus fly trap, which we named “Arthur,” after the rubber plant of the same name which appeared as a frequent non sequitor in the pages of MAD magazine, lasted long enough to see the ant farm arrive, at any rate. It turned out that the ant farm consisted of two sheets of glass, some dirt, and a number of dead ants. The instruction book said they were “dormant,” but they never undormanted, and shortly afterwards Arthur passed on as well, perhaps in sympathy. A few days later our Incredible Assortment boxes arrived, and on the whole, I think we got more fun out of the dormant ants. We should have gone for the sea monkeys.





When Mulberry Street Joey Clams’ Uncle bankrolled the Custom Neon Sign Shop, part of the deal was that we had to keep the radio tuned to WNEW AM at all times. Uncle Danny loved The Make Believe Ball Room Show starring William B. Williams in particular. “That is the place where the ghosts of Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman go tuh have what they call jam sessions,” said Uncle Danny. (Actually it wasn’t, since Artie and Benny were both alive and well in those days). We were permitted to have the sound very low in the event that we were bantering with a client or watching a Mets game on the portable black-and-white TV, but there could be trouble if Uncle Danny waltzed in and cranked up the volume and the radio spewed out anything recorded more than a couple of hours after the start of the Eisenhower administration. (Certain Frank Sinatra songs from the fifties got a pass).


It didn’t happen often, because for one thing Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I had no beef with swing music. On the other hand, neither of us was willing to suffer the insufferable Jonathan Schwartz, who played perfectly fine songs but felt compelled to expound upon them, and especially upon what they meant to him, for 20 minutes at a time. It was murder, and usually we just shut off the radio but now and then we’d spin the dial and live dangerously. One day we forgot to reset the tuner before we turned off the radio, and the next day when Uncle Danny bustled in and turned the radio on, he got an earful of Bachman-Turner Overdrive.


“What is THIS? What is THIS? Did WNEW change its format to ‘Music for Morons?’ ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!’ What kind of English is that? And he’s stuttering! ‘Buh-buh-buh-buh-baby!’ So it’s Music for Stuttering Morons!” Uncle Danny snapped off the radio. “We’ll attend to this later. Right now, I got a job for youse two buh-buh-buh-buh babies.”


I flipped open my memo pad. “What’s the sign going to say?” I said briskly. Mr. Efficiency, that’s me.


“No sign. I need something out at The House.”


‘The House’ was Uncle Danny’s large split level ranch house somewhere in Bergen County. I had been there once before, when Uncle Danny needed waiters for a party and the only available waiters had been me and Mulberry Street Joey Clams. It’s possible that we ended up waitering because of a previous mishap involving the radio, although I don’t recall for certain.


This time around Uncle Danny refused to answer any of our questions about what we would be doing until we were within a couple of miles of The House.  It was like one of those World War II movies where the bomber crew can’t open the sealed orders until they’re already over enemy territory.


“I got a problem with the cable,” he said finally.


“The cable?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“Do me a favor and don’t repeat the last word of every sentence I say, huh? That’s his job.” He jerked a finger at me. It wasn’t exactly my job, but I have to admit it was something I did pretty often around Uncle Danny and Mulberry Street Joey Clams. “I need you to hook up the cable for my cable TV.”


“I don’t have any idea how to do that,” I said. The was the late seventies and the only thing I knew about cable TV was that my parents had recently gotten it and that my sister had gone into hysterics when somebody on HBO said “Crap.”


“You make neon signs,” said Uncle Danny. “This has got to be a lot easier than that.”


“Probably,” I said, “but we still don’t know how to do it.”


“Pretend you’re making a neon sign,” said Uncle Danny.


“This is a little different,” I said.


“No! No! What’s a matter with you two? How old are you? I don’t care, actually, but I know you’re old enough to know that everything is the same as everything else.”


“What?” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


“You heard me. EVERYTHING IS THE SAME AS EVERYTHING ELSE. Believe me, the whole world becomes a lot easier once you understand that.”


“I don’t understand that,” I said.


“That’s what I’m SAYING,” said Uncle Danny.


