Sunday, November 28, 2010

Forgetting Mrs. Bezman

I saw Sheldon Bezman's mother, naked. She was naked, not me. I was helping Sheldon load some boxes into his mother's attic, and he was all the way up in the cubby hole. I was in their hallway, handing the boxes up the ladder to Sheldon when his mother emerged from the bathroom, stark naked except for a pair of faded blue house shoes. She passed within three feet of me before retreating into her bedroom and closing the door. Sheldon didn't see any of this and doesn't have the slightest inkling of what took place. And I'm not telling him, as it's likely written somewhere in the friendship code book that it's forbidden to see a friend's mother naked under any circumstances, accidental or not.

Mrs. Bezman has always been kind of focused and may not have been aware of my presence. I'm not saying she discounts me, but I've been friends with her son for thirty years, and she still refers to me as "what's-his-name," so I think I'm kind of invisible to her. Regardless, the naked secret is safe with me. But the episode is a bit troubling. It's not like I haven't seen naked people before (I've been to a couple of French movies) but never a friend's mother.

And, I probably shouldn't say this, as time and gravity will undoubtedly take their toll on the best of us, but Mrs. Bezman never has been a model for physical fitness. In all the years I've known her, she's been dressed in a variety of wildly printed muu-muus, the tent-like dress that has the ability to hide what lurks beneath. But now I know what lurks: a pair-shaped, white lady with drooping breasts resembling two change purses with a single penny in each. One day, I too, will likely fit the same description (hopefully without the change-purse breasts), and I've vowed to make a concerted effort to stay away from any kind of accidental exposure.

The unforgettable image of Sheldon's naked mother was beginning to cause some trouble. It popped into my head when least expected, and when it did, it stayed there for quite awhile, no matter what. Even conjuring up the alluring apparition of Valerie Harper's Rhoda wouldn't make it disappear.

Before the problem got any worse, I consulted the Chicago Reader, the hipster newspaper where cures for a variety of quirky maladies can be found. Madam Mooska's ad, "The hypnotist who can cure anything for $33.95," seemed like a bargain too good to pass up.

Madam Mooska worked out of a basement apartment on the Northwest side of Chicago, on a dead end side street. Several bunches of faded plastic flowers were stapled to her door, along with the hand-written reminder: "Wipe Feet. Mooska is Not Maid." Before we sat down at her wobbly old card table, she asked me for the $33.95. I gave her thirty four dollars which she grabbed and stuffed somewhere under her clothing (reminding me to handle all future crumpled bills like medical waste).

Madam Mooska was not especially old, probably in her sixties, but her Romanian accent gave her an old-world air of wisdom. She held a silver medallion studded with red gems on a piece of string and began swinging it in a pendelum fashion in front of my face. She began chanting, "Meeska, mooska, no more fear, Madam Mooska now is here." (The cadence was reminiscent of the 1950's Mouseketeer rhyme: meeska, mooska, mouseketeer, mouse cartoon time now is here).

--Me: Will this be covered by my insurance?
--Mooska: Mooska not concern.
She kept swinging the medallion.
--Mooska: What troubles you?
--Me: I saw my friend's mother, Mrs. Bezman, naked.
--Mooska: You sneak a peek?
--Me: No, no, it was an accident.
--Mooska: What is problem?
--Me: I can't get her image out of my mind.
--Mooska: Maybe you have love for her.
--Me: No, no. No love. Disturbing.
--Mooska: You want forget?
--Me: Yes, forget.
--Mooska: Mooska help you forget.
She put the medallion in her pocket and placed a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses on the table.
--Mooska: First one, free. Others, two dollars. One for you, one for Mooska.

