Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tarzan and Tong

Thai Isthmus is a Thai restaurant on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, and I order carry-out from them about once every week. While waiting for my food, I've come to know Tong, the owner, pretty well. Our relationship is based on roughly two years worth of weekly five minute conversations. Its become a part of my life, so much so that if I miss a week we greet each other with our arms outstretched as if we were attending a reunion of sorts.

Our conversations, though brief, have revealed much about the two of us. Secrets have been told, fears revealed, concerns about family members shared, and opinions aired. It's much like the relationship between a therapist and a patient, only it's free, and neither one of us pretends to be anointed with the spurious power associated with a graduate degree in psychology.

Tong and I have made a pact that our conversations possess the same confidentiality that other professionals have with their clients. We call it the "proprietor-patron confidentiality," and after a thing is said, Tong holds his index finger to his lips (the international sign for quiet, shhh, or, in our case, secret). Tong has told me many things that I would never reveal under any circumstances, and I hope he feels the same way.

Tong's real name is not Tong. It's a nickname he's had his whole life, and he tells me that many Thai people are referred to only by their nickname, especially by close friends like we've become. It's a tradition. Tong suggested that I, too, should have a nickname, something that would foster familiarity between us. After giving the matter much thought, I chose Tarzan, figuring everybody likes Tarzan, and we shook on it. Whenever I place an order over the phone, and he says, "name please," all I have to say is "Tarzan," and he says, "see you in fifteen minutes, Tarzan." Of course I get there early so we can have our much-looked-forward-to chat.

Among the things I've revealed to Tong is the time I pretended to be Jewish in order to take one of the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, off of work. Dame Edna was appearing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, and I needed the extra day to appear refreshed for the show. So I made up the innocent lie. Upon returning to my job, in order to add some credibility to my fabrication, I even went so far as to wear a yarmulke for a day or two. And it wasn't really a yarmulke at all, but a commemorative pot holder we picked up at Niagara Falls. I did have the good sense to turn the embroidered waterfall towards my hair, so it appeared plain black to the casual onlooker.

And that's not the half of it. One day, the very sweet and generous Holly Wogstad offered me a pulled-pork sandwich and I turned it down and was met with an embarrassed apology. The charade worked so well that I took Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukkah, and Passover off as well. I did this for two straight years, and nobody batted an eye until one May 5th when Marza Delgado, the Acrobatic Accordionist, was in town. In order to attend the performance, I used Cinco de Mayo as a personal holiday, claiming it was incumbent of my Mexican heritage that I do so. It's not normal to play the accordion in such a risky manner.

When I returned to work, the snoopy Arlene Dibbens, who apparently has the memory of an elephant, inquired as to the paucity of Mexican Jews in Chicago, and how it was such a pleasure to meet someone with such a rich heritage. Then, coupled with her sarcasm, she and the others began referring to me as Hector Bernstein. The mockery soon caught on and I was not only Hector Bernstein, but to some, Rabbi Gomez.

I left that job and have put the embarrassing Hector and the Rabbi behind me, but I've been looking over my shoulder ever since, wondering if the whole incident will somehow catch up to me one day. I know Tong wouldn't reveal the episode to anyone, as he gave me the secret "shhh" sign upon hearing the story. But the other day I got a Pottery Barn catalog in the mail, addressed to Tarzan. So I'm wondering how the Pottery Barn knows that Tarzan is my Thai food-ordering nickname. I'm hoping it's just a coincidence. But when Cinco de Mayo rolls around, if I get any mail addressed to Hector Bernstein or Rabbi Gomez, I'll know there has been a breech somewhere.
Till then, though, Tarzan trust Tong.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Fabulous Shirt

How long, I wonder, is it before a claim to fame wears off and becomes just a piece of the past to be put to rest. Maybe never. In the 1960's, my friend, Nemo Tooks, played guitar in a band called The Fabulous Cavaliers. It was a fairly good band with a local following. Every weekend, Nemo basked in the limelight, playing his guitar in front of fans (and friends like me who banked on the possibility of assimilating some of Nemo's coolness by mere association). Nemo was a trend setter and owned the first Nehru jacket in the neighborhood. He acquired his name by frequenting the submarine races along the Des Plaines River where he could often be found parked with one girl or another.