“Look,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams, addressing me. “It can’t be that hard. You probably just plug it in. If the cable is broken, we can splice it.”


“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t think these are regular wires. It’s not like putting a new plug on a lamp.”


“It’s even easier than that,” said Uncle Danny. The car came to a stop in front of a small apartment building about half a mile from The House. “There’s the cable,” said Uncle Danny. Mulberry Street Joey Clams and I looked out the window. Yes, there did appear to be a cable attached to the apartment building.


“I didn’t know you owned this place,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


Uncle Danny sighed. “I don’t OWN the place. If I owned the place, which you notice HAS a cable, I wouldn’t need you to hook up the cable.” He got out of the car. “De Toro’s mother lives her. According to de Toro, the cable goes into the building and then it splits off. You got maybe 7 little cables coming out of the one big cable.” He paused. “So they won’t notice one more little cable.”


“They might if it makes a left hand turn out the window and doesn’t stop till it gets to your house, which is like blocks away.”


“That’s MY worry. Now, what I want is this Home Box Office thing, all the channels with the Yankees, some Italian language stations for Aunt Rose. No Spanish, though. You come here, you learn to speak English, that’s what I say. Let’s see, a couple of cartoon channels for the little ones, and I don’t want NO DIRTY STUFF at all. Make sure the HBO movies I get don’t have any of this filthy language. There’s no reason for it. You didn’t see Cary Grant going ‘effing’ this and ‘effing’ that.”


“No indeed,” I said.


“That goes for these comedians, too. If you can’t tell a joke without foul language, what does that say about your upbringing, I ask you? What does it say about your mother? And I’m warning you two—I see any of your stuttering moron music on my TV, you will rue the day. You get me?”


“Absolutely,” said Mulberry Street Joey Clams.


Needless to say we were unable to accommodate Uncle Danny. For one thing, we couldn’t get into the building. We told him we did as he’d suggested and pretended we were making a neon sign, and we reminded him that 80% of our signs blew up when they were plugged in.


He wasn’t exactly mollified, but he accepted it. “What’s done is done,” he said, which seemed like a non sequitor until we got to the Neon Sign Shop on Monday and found that the radio tuner had been soldered to WNEW.




Back in October I wrote about how Professor Masayuki Sumida and his team at Hiroshima University have managed to breed mutant frogs with transparent skin—well, really translucent skin, but you can still see the cute little froggy internal organs pumping away. Professor Sumida is of the opinion that the see-through skin thing will only work with amphibians, but I went on the record saying ‘Oh yeah? Sez who?’ I absolutely guaranteed that we’d all be able to get transparent skin pretty soon, and I concluded the column by predicting that in five years “…I bet they’ll have stuff you can drink to make this or that internal organ glow for a few hours.”


It takes a big man to admit that he has been shooting his mouth off in public about things he is totally ignorant about. Wait, there are too many “abouts” in that sentence.


In any case, I want to state here and now that I now realize I was wrong. It’s going to be way sooner than five years.


ITEM: Just over a year ago, scientists in Taiwan bred three pigs that glow in the dark. I know what you’re thinking: “I hate to tell you, Grimshaw, but people have been breeding partially florescent pigs for several years.” Yes, that’s true—bizarre, but true—but these pigs from Taiwan are the first pigs that are florescent through and through. According to the BBC, “Even the hearts and internal organs are green.” And we are not talking about some drab green, like the guy on Project Runway used to make the prom dress for the girl from Catholic School and the judges were all, “What’s with this drab green? She looks like she’s sea sick.” No, these pig hearts are day-glo green. Hold that thought, because I want to get to the next item.


NEXT ITEM: Meanwhile, back on the Chinese mainland, according to the Associated Press, “…a cloned pig whose genes were altered to make it glow fluorescent green has passed on the trait to its young, a development that could lead to the future breeding of pigs for human transplant organs, a Chinese university reported.” This is a totally different batch of glow in the dark pigs. The Taiwan pigs glow in the dark because DNA from jellyfish was added to the embryos. The AP story doesn’t mention jellyfish, it just says the pig embryos were injected with “fluorescent green protein.” For all I know you can buy this stuff at CVS. So we maybe have two different ways to make pig bladders glow in the dark already.