Five shots a piece and twenty dollars later, Mrs. Bezman was a faded blur. I got to my feet and Madam Mooska helped me to the door.
--Mooska: You go now and forget old lady what's-her-name. She invisible to you. No speak her name. To you, she is "what's-her-name."
--Me: Thank you, Mooska.
I hesitated in the doorway for a moment, wondering if I should be so bold as to inquire about the familiarity of her procedure.
--Me: Pardon me for asking such a thing, but are you acquainted with The Mickey Mouse Club?
--Mooska: In my little village in Romania, one TV for whole village. Kids gather 'round every Friday to watch the mouse show. A special day; we live for that day.
She grabbed my arm and showed me the medallion cupped in her hand. It was a silver-dollar-sized coin bearing a portrait of Mickey Mouse with two red glass eyes. She whispered in my ear.
--Mooska: I tell you something true, Mooska not forget that little mouse.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sheila, The Hobo Turkey

It was August when I ordered my Thanksgiving turkey from Free Range Foods on Elston Avenue. They guarantee that all their meats, eggs, and vegetables have led carefree, full lives before being "harvested," as they like to call it. There was even a small map attached to my receipt, attesting to the birthplace of my turkey (Western Iowa) and the journey it proposed to make to Free Range Foods in Chicago. So I began to think of my bird as a well-traveled hobo turkey, enjoying itself in the great outdoors, laughing it up with the other turkeys, and generally living life to the fullest. From the description given by the naturally-long-eyelashed Corky at the service counter, it was not difficult to imagine that my turkey had been all over the country, from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters (this bird was made for you and me).

A week before Thanksgiving, I went to pick up the turkey. Corky, with those eyelashes and a big smile, directed me to take my car around to the back of the store where an employee was prepared to load the bird. I told her that wasn't necessary, and she began to explain that it's against city health codes to take live animals through the retail section of the store. I gasped, "Live animals, what live animals!"
--Corky: You ordered a live turkey. It's right here on your receipt.
--Me: Can't be.
--Corky: It truly be. You checked the box that said "live."
--Me: I thought that meant "live," as in "live and let live," or "live free or die," like on the New Hampshire license plate.
--Corky: No, "live," like "five."
--Me: Really. I thought I was just adding a sort of exclamation point to the philosophy of your store, you know, let it live free till.....
--Corky: You're doing a very humane thing by giving the turkey every opportunity to enjoy life until the last moment.
--Me: Well, I do make it a point to change the water in my birdbath every day, and I'm on the side of monkeys and elephants everywhere, and...
--Corky: Seth will place your turkey in a cardboard box and carry it to your car. Meet him around back. And thank you for your kindness towards animals.

Aside from some scratching and a little rustling, the turkey was very well-behaved on the ride home and, I believe, was comforted by my soothing rendition of "This Land is Your Land." Once home, I placed the cardboard box in the middle of our backyard and closed the gate. When the box was opened, the turkey hopped out and began a spirited exploration of its new home, occasionally peering beyond the fence in a wistful manner. It was abundantly clear this hobo turkey still had a zest for life and was making plans for another adventure.

We put out some bird seed and a pan of water and made the mistake of giving the bird a name, Sheila. Looking back, it was an ill-advised idea to get too chummy with our food. Sheila seemed to know this, and after one day, was strutting around like she owned the place. Our attachment to Sheila grew to the point where no one in the family could consider putting an end to Sheila's heralded legacy of roaming. It looked like we would be having only pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner.

After three days, I began leaving the gate open, hoping Sheila would saunter out onto the sidewalk and get "harvested" by the pack of kids who pass by the house on their big-wheels several times a day. They've run me down on more than one occasion, so I didn't think they'd mind giving Sheila the old heave-ho.

The gate remained open, and I left our Thanksgiving dinner up to fate: pie or turkey, it all depended on Sheila and the kids.

On the fourth day, Shelia made her bid for the open road. There were no feathers on the sidewalk; she found her way past the tricycle-riding delinquents. She's become a minor celebrity around town and has been sighted at the Mini-Mart, The Fudge Barn, and the parking lot of St. John's Lutheran Church where she made quite a spectacle of herself on Sunday, stealing the thunder from a bride and groom during their celebratory rice-throwing departure.

