Sunday, October 30, 2011

Devil’s Note

It’s Halloween, the perfect time to chase some old ghosts out of my life.

I finally moved all of my stuff out of the family home and now the house where I was raised is scary empty. You can actually hear an echo when you speak or walk around on the wooden floors.

The weather was hideous on Saturday, which seemed strangely appropriate seeing as how we had a monsoon a few months back when I moved to my new place. Apparently the weather gods don't like to see me changing addresses.

Now I’m sitting in my home office surround by more boxes than a FedEx driver and I keep telling myself that I’m going to get this stuff in order and the place will look fabulous when I’m done.

I think if I say it enough times I might even start believing it.

One package that did not make the trip was a box filled with my old diaries. I had been putting off deciding what to do with them for the last few weeks, but now that the clock is winding down to the closing deadline, I had to do something about this stack of marble notebooks.

I’ve been keeping journals fairly regularly since I moved to Pennsylvania 1988. I remember my first night in the Poconos, sitting in my room at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, writing in a journal about what a terrible mistake I had made.

I kept it up when I moved to Connecticut five years later, dubbing my first journal “The Waterbury Tales” after my newest hometown and I’m still doing it today.

Each journal starts out the same. My handwriting is neat, my thoughts are organized, and, since many of them begin on January 1, I put down my resolutions as well.

But the nice penmanship and good attitude usually last just a few weeks before the entries degenerate into unreadable scrawl that even I can’t stand to look at and my mental state takes on a similar appearance.

So do I want to keep these things?

Captain's Slog

Yes, they could provide insight to my past lives, something I could use to mold myself in a better person. On the other hand, it’s just more stuff that’ll take up space in my new apartment.

I settled the issue last week when I started leafing through some of the journals. Good jumping Jesus, was I really that miserable for all that time?

Did I have any fun in my life? Convicts serving life sentences are happier than I am, if my journals are to be taken seriously. My existence could not have been that bad, but clearly my vision of the world was seriously twisted.

I do think keeping a diary or journal is a good idea, but they have to be more than annals of angst and chronicles of complaints. They should be workbooks for your life.

Often you can get identify what’s really troubling you by putting your darkest thoughts down on paper. That’s one way of chasing out the demons—just put your finger down your mind’s throat and stand back.

But then you have to come up with a plan, figure out what you’re going to do next instead of just reporting your crappy circumstances. Okay, we get it. Life sucks and everybody else on the face of the earth is a mouth-breathing imbecile. Now what?

I certainly don’t want to bring these toxic tomes into my new life. I was thinking I could mail them to any of my old Catholic school nuns who might still be above ground.

One look at my atrocious handwriting should be enough to send those miserable old hags sailing through the pearly gates like Evel Knievil jumping over a line of Greyhounds. But I don't know...that sounds a little hostile.

My sister said she might have a journal burning party to get rid of her old diaries. I decided to dump my memoirs into a bucket of water and watch them turn into a pulpy mess. That'll show 'em who's boss.

Now I have a new notebook and I don’t allow myself to write down a negative thought unless I find something positive to balance things out. Maybe a sense of balance is the best thing you can get out of a journal. It’ll drive the ghosts clear out of town.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Palms Away

I got a non-contact palm reading the other night and high-fived the hand of fate.

I had gone to Pret a Manger on Friday in hopes of getting some of their fabulous turkey chili.

The place is a block away from my office, but it took a while to get there because I walked out into the lobby of my building just as a group of demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street came marching down Broadway.

We are the 99 percent!” they chanted. “We are the 99 percent!

I was going to wait until they went by but then I realized that I’m the 99 percent, too, and thus should be out there walking with them, if only for half-a-block. I marched, but to be honest I’m not much of a chanter.

Pret wasn’t serving turkey chili, so I settled for soup and a sandwich and grabbed a table in the back of the room. There were a number of people around me who appeared to be part of OWS.

An older gentleman with a full gray beard stopped as he walked by my table and looked down at me.


“Is it that obvious?” I asked.

“I could tell by your hat,” he told me.

Actually the hat is a giveaway from WQXR, the classical radio station, but the call letters do suggest news media and the guy was right. I am indeed the press.

He told me he was an anthropologist and he was studying the people at OWS. We chatted briefly about the goings on down at Zuccotti Park and then my newfound companion made an odd request.

“Put up your hand.”

I obliged, raising my hand in the old western movie “How” position and waited to hear my fortune.

I don’t really believe you can tell anything from eyeballing the lines in someone’s palm, aside from seeing if they've washed their hands or not. But I’m fascinated by these ancient beliefs, and, well, you never know, right?