As near as I can tell from skimming these stories, all this has something to do with organ transplants. One of those British scientists with a hyphen in his name is quoted in the AP story as saying, “[bunch of science stuff] [more science stuff] …organs from genetically altered pigs would potentially solve some of the problems of rejected organs in transplant operations...[entire concluding paragraph of science stuff without a single recognizable verb].” The theory being, I gather, that glow-in-the-dark pig organs would be so cool your body would have to be, like, a total dork to reject them.


And did I mention that the new florescent piglets have florescent snouts? This is really good news, because I really want one of the pigs with glow-in-the-dark internal organs, but I’d have to take the word of the florescent pig seller that they were in there. You wouldn’t know for sure until the pig passes on, and then they can always claim that everything stops glowing at that point. Like in werewolf movies when they kill the werewolf and it turns back into a human. Which, by the way, never made any sense to me at all. It’s like if I’d died in high school, and my acne cleared up. I don’t think so.


But the florescent snout thing solves the authenticity problem, mostly. Yes, you’ll have to be on the lookout for con men who slap a little day-glo paint on a regular pig, but such is life. Anyway, we will only need to rely upon the glowing snouts until the Chinese guys with the glowing pigs get together with the Japanese guys with the transparent frogs and give us the transparent pigs with glowing internal organs that we demand.

Two or Three Things I Know about Gretchen


This column was going to be about how scientists in Taiwan have bred pigs that glow in the dark, but my daughter dropped by for an impromptu interview. The fluorescent pigs are coming next week, I promise.


[I am leafing through my thesaurus looking for a classy synonym for “pig.” My daughter Emma and her friend Erin walk in].


EMMA: We went to Q-Mart! There’s an incense store there now.


ME: I’ve got a deadline here…


EMMA: That is so interesting. So there’s an incense called “Patti LaBelle.”


ERIN: It smells like laundry.


ME: Why?


EMMA: I suspect it’s a tribute of some sort. There’s also an incense called “Paris Hilton” and when I asked the incense guy what it smelled like, without missing a beat he said, ‘Like a floozy.’


ME: How quaint.


EMMA: Guess what movie Erin and I are watching tonight?


ME: Um.


ERIN: Are we watching… the fat girl movie?




ERIN: Awesome.


EMMA: I think it’s important to note that Nikki Blonski is embracing * slash * creating her own stereotype. When you type that up, make sure you write out “slash” and don’t just insert a punctuation mark-type slash.


ME: Got it.


EMMA: Arnold did something similar back in the eighties with the whole wise-cracking-muscle-guy thing. Although possibly in his case it was inadvertent because what option did he have?


ERIN: Nikki is doing the same thing, only with fat.


EMMA: She appears to have mental issues as well as being fat. In the fat girl movie, I mean. Her mom is being played by Annie Potts, who supposedly according to the Post traumatizes her by wearing a black cocktail dress and saying “Boy, you’re fat.”


ER: She does?


EMMA: So sayeth the Post. Say something about how I am getting shafted vis-à-vis Gloria Stuart. First I want to talk about something else.


ERIN: Different faces for Rose MacGowan…


EMMA: Yes, different faces for Rose MacGowan. Supposedly she was in a car accident and required plastic surgery because he glasses were driven into her face. What does that even mean?


ERIN: And who knew Rose MacGowan wears glasses?


EMMA: Not I. Now: back to the explicative deleted who stole Gloria Stuart from me. I have had Gloria Stuart in the Ghoul Pool for four years now. She is mine. And this is the year she buys herself a farm, I can sense it. Are you online? Check the IMDB and see when there’s a Gloria Stuart movie on TV.


ME: Can you do that? [checking the IMDB] Wow, you can do that. She’s in the 1939 version of The Three Musketeers next Friday on AMC. It’s the one with The Ritz Brothers.


EMMA: Who?


ME: They were like a low budget version of the Marx Brothers. Interestingly…


EMMA: Interestingly, whenever you say interestingly, whatever follows turns out to be totally not interesting.