From all accounts, Sheila spends most of her time at the local golf course where there's a pond and a flock of Canadian geese to keep her company. This might qualify for some sort of humanitarian discount when Corky and the other folks at Free Range Foods hear of my new "purchase and release" program.

I suppose some things are born to wander, so my hope for Sheila is that the wind be at her back, her feathers stay dry, and a helpful goose shows her the way.

Ding Hoy, feathered vagabond.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Squirrel Prayer

Chuck Gosswiller is a big guy with a reddish beard and climbs trees like a nimble raccoon. He was dangerously close to the top of the big maple tree in my yard, trimming some limbs that had halfway broken in a storm, when he yelled down that he'd have to go to the hardware store for a chainsaw part. Once on the ground, I asked if I could ride along with him, as I needed to get a new spring for Mr. Choppy, the faithful vegetable chopper that has served our kitchen so well for many years. It also chops nuts.

So off we went in Chuck's pick-up truck. We rode in silence; no conversation was necessary as we had Mr. Choppy and chainsaw parts on our minds. A few minutes into the ride, Chuck pulled the truck over to the side of the road. He reached across my lap, opened the glove compartment and withdrew a small, handmade booklet with a drawing of a squirrel on the cover. "This won't take long," he said.
"What's wrong?"
"Squirrel," he replied.
I got out of the truck with him, "What squirrel?"
"Passed away, on the road behind us." Chuck had a serious tone and a sense of urgency to his voice. "Gotta get him off the road. That's no way to be," he said while rummaging around in the bed of the truck. He found what he was looking for and held it up, "Squirrel scooper." It had a long, hand-carved handle like a shovel, and the shovel part was bent at a 45 degree angle, perfect for scooping. The carvings were very intricate detailings of acorns and vines.
It deserved one of the many compliments I graciously bestow on people who do marvelous things. "That's really something, you make that?" I said.
"It does the job," and he walked back to the dead squirrel, scooped him up and placed him in some weeds about ten feet off the road. Then he stood over the squirrel and read out-loud from the homemade squirrel booklet. I only recall a few lines, but here are the highlights:

--You were a thrifty little soul; you stored your nuts in secret places.
--You were brave, jumping from limb to limb, high above the earth.
--You were trustworthy. Squirrels don't tell lies.
--You were loyal. Not like Susan.

It was touching, and aside from the Susan reference, I believe it owed a debt to the Boy Scout Oath. When he was finished, he took a handful of nuts from his pocket and scattered them around the squirrel.

Chuck returned to the truck, and I inquired about the ceremony.
"Squirrel prayer," he explained. "I say one for every unfortunate squirrel I run across whether it's a familiar squirrel or an anonymous squirrel. It's the least I could do. They provide entertainment, lighting up the trees with their antics." He patted his front pocket. "That bulge is my nuts."
I gave the mound a discrete glance before quietly commenting, "Remarkable."
"Yes," he went on, "I keep a pocketful with me always; give the squirrels a treat when I meet 'em in the tree tops. And when I find one that's passed-on, I spread some nuts around the body so its friends will have something to eat when they come to pay their respects."

We rode the rest of the way in silence, Chuck probably thinking about the squirrel, and me thinking about Chuck thinking about the squirrel. We got our Mr. Choppy and chainsaw parts, and on the way home I made an attempt to get Chuck to open up. "Who's Susan?"
He twitched his beard a little bit. "Someone without squirrel principles."
"Do you have other prayers for different animals, like a 'possum prayer or a raccoon prayer?"
He tilted his head away from me as if to imply my question was completely out of bounds. "Now that would be peculiar behavior, don't you think?"
It seemed like a perfectly logical sequence, but sometimes silence is the most civil detour, so I remained quiet.
"Nope," he continued, "I just stick to squirrels. I wrote the prayer because you can count on a squirrel for a friend, not like people. A squirrel will not laugh at you. A squirrel will not disappoint you. I've never seen a squirrel act like a jackass, but I've seen plenty of people act like one."
"Like Susan?"
"Yes, like Susan."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Goodbye Tinfoil Angel

It's a sad day for the tinfoil angel. It remains perched between the rabbit ears of my faithful Sylvania TV, retired by technology and cable television; replaced by boxes and dishes that no one understands. The tinfoil angel was graceful in its simplicity and ability to receive free television from the airwaves. On a stormy night, a slight adjustment of her wings could invite a picture clear as a bell.

