Sunday, July 25, 2010

Murder Scene

Patty Peck and her husband, Irwin are members of a swell camping club called The Scampers. They are our friends, but we can't join the club because we don't have a recreational vehicle. All the members of the Scampers are resourceful people, down-to-earth types who could make-do with what they have in case of any type of catastrophic event. The Scampers don't know who Tyra Banks is, and to their credit, couldn't care less. They don't even have cable TV. They are happy to roam the countryside, stopping in small groups at campsites and telling stories and singing songs around campfires. Patty once showed me how to make a musical instrument out of a piece of wire and a gourd. More than anything, I want to be a Scamper.

The other night, while watching a late night TV commercial, a guy calling himself Tom Tart of Tom Tart's RV Sales was pronouncing his "Sizzlin' Summer Madness Sale." He was all sweaty, and while wiping his brow, he kept exclaiming, "The heat's got to me and I've lost my mind! The prices are so low that it's madness, madness, madness!" I'm not one to take advantage of people under the kind of emotional duress like Tom Tart seemed to be experiencing, but figured this may be my ticket into The Scampers (and maybe later pay Tom the full value of the vehicle when he recovers from his summer heat-related problems).

Big banners hung in the heat over Tom Tart's lot, announcing the Sizzlin' Summer Madness Sale. Tom emerged from his trailer and mustered up all the enthusiasm he could manage on a hot July afternoon. He shook our hands and proclaimed that, behind him was ten acres of happiness, in the way of freedom of the American road. My wife was not so keen on the idea but agreed to at least take a look at Tom's inventory.

As Tom began showing us through the vehicles, his pitch invariably began with "picture this," and then while sitting in the interior of a roughly 7 x 10 foot space, with a grand sweep of his hand, he'd pretend to imagine the view out the windshield. It was "picture this: the Grand Canyon, picture this: the Rocky Mountains, picture this: the tropical paradise of Florida." After looking at our fifth unit (and way too many picture this's), my wife turned to Tom and said, "Picture this: I murder my husband after spending just two weeks cooped up with him in one of these tin cans."
Tom didn't know quite what to say after that, but I thanked him for showing us around and, though I knew it was fruitless, I whispered to him that we'd be back after I talked to my wife.

On our way home, the discussion went something like this:
--Me: The Pecks spend about six months of the year in their RV.
--Her: We are not the Pecks and you are not Irwin.
--Me: What do you mean?
--Her: I love you, but I have my limits.
--Me: Well, I wouldn't mess up any of your magazines, and I'd refill your iced tea glass when it was even half empty. You'd never go thirsty with me around all the time.
--Her: Living in a tin shack on wheels with you is more than I could stand.
--Me: I don't understand.
--Her: I'm sorry, but you're a small-dose-person; a little of you goes a long way. You're tolerably annoying. You always have been, and will continue to be, annoying.
--Me: Plenty of women have broken up with me in the past, and not one of them ever used the word "annoying." There may have been other, somewhat plausible terms used, but never "annoying;" that, I'd remember.
--Me again, after a long pause: If we get an RV, what should we call it? Patty Peck named theirs "Hello Goodbye," so I'll leave the naming up to you.
--Her: How about "The Murder Scene."

So the discussion was over, and though it was apparent we'd never be Scampers, the "annoying" inference was unsettling. This was a quality I'd never noticed in myself, so I began to reflect on past relationships. There was Raakel, the Finnish unicyclist, who used to call me something in her native tongue. It was "harmittaa." She used the word constantly when she was around me, and in fact, it was the last word she spoke to me (shouted, really) while riding off down Ashland avenue on her one-wheeled bike. She yelled it over her shoulder.

