Jeff Grimshaw's The first issue of Crystal Drum magazine was published in 1976, as part of the NYU Science Fiction Society Amateur Press Association, APA-NYU. IT CEASED PUBLICATION WITH ISSUE 83 in October 2002! But old issues can still be obtained through the mail($3.00 cheap!).
For ordering information and stuff like that, click HERE
And to find out how to order the EVEN NEWER AND SPIFFIER collection, 'THE CUSTOM NEON SIGN SHOP,' click HERE . Both of these books are illustrated by PAUL PROCH , Eventually we will have a page for the book that came out between "Uncle Tug" and "Custom Neon Sign Shop," "CTHULHU'S BACK IN TOWN," which was also illustrated by Paul. If you want to know more about Paul, you might want to go HERE .
And then again, you may not. Instead you might want to visit the home page of the PBS "OFF THE CHARTS" SONG POEM CONTEST and not only READ MY WINNING LYRIC but actually HEAR THE RESULTING SONG. (They also have a color photo of me posted!)
The erstwhile editor of Crystal Drum REMAINS the humor columnist for the Delaware Valley News in Hunterdon County, NJ. hence...
CONTACT: (all letters lowercase)j (underscore) grim (underscore) shaw (underscore-- don't give up-- you're almost there!)55 (at)(by "at," I mean the little squiggly thing you get when you hold the shift key down and hit "2" on your keyboard) yahoo (dot) com
HEY! WOULDN'T YOU LIKE TO JOIN THE GHOUL POOL???
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
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 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—“
“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.
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
I did not know that.
I enlisted Calvano and
Picarillo, and we walked along the railroad tracks that would eventually take
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.
ME: Emma, I wanted to
interview you about how you handled Hurricane Gustav last week. When did you
decide you were going to leave
EMMA: I didn’t. It was taken out of my hands. We hit the road at 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
ME: No, I didn’t. Is that true?
ME: So at you called me to tell me you were zipping along
EMMA: Yes. All the cars were
going the other way. It was
my time, by the way. We were two hours out of
ME: But you didn’t get there until . 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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
GIRL WITH THIRD EYE: Well, it’s not THERE.
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
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.
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
And frankly it’s your loss, because these were world class spiders.
What happened was this: my
daughter Emma was visiting from
“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
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
“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
“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?
“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
“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.”
“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
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.
FIRST REPORT FROM
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
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
ME: Okay, okay…
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
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.
BERETTA MEGO: Catahoulas are
the state dog of
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.
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
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
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?”
“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.