ME: In this case, not so. There was an episode of Leave It to Beaver built around that version of the Three Musketeers. Beaver was supposed to do a book report on the book, but he watches the movie instead and he keeps talking about “these three funny guys,” so the teacher figures out what he did.


ERIN: Go Beaver!


EMMA: Wally was so hot. What was his real name?


ME: Tony Dow.


EMMA: See if they have a recent picture of him.


ME: You don’t want to do that. He looks like a boiled potato now.


EMMA: No he—ooh, he does. What happened??


ME: Fifty years and about thirty pounds, give or take.


EMMA: We want to talk about Gretchen and her creepy boyfriend—maybe quotes around the ‘boyfriend’…


ERIN: Not around the ‘creepy,’ tho…


EMMA: No indeed. But first, seven random people on Facebook have written to say I am Juno in the movie of the same name. Hate to disagree, but please recall that she makes this joke about “The Bone Collector” in which she confuses Morgan Freeman with Denzel Washington. I would never do that.


ME: Noted.


EMMA: I mean it. Okay, on to the creepy boyfriend story.


ME: Who is this Gretchen?


EMMA: Gretchen. Erin’s ex room mate.


ME: Okay.


ERIN: It was this weirdo who—get this—went to a bar by himself. He kept buying us shots and trying to get us really drunk, which of course worked Gretchen-wise as her limit is like one whiff of rubbing alcohol.


EMMA: She passed out at the 4th annual “We Still Believe You Winona” Marathon. But she was faking.


ERIN: She didn’t talk in high school. I don’t mean she was shy, she did not speak. Ever. Not ever to teachers. She wanted to get into NYU but they wouldn’t take her.


EMMA: Probably blew the interview, with all the not speaking and so on.


ERIN: They let Crazy Mego into NYU.


EMMA: Can you believe they let Crazy Mego into NYU and not Scarlett Johansson? Fact. So anyway, back to Gretchen.


ERIN: So I was mean to him, he kept buying shots, and they exchanged numbers. So Gretchen and I go him. At 4 AM she sends me a TEXT MESSAGE that he wants to come over. She’s fifteen feet away, on the other side of the wall, and she texts me. She’s all, “What should I do?” It’s four AM! Tell him it’s 4 AM! Then she texts me again: “What should I do?” So I text: GO BACK TO BED AND STOP TEXTING ME. So of course she texts again: “Would you be upset if he comes over?” YES! And I will kill you if he steals my TV. He gave off a real ‘I steal TVs’ kind of vibe. So he did not come over. And the next day I yelled at her for texting me at 4 AM and I didn’t talk to her for 10 days. It’s a game I play called “Let’s pretend I live alone.”


EMMA: Is this my Beeswax? What is it doing by your computer?


ME: I have no idea.


EMMA: We’re going to have to go back to Q Mart. I saw these little Mets shirts you put on beer bottles.


ME: I can’t believe you didn’t buy one.


EMMA: I didn’t come here to be insulted. Come on, Erin.

The Last Owl Sweat Shirt


I am down to my last Owl sweat shirt.


Once upon a time, I had a drawer filled with them—18 or 20 sweatshirts in a variety of colors, all with an identical design over the heart: a cartoony owl sitting on a branch and holding a piece of paper that says “GIVE A HOOT.” I had several t-shirts with the same design as well, but the last one wore out over 15 years ago.


This wealth of owl-related apparel constituted my payment. I was the guy who drew the owl.


A few weeks ago I wrote about my dad hiring me (and my friend Dave) to paint a new “Carpet of Knowledge” for the Masonic Temple in town. The experience ended badly, largely because the Masons did not want pictures of floating eyeballs, naked girls, and beatniks on their carpet.


After that, you might think that I would be the last person the Masons would call upon when they needed someone to draw an owl. And yet…


Well, technically, it was not the Masons. It was the Eastern Star, which is sort of the Masons’ Ladies Auxiliary. (I once referred to them that way and I got an earful, so the operative phrase there is “sort of”).