It would indeed be curious if "harmittaa" meant "annoying," but I don't see how it fits; it doesn't sound like the me I've come to know: the cautious me who checks the stove several times during the night; the thoughtful me who offers reminders about crumbs, expiration dates on food, remote control etiquette, and the proper way to squeeze a lemon. Not to mention my insightful commentaries on current culture, the legal system, and all Connie Stevens related events. Now that I think about it, that Finnish word must mean "thank you." Raakel now lives in Finland where she is undoubtedly enjoying the benefits of my tutelage. One day I hope to thank her, too, for the memory of her fond good-bye and remind her, again, not to leave crumbs all over the place.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cold Duck Specialist

Remember Cold Duck, the somewhat understated beverage that combined red wine with the sparkle of champagne? Whatever happened to that stuff? I remember many a lustrous evening sipping Cold Duck with a healthful snack of chips and sour cream dip. And now it can't be found anywhere on the north side of Chicago. Let's face it, trendy White people who decide what's best for the rest of us have gone crazy to omit this beverage from their culinary lexicon. It's these kinds of nobody-appointed-them-tastemakers who were responsible for the disappearance of Champale, another quality beverage that could hold its own against any peanut or chip-based food product. And more often than not, its consumption, much like Cold Duck's, was the preamble to an evening of romance.

This snooty wine "specialist" at Ernie's Fine Liquors laughed when I asked if they had any Cold Duck. So I inquired as to how he became a wine specialist; was there any college degree involved; did he own a winery? All I got was "the look," you know, the look that says, "don't bother the great specialist," like he invented the Dewey Decimal System or something.

I think these wine specialists should be looked into. They are parading around in a self-proclaimed world of their own making, passing themselves off as experts to the unwitting public. Just because someone remembers the names of a few exotic-sounding wines and some grapes that aren't in the produce section of the grocery store is no cause for celebration. At the very least, when asked, they should be required to offer some sort of wine credentials and not imply that the person asking the question should leave the store, and after further inquiries, not ban the person from the store so that the person has to wear a disguise in order to shop there (and use a fake voice, too).

Doctors give advice and they have certificates in fancy frames on the walls of their offices, so why should the wine specialist at Ernie's become upset when told that his certificate can't be found anywhere, not even in the bathroom which is "reserved for employees only." And surely, it can't be the job of the learned specialist to knock repeatedly on the bathroom door when it's obviously in use. What if a person has to use the toilet while shopping, do we just use the ice chest? A specialist should have answers to these questions, and the response, "perhaps you'd be happier shopping elsewhere," is not an answer, I can tell you that.

And another thing: a blue vest with an embroidered logo does not make a person a specialist. Of that, I'm certain.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Canoe Yoga

My friend, Glenn Blevins, wants to go on a canoe trip. He's never been in a canoe and says we should get some practice before heading out into the wilderness. He knows I've had a canoe for over thirty years but insists that we take lessons together. I don't claim to be an expert, but ownership of the equipment often-times counts for something. Glenn's lack of confidence in my canoeing ability stems from an incident that occurred many years ago involving a collision with a small sailboat in the Skokie Lagoons. To set the record straight, I did not purposely ram the sailboat as those girls stated. It was a navigational maneuver gone awry; an intended effort to meet sailors of the fairer sex. And, besides, it was only my canoe that capsized, and the reason my good friend, Ray "One Toke" Tribble, nearly drowned was because of his heroic attempts to salvage the many bottles of Heineken we had on board. The real loss was my Sansui portable tape player, cranking out Redbone's "Come And Get Your Love" as it sunk to the bottom of the lagoon, where it remains to this very day.

Glenn has heard this story from a number of people who have found it necessary to exaggerate the outcome. He, therefore, finds it difficult to let go of the legacy. (And it's not true that, while standing on the banks of the lagoon at night, the song "Come and Get Your Love" could be heard playing underwater for several days afterwards).

At first, I told him that lessons were not necessary; we'd be just fine, but one night he shows up at my house, holding two official-looking passes touting canoe lessons. The tickets were complimentary and he said if I went along he'd buy a pecan pie afterwards. So off we trudged to the Canoe Headquarters of Greater Chicago. Turns out, the headquarters was a storefront on Clark street. The nearest water was Lake Michigan, six blocks away.