I can't begin to count how many televised concerts, sporting events, and special reports have been brought into focus by the tinfoil angel. Neighbors used to come to me in a panic at the outset of football games and ask for one of the angels. You can bet I received many slaps on the back along with a free beverage when the picture came in near perfect, thanks to the hand-wrought efforts of the angel.

When America first walked on the moon, I was in a small cabin in the redwood forests of northern California with two friends. We had a shabby black and white TV and a roll of tinfoil which quickly morphed into an airwave-capturing device. The stalwart little angel assisted NASA in bringing the picture into focus in that austere shelter, enabling mankind (three hippies) to witness the historic event. Looking back, the moment was not unlike the three wise men at the manger in Bethlehem, except we didn't have any camels, and I'm guessing the three wise men didn't have access to righteous weed. But the angel was there to make sure we witnessed the most magnificent technological leap humans have made in our lifetime.

So it is with great sadness that this artifact, a time-proven craft (some say it's an art), is destined for the trash bin. Oh, a few might survive and one day wind up on a future version of the Antiques Road Show where the appraiser will explain with a little pointer how the rare piece of Americana used to aid in television reception. And he'll probably go on to remark how so few survived the transition to cable TV.

To give the tinfoil angel one last chance at immortality, it seemed prudent to place a call to the Smithsonian. After several departmental transfers and being put on hold to a recording of Elvis singing "In the Ghetto" (apparently the King still has some influence in the nation's capitol), contact was made:

--Smithsonian: Hello, Lawrence Darton, curator of acquisitions.
--Me: Hi Larry. I have a tinfoil angel you might like for your museum.
--Smithsonian: We generally don't deal in religious items.
--Me: No, you don't understand, this is not a religious angel.
--Smithsonian: What is the affiliation of the angel?
--Me: No affiliation. It's a TV angel.
--Smithsonian: So you see this angel on your TV?
--Me: On top of the TV.
--Smithsonian: Did it hop out of the picture and perch itself on top of the set?
--Me: It's on top of the TV because that's where I put it. It's made of tinfoil.
--Smithsonian: Oh, I see. We get lots of those: the image of Jesus on a tortilla, Mary on a pancake, Elvis on a Ritz cracker. We consider these accidental coincidences and not appropriate for display in the museum.
--Me: This tinfoil angel is no accident, I can assure you. It was crafted by my own two hands.
--Smithsonian: Perhaps you'd be better off talking to a member of your local clergy.
--Me: For thirty years, my handcrafted angels have been assisting me and others with television transmission.
--Smithsonian: Perhaps if you buried your figurine in your yard, the way many Catholics bury Saint Joseph when they are selling their homes, it will continue to bring you good luck with your TV.
--Me: This has nothing to do with luck. It's science. Artful science.
--Smithsonian: Oh, and what science would that be?
--Me: The science of the airwaves. When one of the angel's wings is affixed to the antennae, the other wing can be manipulated in order to secure a clear picture. At least that's how it used to work before technology made all tinfoil angels obsolete.
--Smithsonian: Sir, we deal in reality.
--Me: You have Fonzie's leather jacket and Dorothy's red shoes, don't you?
--Smithsonian: Yes we do. Both, popular acquisitions.
--Me: Well, Fonzie is not real. He's pretend, an actor. Same with Dorothy and her much-celebrated red shoes.
--Smithsonian: What's your point?
--Me: The tinfoil angel is real and has been a valuable service to American homes for many years.
--Smithsonian: Thank you for your interest, but I'm very busy.
--Me: Do you have the number of the Antiques Roadshow?
--Smithsonian: (click).

