Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Folk Music Lynch Mob

There’s this folk music club, they call themselves “The Serious Folk,” and they meet every other Sunday afternoon in the conference room at Murray’s A-1 Driving School. Membership is by invitation only, followed by an audition. My invitation was proffered by the chairperson, after a chance meeting at Wang’s Health Food Emporium. Apparently, lingering in the exotic mustard aisle qualified me as a potential candidate for the club. 

Sharon Smoot is the chairperson’s name, though she prefers to be called “Joni” with an “i,” after the celebrated folksinger, Joni Mitchell. In fact, every member of "The Serious Folk" refers to themselves by the name of a famous singer of folk songs. The introductions took place with the members sitting on metal folding chairs arranged in a circle. One by one, the entire quixotic personas revealed themselves: Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Donovan, Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin, all three members of The Kingston Trio (one of whom reminded me he knows his way around the banjo), James Taylor, Woody Guthrie, and Gordon Lightfoot (who said to call him “Gord” for short).

Joni (Sharon) called the meeting to order by tapping her hand on her acoustic guitar in the manner of a judge’s gavel. Then, taking turns, each member played a song attributed to their imagined persona.  Prior to Joni’s performance, she gave a long-winded spiel about how she’s worked in the folk music business for many years, and had a front-row seat at one of Joni’s shows, where, she’s certain, Joni sang three songs especially to her. So she sent a macrame plant-holder to Joni herself with a note signed, “The woman in the knitted vest in the front row at the Chicago show.”

As the performances commenced, it was clear everyone knew the chords to their chosen songs. But the vocals...oh boy. If voices were cars on a blacktop, they hastily veered onto the shoulder, and at times, left the road altogether, never quite finding their way back to the highway. During Joni’s rendition of “Woodstock,” I found myself wishing those “bomber jet planes riding shotgun in the sky” would zero in on Murray’s A-1 Driving School and put us all out of our misery. A group of hobbyhorsical impersonators if there ever was one.

When it came to my audition, I removed my accordion from its case, plugged in the special effects machine and stood in the middle of the chair circle. Years of childhood lessons from the bow-tied Mr. Totten prepared me for this moment. Joni asked which folk singer I was representing, and I assured her he’s very recognizable and well-liked. I switched the bubble machine on max and began a lively rendition of “Getting to Know You.” Iridescent bubbles filled the room, some landing gracefully on members of "The Serious Folk" who began restrained efforts at swatting them like flies at a picnic. Towards the middle of the song, Joni began yelling and flailing her arms at the bubbles, whooshing them ever higher into the room.

–Joni:  Outside accoutrements  are not allowed! Turn off that bubble-thing, and who are you supposed to be, anyway?”
–Me:  Lawrence Welk. Call me Larry for short. (I winked at Gord).
–Joni:  Lawrence Welk is not a folksinger! (Surely, the real Joni’s eyes didn’t bug out when irked) You’re not the same as us!
–Me:  Is there a separate drinking fountain for accordionists?
–Joni:  We have parameters. And I’ve sold T-shirts at the Newport Folk Festival!
–Me:  How about another selection, perhaps the catchy “Lady of Spain?”
–Joni:  We’ve heard enough! (A shriek that put neighborhood squirrels on high alert).
–Me: There’s a little dance number at the end.
–Joni:  This is a club for serious folk music. Play by the rules or you’re out.
–Me:  Love it or leave it. Where have I heard that before. (The Kingston Trio appeared agitated).

Finding courage in numbers, “The Serious Folk” began rising from their chairs, chanting, “No Lawrence Welk! No Lawrence Welk!” With their wrath piercing through the ever-growing cloud of bubbles, it had the makings of an old fashioned lynch mob. Quick as a flash, I placed the accordion in the case and made a bee-line for the door, dodging venomous threats like, “Get a banjo,” and the one that really hurt, “Keep away from the snacks.”  Just before finding my way outside, Donovan threw an Earth Shoe at me. It grazed the accordion case, and I turned to see the entire group in a bubble-filled frenzy, wind-milling the air. Joan Baez hollered, “Turn off that goddamn bubble machine. It’s going to poison the herbal tea.”