We were met at the door by a serious-looking guy with a shaved head and wearing what looked like one of those white karate outfits. "Please find a mat and a paddle and take your place, and allow at least eight feet between mats," he said while gesturing to the large open room behind him. There were no canoes in sight, only bins of wooden canoe paddles and a stack of yoga mats. After about a dozen people showed up, the bald karate guy clapped his hands and said, "Welcome to Canoe Yoga, I'm Greg, your Paddlemaster. Everyone remove your shoes and take your place on your mat." He stood before the group with his arms crossed, looking like Yule Brenner in "The King and I." Everybody quickly assembled like it was the first day of kindergarten. He guided us through some warm-up moves and had us kneel on our mats. "Grab your paddle and begin paddling downstream. Imagine you're gliding through the great river of life."

After paddling air for two minutes, I turned to Glenn and whispered, "That pecan pie better be the best pecan pie known to man."
The Paddlemaster gave me a look, "No talking, please, while in your canoe."
I couldn't help thinking that I wasn't in my canoe. I was kneeling on a yoga mat on Clark street, paddling nothing but air, and if anyone saw me, they'd have me committed. He gave me another look, "You're paddling in circles. Paddle on both sides. Switch off, first one side, then the other. As in life, your journey should always be ahead of you." It wasn't dizzy that I was feeling, but I let it go, after all, I was gliding through the great river of life where trouble is often, unknowingly, right around the bend.

Then Paddlemaster Greg exclaimed that we were approaching some rapids and we should make every effort to keep our canoe pointing downstream. He began shouting, "Paddle right, paddle left, paddle harder! Dig in, dig in! People, watch out for that rock!"

I couldn't help it, "Watch out for the nut in the water dead ahead." That's all I said, but it made Glenn laugh, and we were instructed to slowly pull our canoes over to the side of the riverbank (which existed only in the transcendental vacation in Greg's mind). Once stopped, the Paddlemaster announced, while looking at Glenn and me, that perhaps our journey was over, and we should be careful not to tip our canoes while exiting. We picked up our mats while the other "canoeists" waited in silence, and tossed our paddles in the bin, making kind of a racket. By Canoe Yoga standards, our exit was a not-so-graceful leap to the riverbank.

On our way out of the Canoe Headquarters, Glenn said, "No pie, man. You got us kicked out of Canoe Yoga." To make it up to him, I handed him an imaginary paddle, addressed him as Paddlemaster Glenn, and we paddled all the way down the block to The House of Pies, singing "Come and Get Your Love," while showing our newly-learned oarsmanship by navigating around the parking meters.
Greg would have been proud of his former students.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Bicycle Race

I am not homeless (yet), but that's what this zippy fellow calls me whenever he passes me on the bike trail. He calls out, "Comin' through, Homeless," while he zooms past in all his colorful spandex glory. He has a red, white, and blue official-looking jersey, matching skin-tight pants, a swoopy red helmet, and those shoes that clip onto the pedals (which, I assume, help the rider go faster than us "homeless" people). He zips by so fast that I could never hope to catch him and remind him that his name-calling is an unwelcome addition to my day. I'm certain he imagines he's Lance Armstrong and I'm just an encumbrance on his way to some sort of imaginary victory.