I was visiting home because my parents finally decided, two and a half years after getting hooked up to cable TV, that it was time to get the antenna off the roof. My dad’s knees were totally shot by this point. He had no trouble admitting this when it was necessary to turn up the sound on the TV (“My knees are shot. Get up and turn that up, would you?”) (Even after two years he hadn’t mastered the remote). But the knees that prevented him from crossing the living room were not about to stop him from scuttling around on the roof, so my mother called me in. I was going to take care of the antenna while she distracted him with a drain that “needed” unclogging.


All this was accomplished without a snag; my father said if I’d waited five minutes we could have had the thing done in ten minutes (instead of the twelve it took me solo), but that was strictly a pro forma complaint. He took the family to dinner at the Calico Kitchen and sprang the owl idea on me.


“The Eastern Star is doing something a little different this year for the fund drive.”


“No cardboard candy bars?”


No. Ozzie Kraus has a friend that has a machine that can print stuff on clothes. Not just words, I mean, but pictures.”


“If the lines are thick and dark enough,” said my mother.


“That’s right. Now, as you know, your mother has selected the owl to be her animal this year.”


It seems that the lady who was whatever the hell my mother was that year in the Eastern Star picks a sort of totem animal. I’m sorry about all the “sort ofs” and “it seems” but they refused to explain anything to me. They just told me what they wanted and everything else was on a need to know basis, and I didn’t need to know anything. Ever, apparently.


“We want you to draw an owl,” said my father. “Not too big. Well, wait. Ozzie says you can make it as big as you want, they can shrink it down. It’ll be about this big on the shirt.” He held up his fist. It looked like he was giving me a “Right on!” signal and it took all my concentration to keep my soda out of my nose.


“I’ve never drawn an owl,” I said.


“We got plenty,” said my father grimly. “You can work from those.” My mother collected owl figurines, which I suspect is why she chose the owl as her whatever it was.


“We want the owl to be holding a scroll that says, ‘Give a Hoot,’” said my mother. “That’s going to be our theme.” As a matter of fact, it was going to be their theme for the next 25 years. It’s what the license plate on their car said, more or less: GIVAHOOT.


When we got home, my mother brought me an owl figurine to copy. Interestingly, this owl was holding a scroll that said “Give a Hoot.”


“So you want me to just copy this thing?”

“Exactly,” said my father. “Just copy that thing. Don’t add anything. No fangs. No werewolves. No beatniks. Just the owl and the sign.”


So I grabbed one of my mother’s yellow legal pads and I sketched the owl. I was just trying to get the proportions right.


“That’s good,” said my father. “But you have to make the lines thicker.”


“This is just a sketch,” I said.


“Okay. But make the lines thicker so I can see what it looks like with thicker lines.”


So I inked my sketch. “I’ll do the real thing in the morning,” I said. “I’ll make the beak a little bigger.”


“Good idea,” said my father. “Wait. Sign it.”


“It’s a sketch.” But I signed it. “I’ll do the real one in the morning.”


In the morning it was too late. Fearful that I was going to add beatniks, my father had taken my drawing to Ozzie Kraus. Ozzie’s friend was able to eliminate the lines from the legal pad when he made the transfer, and the first shirts were being folded up before I had breakfast.


“I could have done a much better owl if you’d given me a chance,” I said.


It’s fine,” said my father.


The Eastern Star chapter sold—I’m not making this up—over a thousand of these shirts. For the next five years and beyond, when I visited my parents I would almost inevitably see someone at the supermarket or at the Chinese takeout place wearing one of my shirts. It was by far the most successful drawing I ever did.


Well, let’s face it, it was the most successful anything I ever did.


I wore my owl shirts for dirty work, like painting and digging, and I went through them steadily. They were good quality sweatshirts, but they couldn’t stand up to the abuse I put them through, and now I’m down to the very last one. Not one of my favorites, either—it’s dark maroon, and they printed the owl in white on the dark shirts. It doesn’t look nearly as good, and you can barely make out my signature.


And today when I took it out of the drier, I noticed the cuff was starting to fray.


The owl sweatshirt is officially on the endangered species list.

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