The door slammed behind me, a welcomed bulkhead from the firestorm. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never confront the fury of a feverish mob, especially a serious one made jittery by an accordion and a swarm of bubbles. I chalked up the bubble machine to collateral damage and made a vow to, never again, linger in Wang’s exotic mustard aisle.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Plum Burglar

There were seventy-three plums missing from my plum tree. It’s a dignified tree with purple leaves that casually stakes its claim to the far corner of my backyard. I’ve pruned, fertilized, and watered this tree for over fifteen years and, for at least twelve of those years, the tree has been named Mrs. Spiegel. The lovely, grey-haired Mrs. Spiegel admired the tree from its inception and requests a small bag of plums every season, “Just enough to make a nice pie.”  I’m no plum hoarder and willingly give Mrs. Spiegel a generous share at harvest time. And when people come to my door asking for donations for various causes, they always leave with a handful of fresh plums. Nope, you couldn’t call me an uncharitable plum miser.

But when someone (Sandra Prickett) sneaks into my yard and picks a couple bucketfuls of plums....that’s overstepping the plum-hospitality boundary. So, I began leaving notes on a clipboard attached to the tree. Included was a pen affixed to the tree with a small they do in banks.
The notes commenced on a daily basis:

–Me: Dear Sandra Prickett, There are 73 plums missing from my tree.
–Sandra: Are you accusing me?
–Me: Your cigarette butts, lipstick-covered Camel Menthols, litter the crime scene. There’s now an ashtray next to the tree for your convenience.
–Sandra:  Who counts their plums, anyway?
–Me: Me.
–Sandra: I just needed some plums to make a pie.
–Me: 73 is enough to make ten pies.
–Sandra: Do you want them back? I’m not especially fond of  purple plums anyway. I prefer the red ones.
–Me: No, your cooties are all over them.
–Sandra: Are the plums organic?
–Me: They are radioactive.
–Sandra: Not funny, and what's with the mousetraps hanging from the branches?
–Me: They’re merely decorative reminders to the occasional kleptomaniac.
–Sandra: Pretty goddamn stingy, aren’t you! Some things are meant to be shared!
–Me: Good Point. My porch light burned out so I walked over to your house and took your bulb. I’m not especially fond of those swirly CFLs. I prefer the warm glow of tungsten.
–Sandra: Your nuts!
–Me: Now you’re getting it. But they’re plums, not nuts.   

The notes have ceased, but the ashtray in the plummery is bent over, cattywampus-like. Two additional plums have gone missing, but I’m giving Sandra the benefit of the doubt and chalking it up to a larcenous squirrel. Just the same, her continual lurking around Mrs. Spiegel gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Bird in the Van

It’s nesting season and Lem Skibbler can’t drive his van, a rusted-out 1992 Ford Aerostar, formally blue, now faded to the color of an overcast sky, and spiced up with a bumper sticker proclaiming “Free Mustache Rides, See Driver for Details.” Every spring, and into the summer, a bird or two makes a nest in one of the sizeable rust holes on the side of the van. Among members of the Kildare Bird Club, the van has been dubbed “The Roost.” The Roost rests in Lem’s driveway, and once a bird has established a home, the van doesn’t get moved. This occurs from May through July. The members of the bird club are grateful for Lem’s charitable consideration of our feathered friends. There is, however, one hitch. As they say, everything has a price, and the price of this good deed is Lem must be driven around town to a variety of destinations during the three months while an assortment of birds have moved into his van.

This year, a family of robins has already taken up residence in a melon-sized rust-hole located just under the passenger side window. Lem didn’t notice the nest until he took a short drive to the Jiffy-Stop. The mother bird followed him, squawking and throwing a general bird-fit throughout the entire trip. So now, the van sits parked, the mother robin has settled down, and Lem needs a ride to....everywhere.

In an effort to support anything bird related, the Kildare Bird Club has undertaken the burden of offering Lem a ride to a hodgepodge of destinations during nesting season. Lem is assigned a different driver every week. A colorful chart, titled “Thank Goodness for Us,” divides the task among all five club members.