The lack of vision of those in charge is sometimes quite startling.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Don, The Ungrateful Jesus

It was a Halloween party where everyone was dressed in all kinds of exotic costumes. There were scarecrows, ghosts, witches, political figures, men dressed as women, and one guy dressed as Jesus. His name was Don. Don had white sheets draped over his body to make it look like the flowing tattered rags Jesus might have worn during his heyday. The whole outfit was complimented by Don's already scraggly beard, a pair of leather sandals, and his hairy legs poking out from under the sheets. Don is no woodworker, but for dramatic effect, he carried a crudely made six-foot tall wooden cross in one hand.

My costume was simple: a tea bag. This had nothing to do with the bee-headed political fringe group; it was a home-made costume comprised of thin white interfacing material filled with dried leaves to simulate tea. It's worn like a sandwich board. And I attached a stop-sign-looking piece of cardboard with the word "LIPTOP" printed on it. I could have used the word "Lipton," but wanted to avoid any copyright infringement litigation from the corporate bigwigs at the Lipton Tea Company.

The party was held in one of those hipster lofts where the owner is knowledgeable of trends that few of us know are even trends. I was glad it was a costume party, as I'm sure whatever else I decided to wear would not be considered even remotely current. This was pointed out by a woman sporting wooden clothespins clipped to her hair. She casually remarked how her father had some jeans just like the ones I was wearing under my tea bag. Then she said the clothespins were not part of her costume, but rather her everyday hairstyle. I resisted telling her that my long-departed grandmother used the very same clothespins to hang out her underwear in the backyard. Instead, in a desperate attempt to appear contemporary, I inquired about the possibility of a Bananarama reunion tour.

The loft was decorated with black and orange crepe paper and candles. Candles like you wouldn't believe; candles all over the place. The shadows bounced off the walls and gave the place a genuine creepy feel, just right for Halloween. Those hipsters know how to decorate. There was a long buffet table with a variety of foods, some of which were unfamiliar, so I played it safe with potato chips and the recognizable dips. I stayed around the buffet table, casually moving in for an occasional swipe of dip. This was a technique I adopted years ago, to appear busy when, really, no one was finding me particularly fascinating.

Don was also hanging around the buffet table, trying to nonchalantly emulate my dipping technique. But instead of making a graceful pass at the table, he chose to hover, creating a general nuisance for anyone else attempting to access the food. At one point, he hovered a little too close to one of those squatty candles on the table, and his sheets caught on fire. A woman screamed, "Jesus is on fire!" And people began stumbling over each other in an attempt to get away from the table.

I'm probably the last one people would run to in case of an emergency, but I make an effort to live by the "What Would Andy Do" code (Andy Griffith from Mayberry. Whenever there's a decision or crisis, Andy is my moral compass). The hipsters scattered, and there was Don, stunned like a statue; flames creeping up the front of his costume. I threw a glass of red wine at Don's navel, but it didn't put the fire out, so I grabbed him, hugged him tightly and we both fell to the floor. His cross went flying across the room and there I was, a tea bag, flopping around on top of Jesus, smothering the flames. If a headline was written about it, it would have read "Tea Bag Saves Jesus."

The fire was extinguished, and someone helped Don to his feet. Aside from a singed beard, he was not hurt. The sheets covering his chest and the front of my tea bag had big holes burned in them. Soon, the party resumed its cadence and Don wore his burnt sheets like some sort of badge. He became the center of attention and, using dramatic gestures, went on to explain to anyone who asked, his version of the incident. There were jokes made about the red wine stain and the miracle of his rising from the ashes. He went from table-hoverer to party-butterfly in a matter of minutes.

Don was too busy with his new-found celebrity to notice, but I maintained my place in the shadows, making only an occasional graceful swipe at the dip. I couldn't help but think that the real Jesus would have taken a moment out from his grandstanding to say, "Thank you, Tea Bag, for saving me from a burning hell." I know Andy would have at least mentioned it.