One night in 1967, The Fabulous Cavaliers opened for the Strawberry Alarm Clock, a then popular one-hit-wonder. This was at the peak of the Strawberry Alarm Clock's fame, when their hit, "Incense and Peppermints," dominated the airwaves. It was at a warehouse club called The Cellar, and after the show, fans mobbed the Alarm Clock along with The Fabulous Cavaliers as they were leaving the building. Anyway, in the mayhem, Nemo's shirt was ripped from his body. After the "gig" as he liked to call it, I offered my jacket to him, but he gave it back, saying his fans had wanted him shirtless, so that was how he must stay for the remainder of the evening. Later that night, they even let him into Bob's Big Boy ( a restaurant that had one of those "no shirt, no shoes, no service" signs in the foyer) when he explained to the hostess how his shirt had been torn from his back by screaming fans at the show. I never had the heart to tell him, that most likely, the fans mistook him for one of the members of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, because, quite frankly, who knew what those guys looked like anyway.

The Fabulous Cavaliers never achieved any national fame and broke up in 1970, over an argument about chipping in for gas money. The fellas went their separate ways and Nemo eventually carved out a small business that painted lines for parking places in parking lots. He's a good guy, has raised a family, and we're still friends, but whenever we meet new people together, he somehow manages to steer the conversation to the time in 1967 when his shirt was torn off by screaming fans. Very few people remember the Fabulous Cavaliers, but many recall the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Nemo's torn shirt puts him right there on the same level of remembrance as the Alarm Clock.

I just wonder, is there some 60 year-old woman, possibly now a grandmother, who has a scrapbook with a torn piece of Nemo's shirt taped to one of the pages, labeled "Guitar Player's Shirt, Strawberry Alarm Clock, 1967." If so, then both she and Nemo are content with their memories, no matter how colored they may be.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Cheap Perfume Caper

My next door neighbors are going away on vacation and want me to watch their house. This is my chance to do something I've wanted to do for a long time. They are amicable enough people, but through some unfortunate genetic abnormality or on-the-job accident, they've lost their collective sense of smell. And in order to make up for this shortcoming, they've immersed themselves in what they call "aroma therapy," which, from the smell of things, includes dousing themselves with a minnow-bucketful of cologne and perfume before leaving the house. That's not the problem, as I've developed a technique of surreptitiously holding my breath while having short conversations with them.

The problem is their dryer vent. It's aimed at my house (the houses in my neighborhood are very close together), and they use this perfume-enhanced laundry soap and dryer sheets that are completely suffocating. It truly smells like there's a dead hooker in the bushes, no joke. I assume it's part of their aroma therapy. I've been breathing this stuff for years, and as far as I can tell, here's the unforgettable potpourri that wafts from their dryer vent:

--Dollar Store perfume
--a hint of mustard gas
--Dollar Store cologne
--a smidgen of mothballs
--day-old dead mouse
--urinal soap cake
--Shell no-pest strip

On a hot, humid day, this delightful combination of toxic odors sticks to everything (my hemlock bushes now permanently smell like this unique proprietary blend).

When their dryer is on, we have "dryer drills." One of us yells "dryer!" and we vacate the yard and scramble to close the windows of our house. It's like in those old WW II movies when the skipper of the submarine yells, "Dive, dive, take her down below depth-charge level!" Then, like the captive submarine crew, we wait it out until it's safe, as if the enemy destroyer (the S.S. P.U.) has passed and we can once again open the windows.

A few years ago, I complained and gave them a summer's supply of unscented dryer sheets and detergent. They used them, but quickly returned to their cheap-smelling petrochemical-laden stuff when my thoughtful gift ran out. I even made up a story about how scented detergents are banned in The Netherlands, and they gave each other a look, and one of them said, "Figures, what can you expect from those people with all their crazy sex and recycling." So you can see what I'm up against.