Though we appreciate Lem’s bird-loving spirit, it’s been necessary to limit the amount of rides to the strictly necessary. No more going back to the store because of a not-completely-thought-out comb purchase or the wrong kind of beer-nuts. And no more exchanging shampoos just because of a disappointing scent. The lemon-scented shampoo works just the same as the agave, and that’s science, and if anything, the Kildare Bird Club is all about science. Also, no more driving over to Chad’s Taco Shack to see if the beguiling Lalou is working the drive-up window. Just the necessary, like food and medical appointments. And dropping in at the medical center to browse their selection of magazines does not count as an appointment.

I was the first driver on the Thank Goodness chart this year, and with the guidelines in place, the task appeared less tedious than the whimsical journeys of years gone by. A once-a-week trip to the store and maybe a small errand was all I expected. Until Lem called one night at about ten o’clock.

–Lem: Yeah, I’m going to need a ride to Club Olé.
–Me: It’s kind of late, isn’t it?
–Lem: I meet my girlfriend every Wednesday at eleven o’clock.
–Me: Can’t she come to your house?
–Lem: No, she’s working. At the club.
–Me: Can’t she drop by after work?
–Lem: Well, no. She doesn’t know where I live.
–Me: She’s your girlfriend, and she doesn’t know where you live?
–Lem: Our relationship is kind of a secret. They’re very strict at Club Olé. They don’t allow their employees to date the customers.
–Me: That sounds like a violation of something.
–Lem: She’s a performer, and you know how show biz works.
–Me: Oh.
–Lem: She depends on me to be there every Wednesday. So how ‘bout it?
–Me: What’s your girlfriend’s name?
–Lem: Sin.
–Me: Cindy’s a nice name, down-to-earth.
–Lem: No, Sinful, as in forbidden stuff.
–Me: What’s her full name?
–Lem: Miss Sinful, but I call her by her nickname, Sin.
–Me: Miss Sinful, that’s what it says on her driver’s license?
–Lem: That’s her stage name. You’ve got a lot to learn about show biz.
–Me: What’s her real name?
–Lem: She can’t tell that to anyone. It’s show biz rules, man.
–Me: So, she’s your girlfriend and you don’t know her name.
–Lem: Let me clue you in on a secret: no one in show biz uses their real name.
–Me: Do you give her money?
–Lem: Of course I do. I support the arts, like those PBS dudes, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
–Me: Do you write her a check?
–Lem: No man, dollar bills...a whole bunch of ‘em.
–Me: So she’s a dancer.
–Lem: She prefers to be called a visual artist. She uses the human form as a canvas.
–Me: Perhaps she’s using your wallet as a canvas.
–Lem: Look, bird boy, if you don’t want to go, I might have to take The Roost.
–Me: OK, but I’m just dropping you off. No more waiting in the parking lot like last year when you spent three hours dancing the hokey pokey at Susan Gup's wedding.
–Lem: Maybe you and that bird posse should think about getting hip to the know, become an enthusiast like me.

Patience is often the hallmark of a successful birder.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Find the Black Guy

Allan Blick has some great ideas, and this time I think he's knocked it out of the park. Allan has been a film maker for most of his adult life. Some people call him a hopeless amateur, but there's plenty of hidden meanings in Allan's films. Sure, his last one, the highly-charged political sci-fi, "The Cabbage that Threatened to March in Skokie" didn't fare well at the box office (the box office being Allan's den). But that was apparently due to the ill-advised usage of the phrase "Threatened to March" in the title. He said he learned his lesson and will re-release it during the summer blockbuster season with a new title, "The Cabbage that made Skokie Uncomfortable."

This time, though, he's onto something. His latest project, "Find the Black Guy," is a contemporary offering along the lines of the ever-popular children's book, "Where's Waldo." Allan's inspiration is driven by the lack of nominations for Black actors in several Oscar award categories. In sympathy with the plight of actors of color, Allan has already hired a Black guy for the key role. Granted, it's a non-speaking part, and he only appears on screen for three seconds, but it's the focus of the film. Allan has his fingers crossed that an award lingers in the young actor's future.

The rest of the cast is a bunch of White people, and as Allan likes to say, he keeps his already-strained-budget in the thrifty arena by not hiring the likes of Meryl Streep and the rest of her over-priced ilk. A whole host of regular, unemployed, White people have already signed on for the project. And, as usual, Allan pays his cast in gift cards that cannot be redeemed for alcohol. He prefers a sober cast and makes a definitive proclamation at the beginning of every project not to call him "Al."