That all changed the other day when we both happened to be stopped at the end of the bike trail, getting ready to make the 13 mile return trip. Here's our exchange, to the best of my recollection:

--Me: How come you call me "Homeless" every time you pass me?
--Imaginary Lance: Because your bike looks like the kind a homeless guy would ride. It's old and decrepit; the kind of bike you see at the curb on garbage day.
--Me: I got news for you, Lance, this bike has done its duty since 1972, long before you were born and has plenty of miles left in it.
--Imaginary Lance: My name's not Lance.
--Me: My name's not Homeless.
--Imaginary Lance: I don't have time for this. I'm meeting the members of the Evanston Bicycle Club at the other end of the trail.
--Me: Think I could join the club?
--Imaginary Lance: That hunk of junk couldn't keep up with us, besides, we require all members to wear helmets.
--Me: Oh, so it's a fascist organization.
--Imaginary Lance: What do you mean?
--Me: I have a club. It's the Condom Club. Everyone who joins must take an oath to wear condoms.
--Imaginary Lance: That's crazy. We just want to protect our members from harm.
--Me: Same with us at The Condom Club. Maybe we could join forces and have a great big club called the Evanston Bicycle and Condom Club and tell everybody how to run their lives. How about we race the entire length of the trail, and if I win, I'm in your club?
--Imaginary Lance: Are you kidding me? My bike has Trek's best carbon fiber racing frame. I could ride circles around that junk-pile of yours.
--Me: I think you're afraid.
--Imaginary Lance: I'll even give you a five minute head start.
--Me: I'm probably twice your age, but I'll only need 30 seconds, one second for every year difference in our ages.
--Imaginary Lance: You're on. Get goin', Homeless. I'll wave to you when I pass.

The trail takes a winding route through a forested corridor that follows the North Branch of the Chicago River. For the first couple of minutes, I pedaled with everything I had, leaning into every turn, running through all five speeds and breaking into an unbecoming sweat. It was reminiscent of the day in 1973 when I was pedaling past a construction site on the outskirts of the Loop, and a pack of guys wearing hard hats, yelled out, "Hippie on a bike! Get him!" They might as well have been chanting, "Kill the hippie, get his blood," but it wasn't likely they were familiar with "Lord of the Flies," though the intent was the same. It confirmed the stereotyped notion that this group of men remained steadfastly resistant to social change. A chase ensued, and that day, my escape from the lunch-time lynch mob might very well have qualified for a place in the Tour De France.

So now, with barely a mile into a 13 mile race, sweat pouring off me, and puffing like a chase-winded gazelle, I ran my bike off the asphalt path, straight into the woods and let it fall among the underbrush. Ducking behind a big oak tree, I waited, trying to catch my breath. Imaginary Lance came swooshing by, his sparkly red helmet tucked low over the handlebars, and his pricey shoes whirling like an eggbeater. He was out of sight within seconds.

Go West, was all I could think of as I dragged my bike out of the brush, off the trail and onto the street. Again, I began pedaling, but this time, a bit more leisurely, and headed straight for the train station which was only about a mile from the bike trail. The train runs somewhat parallel to the bike path, and at one point, crosses it. The good people who run the trains are gracious enough to allow bikes in the coaches during non-rush hour times. Fortunately, the conductor waved me aboard just as I arrived at the station. It was a scenic trip, and a real pleasure chatting with several passengers who were kind enough to comment on my eco-friendly method of travel.

The train stops within a block of the end of the bike trail, so I had time to pause on the platform, thank the conductor for a most comfortable ride, wave to my new-found commuter friends, and get a couple of raspberry ice cream bars before pedaling over to the path and wait for Imaginary Lance. When he finally showed up, I was on my last bite. I handed the other ice cream bar to him and said, "It's raspberry, the same refreshing flavor Bernadette Peters enjoys after a performance. It's a little melted, but I thought you'd be here sooner."
He was out of breath and could hardly speak. "Thanks. I don't know how you did it," he gave a suspicious glance at my bike, "On that thing."
"I make do with what I've got."
Still panting, he said, "About the club..."
"Never mind," I said, "I'm not much of a joiner."
He paused for a moment while inspecting his bike. "Maybe I should get better tires."
"Oh yes," I said while getting back on my bike, "Definitely look into that. And if you're in the neighborhood, drop by my cardboard box one evening and we'll talk strategy." He watched in silence as I gave a hearty wave while pedaling home, wobbly wheels and all.