Now's my chance. I have the key to their house and a whole week to pull this off. I could sneak in their basement and empty their asthma-bag laundry soap and refill it with some scent-free detergent. Same with the dryer sheets. This would give us a scent-free yard for the remainder of the outdoor season. I'll pack the containers to the brim; even replace them with the family size, if necessary. Trouble is, I wonder if they would notice the lack of petrochemicals in their laundry. I figure this could have two potential outcomes:

1. They would vow to buy a stronger perfumed-soaked brand the next time they shop for detergent (thinking their current brand isn't strong enough), making the stink even worse.
2. I could become a suspect in the great perfume caper and ruin my relationship with our neighbors and face some sort of criminal charges. With all this new forensic technology that law enforcement uses nowadays, there is a chance I could get caught. Who knows, I could leave cat hair from the bottom of my shoes at the crime scene (they don't have a cat).

Normally I'm not this sneaky, but I don't know what else to do, and I don't want to screw this up. And I think they already suspect I'm on the side of the recycling-crazed Dutch.

What really worries me is if I'm caught and do time for this caper, what do I tell my cellmate. I'm guessing that switching-out perfumed laundry soap with an unscented brand is not a well respected crime in most prisons, so you can see this may have serious consequences.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ginkgo at the Grotto

Yesterday, I was at Scooter's bike shop, and the mechanic who works there had a tattoo on his forearm that said "Scoot." So I asked if that was his first name or last, and he said that was it, just plain Scoot. He had several tattoos, mostly sprockets and lightning and was busy fixing the chain on a bike, but every customer that came into the shop gave him a nod and a recognition like, "Hey Scoot, how's it hanging," or when they were leaving, "Later, Scoot." Everybody seemed comfortable with Scoot-the-bike-mechanic being just plain Scoot.

This was pretty alright. Here was a regular guy with sprocket tattoos and a gift for understatement who could pull off having just one name like Sting, Moby, or Bono. So I figured I'd like to try something like that. After sifting through a grocery list of choices, I decided my new name would be "Ginkgo." I'd tell every new person I met that my name was Ginkgo, and if it worked, maybe, I too, would be spared the trouble of filling out both lines on forms and job applications and just write "Ginkgo" in the space provided. And everyone would say, "Hey Ginkgo, how's it shakin'," or "What's the haps, Ginkgo?" I was looking forward to a lifetime of cool (or at least a couple of days).

The first time I used it was to order pizza from the Singing Gondolier Pizza Grotto on the far north side of Chicago. It's really just a storefront with four booths, but they try in earnest to make it seem like a grotto by stringing all sorts of plastic grape vines on the walls. When the girl on the phone asked for my name, I hesitated, and in my mind I was thinking, here goes. I said, "Ginkgo."
And she replied, "Like those little lizards? They are so cute."
"No," I said, "Those are geckos. I'm Ginkgo."
Then she said, "What kind of lizard is that?"
"It's not a lizard. It's my name," I replied.
"Oh, sorry, Mr. Ginkgo."
"No," I said, "no mister, just plain Ginkgo," and I spelled it for her.
"Oh," she said, "like the tree. My neighbor has one of those in his yard. Those fan-shaped leaves are lovely. Is that your business name?"
"No, just a name, my only name. I'm Ginkgo."

When I went to pick up the pizza and gave the girl my name, she yelled it back toward the kitchen, and there was laughter and someone making the sound of a loud squawking bird. I don't know the identity of that person, but they have no knowledge of the flora and fauna of the world. They should know that a ginkgo is not a squawking bird, nor any kind of bird.

With the pizza box in my hands and a cacophony of squawking to accompany me, every step I took toward the door echoed the humiliating end of Ginkgo. There is more to this one-name thing than meets the eye.

Once outside, I made a mental note to ask Scoot if he ever ran into this kind of trouble.

They should rename that place "The Squawking Gondolier Pizza Grotto."