The story is more like a puzzle-quest for the viewer. The object is to find the Black Guy in the movie. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but I will say, having read the script, he appears somewhere towards the end and, be forewarned, it's a fleeting glimpse. Some film buffs will find it necessary to see it twice to verify the sighting. Sort of like when Alfred Hitchcock used to appear for a passing moment in his films.

The setting is Highland Park, Illinois, an insular and leafy White suburb of Chicago where people claim to reside in order to send their children to the best schools. Allan says this is a self-entitled code for "no Black folks allowed." But he says it makes it easy to shoot street scenes without Black people accidentally creeping into the shot and ruining the premise of the movie.

Even as the shooting is set to begin, Allan is working on a follow-up script, a low-budget western, tentatively titled, "Find the Indian." This one proves to be even more puzzling for the audience. It is up to them to determine what kind of Indian they are looking for: an Indian from the continent of India or a Native American Indian. Allan believes this will be an action-filled nail-biter, and, frankly, challenging, depending on the perspective of the audience.

I've already invested in "Find the Black Guy" by purchasing six family-sized bags of chips and a case of beverages for the cast; soft drinks, as per Allan's request. This assures me of a highly sought-after prize, a front row seat in the over-stuffed cushy chair in Allan's screening den. Allan says there's still room for more investors, but keep in mind, the cushy chair has been reserved.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fjord the Witness

Wade Thorton ambushed me in the salsa section of Ernies Fine Liquors. You know the type, the spokesperson for All Things Wade. We hadn't seen each other since the time his trophy-wife referred to me as "an off-balanced misfit, lacking any kind of entrepreneurial focus," an intended insult which, really, was kind of accurate, but it was a line in the sand that allowed me to tip-toe away from our relationship. He greeted me with a handshake reminiscent of a political candidate and held onto my hand for a little bit too long, physically pulling me alongside his fervid soapbox. What follows are the highlights without the dramatic undertones, colorful details, and feigned confidence-taking. One thing about potentates: while they're pontificating, there's plenty of time to spend alone with one's thoughts, especially if the listener, like me, has the attention span of a distracted field mouse.

--Wade: I'm the CEO of a company that does 700 million dollars a year in business. My expertise is consulting with financial issues. The shareholders have indicated their confidence in me is unwavering, and...
--My wandering mind: ((I wonder if you could help me sort out last month's cable bill.))

--Wade: I have my own private plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, the finest single-prop airplane money can buy, the Cadillac of the sky. I fly it all over the Midwest to business meetings. Just yesterday I was at 7,000 feet and....
--My wandering mind: ((The thing is, they say I'm getting the premium package, but for the life of me, I can't find the Beverly Hillbillies channel.))

--Wade: I climbed K2 last year. You can have Everest. For my money, K2 is the better climb. I go glacier-hopping and have sampled the ice chips of every major glacier in the world. What's next you're wondering, well...
--My wandering mind: ((I'm beginning to think unicyclists are the show-offs of the bicycle world. I mean, you never see them carrying a sack of groceries...or carrying anything, for that matter.))

--Wade: The wife and I have been to all seven continents. I've discovered that vacations are the true measure of a person. The vacation makes the man. Nothing, and I mean nothing, stands in the way of my vacation. I've got pictures...
--My wandering mind: ((I'm making a list of real snappy case CB radios make a comeback.))

--Wade: Not since her shoe-modeling days at L.L Bean, has my wife had to work. She's ranked eleventh in polo, her beloved pastime. She travels with at least seven pieces of luggage.
--My wandering mind: ((The shoe size of Cinderella with the carbon footprint of Sasquatch.))

--Wade: The wife's hobby is looking at Castles, so we go to Scotland, England, and France every year in search of a new castle experience. Our favorites are in Scotland, though the cuisine can't compare to...
--My wandering mind: ((Oh Auntie Em, I'm here at Ernies! I'm trapped in Wade's virtual castle, and I can't get away, Auntie Em!))

