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.