There was lots more, and with each accomplishment I ooh’d and ahh’d as if watching a trapeze act. When Wade's blustering subsided, he obligingly asked what I'd been up to. I stammered for a moment, partly because I'd been imagining Wade being carried off by flying monkeys, and partly because I doubted he'd be interested in my casual, but year-long quest to find a copy of Connie Stevens' 1960 hit, "Sixteen Reasons."

There was nothing I could say that measured up to Wade's narrative, but as the Wicked Witch of the West once said while wringing her boney hands together, "Why, my little party's just beginning." I got real close to him and kind of whispered, "Don't let this go any further. I'm in the Witness Protection Program." He looked genuinely stunned. "Wife, son, the whole family. Changed our names and everything. We are now the Sweedlers. I'm Fjord, like the inlet. The 'J' is silent. Fjord Sweedler is my new name. Do me a big favor and forget you even saw me."
Wade leaned into to me and lowered his voice,  "What was it, some sort of mob thing?"
"Can't talk about it Wade. It's big....big as K2, maybe bigger. Lives are at risk. I gotta go."
"Sure, nice seeing you, Da.."
I discreetly reminded him, "Fjord...with a silent 'J'."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Cracker Jack

We didn't know his real name, so Mahmood and I referred to him as Cracker Jack. A box of Cracker Jack and an Orange Crush: that’s what he got every day for lunch at Jiffy Nifty. Between noon and 1:00 pm, Cracker Jack sauntered into Jiffy Nifty and, with barely a word, put his money on the counter (exact change) and headed off on foot. I spoke to him several times and, once, offered some culinary advice regarding the mixing of Cracker Jack and Hot Nuts, a celebrated recipe popular with Spanish merchant seamen. But, as he did to Mahmood, the clerk and proprietor of Jiffy Nifty, he merely nodded a polite recognition and walked out the door, never speaking a word.

Mahmood and I discussed Cracker Jack in great length and were vexed as to the mystery surrounding his presence. He wore the same outfit every day: a white sailors cap and a dark blue P-coat buttoned up to the top, a timeless wrap that spoke to the under-appreciated sailors who've kept ships traversing the seas for hundreds of years. And given his advanced years and scraggly greyish beard, he could have been an aged-advanced image of the young sailor on the box of Cracker Jack.

While sharing some of Jiffy Nifty's best turkey-jerky, Mahmood and I mulled over the possibility that Cracker Jack might not be a real sailor, seeing as how the nearest naval base was 30 miles from the gas station.  Among the things we considered: he never used the word "ahoy" or any other nautical terms as in, "Ahoy, mates, I'll be droppin' anchor at Jiffy Nifty."

It was a mystery, and though some might say it was none of our business, Mahmood and I consider ourselves to be curious types, inquisitive minds who seek answers, not only to the authenticity of Cracker Jack, the person, but to other cultural mysteries, like, for instance, why aren't nut-flavored drinks more popular with the risk-taking, pierced and tattooed crowd. So we hatched a plan to engage Cracker Jack in an extended conversation, and like most plans fueled by gas station snack food, it had all the moxie of Lewis and Clark prior to embarking on their quest for the Northwest Passage.

The setup unfolded with the precision of a Swiss watch as Cracker Jack was paying for his signature lunch. Mahmood told him it was taken care of by me, the guy standing to his starboard, a concept that caused a considerable amount of discussion and practice and, honestly, confused the both of us, especially when stage-starboard and stage-port were thrown into the mix. When Cracker Jack began speaking, phase two of the plan, which involved a complimentary giant pretzel, fumbled its way towards implementation. "Thanks for the lunch. I suppose that makes us even."
"Even?" I replied, hoping to steer the nautical junket away from a sandbar.
"Yes, even. In the third grade, I was the new kid and the first day, you sat with me at lunch and I gave you my box of Cracker Jack." As he reached for the door, he said matter-of-factually, "Now we're square," and the door closed behind him.

I reflected on his lunchtime manifesto while watching him depart across the parking lot, not looking back, a ship embarking on schedule with a curious wake. Mahmood shrugged his shoulders, "What was that about? Could it be, my friend, that once upon a time the two of you crossed paths?"

Like a long dormant volcano with decades full of lava rising to the surface, the third grade connection nudged my otherwise peeve-laden memory and in a flash, flew out in an uncontrolled screech, "It's Futterman!" In my ebullience, I turned to Mahmood, "It's Dukie Futterman from the third grade. We were in Mrs. Stansfield's class together. He used to eat Cracker Jack every day for lunch. His collection of Cracker Jack prizes was the talk of the school; they were lined up on shelves in his parent's rumpus room!" I paused to catch my breath, "Mahmood, this case is closed. He's not Cracker Jack, not a landlocked sailor lost among landlubbers; he's the grownup Dukie." 

Mahmood, always the one to see the larger picture, pondered the air above his cash register, "Imagine, after all these years, the size of his Cracker Jack prize collection. One prize per day for so many years." He closed his eyes for a moment while conjuring up an image. "Think of it, if displayed properly, with tastefully placed accent lighting, the collection could eclipse the grandeur of the PEZ museum. It might be a modern-day marvel, the likes of which we have never seen." Mahmood waved his hands back and forth, punctuating his proclamation. "No, my friend, this case is not closed, not by any means." And he offered some courtesy turkey-jerky while we began hashing through a concoction of schemes to somehow gather a peek at Dukie Futterman's rumpus room.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Garbanzo's Misfortune

As crashes go, it wasn’t all that big, not like on one of those TV interviews where they say it sounded like a freight train. This was more like being hit from behind by an out-of-balance washing machine. The driver was, as I was to quickly discover, my new best friend, Humberto, from El Salvador.  When he piled into the back of my car, he confessed to having too much cerveza and was distracted with worry for Garbanzo, the pet goat he reluctantly left back home in Central America. In the late night darkness of Chicago's Clark Street, Humberto made a promise to pay for any damage: “I give you my word, señor, and a word is all a poor El Salvadorian has to give. On my honor, this misfortune will be set straight, and I apologize for the trouble my Garbanzo has caused this evening.”                               
At the shake of a hand, a deal was made. Humberto was to drop off a payment every Sunday afternoon at my house. The total amount of the damage was a little over a thousand dollars, to which Humberto, on his first visit, exclaimed, while handing me a ten dollar bill, “It will take some time, my friend, but we will travel this road together, and we will have a drink about it at the end.”  He liked to remind me that he, as owner of Garbanzo, is responsible for any damage caused by the troublesome goat (even if the goat resides two thousand miles away in a place cloaked by a blanket of humidity). Humberto always looked to the horizon while saying these things. He had an earnest practicality along with a vision of the future.

During each of Humberto’s visits, he gladly accepted an offer of an ice cold cerveza. “Three’s my limit,” he cautiously reminded himself after downing the third one. Every payment was placed in a cigar box, labeled, “Garbanzo’s Misfortune,” and after three months of Sundays, the total cash payments amounted to $97.87. But that was not all. In addition to the money, Humberto unloaded what he called “valuable mementos to help us reach our destination.” He began by stacking the items in a pile that started in a corner of my garage and gradually spread toward the center, much like an ominous town-eating lava flow. He said it is his dream that one day we will have the king of all garage sales; people will come from miles around, and once they realize the value of the collection, money will flow from their wallets, and Garbanzo’s debt will be paid.

Some highlights of  Humberto’s mementos:
--Tony Orlando and Dawn’s greatest hits album.
--Electric rooster clock.
--Game of Twister
--Three buckets of plastic geraniums.
--Swizzle sticks from El Toro Tap.
--Four red vinyl chairs.
--One stuffed armadillo.
--Eric Estrada poster.
--Toreador lamp.
--Spice Girls candelabra.
--Banana-shaped comb.
--Antless ant farm.

As if fueled by movements of unstoppable, underground tectonic plates, the pile burgeons and includes many yard ornaments: the ample-bottomed wooden lady bending over, two small windmills, and numerous yard signs, one of which says, "Shit's Creek Survivor." Once, I questioned Humberto as to the origin of the items, as some seemed very well-used. Again, he looked toward the horizon while replying, “They come to me while I’m driving, praying to the Virgin Guadalupe and hoping for an end to my hardship. Wait and see, my friend. Destiny has brought us together on this journey, and every day I dream of the time when my collection of mementos brings an end to this burden, the burden brought upon me by the curse of the reckless Garbanzo.”

As the lava pile expands, threatening my prized collection of North American pine cones, Humberto and I share the same dream.