But it’s hard for me to discuss palm-reading without thinking about Bela the Gypsy from “The Wolf Man” who, upon seeing a pentagram in a customer’s hand-—that sign that says she's going to be his next victim when he turns into a wolf--promptly gags and boots her out of his tent.

Moments later Bela gets all canis lupus and has her for dinner. If only they had some turkey chili...

And How

Fortunately my palm reader didn’t react in this manner and he skipped the prognostication in favor of some character studying.

“You tend to think too much,” he said, hitting the bull’s eye. “You need to trust your intuition.”

He asked me to turn my hand around, which surprised me because I didn’t know palm readers did the flip side, but I cranked my paw and showed him some knuckles.

“You’re very smart…”

Okay, stop right there. Naturally I love hearing this kind of thing, but I wonder if at any time in the lengthy history of palmistry if anyone ever looked down at a person’s hand and said, “dang, you are one stupid son-of-a-bitch!” Probably not.

My dinner guest, however, hit the target once again.

“…but you have a tendency to use your intelligence as a way of keeping away from people.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m here by myself on a Friday night…”

The timing here is interesting since, among the many books that we’ve come across in our parents’ house, is a tome called “Palmistry For All” by the single-named Cheiro. I don't know how long we've had it or who brought the book into our home, but I think it's a keeper.

Cheiro, a.k.a. William John Warner, was an Irish astrologer and occult figure of the early 20th century who took his nom de palm from the word “cheiromancy,” another term for palmistry.

He read the hands of such notable figures as Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Oscar Wilde, Grover Cleveland, and Thomas Edison.

“Everyone knows that ‘the face can wear a mask,’” Cheiro writes in the preface to the American edition of his book, “that a person may be a good actor and put on a certain expression that may deceive even the best judgment. But hands cannot change as the result of a mere effort to please; the character they express is the real nature of the individual—the true character that has been formed by heredity or that has grown up with the person by long years of habit.”

The book is in one of the many boxes I have stacked around my apartment and I predict I will find it…some day.

So I didn’t get the turkey chili, but I got to walk in a demonstration, had a decent bowl of soup, got some good advice from a total stranger, and I wasn't attacked by a werewolf. Hands down, it was a pretty good evening.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Worm and Fuzzy

When you’re trying to remember something, the worst thing you can do is to try to remember it.

I find that when I forget things like movie titles or actors' names—and this is happening more and more as I grow older—the missing information will often pop into my head when I’m busy doing something else.

Like true love or an audit by the IRS, these things always hit you when you’re not looking.

I’ve been breaking this little rule lately as I try to recall an exchange I once had with my mother and predictably I'm getting nowhere fast.

I don’t remember the time or the occasion, but I know I was trying to get a rise out of my dear mother and I succeeded admirably. I remember how angry she got, but I can’t recall what I said.

Her reaction was vivid as she put her hands on her hips like so many Italian ladies do when they’re furious, and snarled—I swear to God—“You worm!”

Yes, you read that right. My mom compared me to a slimy crawling thing that lives in the mud and manure. And I had it coming. This was a premeditated, coldly calculated act of outrageous smart-assery. Was it something I said? Damn straight. Do I remember what it was? Hell, no!

“Mom said that to you?” my sister asked in disbelief when I told her.

“Yes, she did!”

Many people will tell you that their mothers are saints, but my mother really was a saint, an angel, and the sweetest person you ever want to meet.

Hey, she put with me, right? If that isn’t cause for canonization on its own then all twelve apostles can pull off their halos right now and form a celestial Frisbee team.

So for her to respond in that way means that whatever I said must have been a four-alarm, paint-peeling doozy of a snide remark.

Glimmer, Glimmer

This bout of amnesia is so annoying because I can easily call up all sorts of useless stuff, like who played Festus on Gunsmoke (Ken Curtis), but I can’t get a handle on such a very personal encounter.

I know that I was young, in my teens or early twenties, and like many people in that age bracket, I had an answer for everything. There are some people who will tell you that things haven’t changed much in the last four decades but I like to believe that I’ve matured.

My mother was obsessed with keeping us healthy during the winter and she was always chiding me to button up my coat and cover my chest.

But instead of telling me that, mom always said, “Button your chest!”

“My chest doesn’t have buttons,” I’d shoot back without fail. It was a winter tradition with us.

I was leaving the house one soggy morning and my mother called out “watch your feet!” This was mom’s shorthand for “don’t step into puddles and catch your death of cold.”

However, since she said “watch your feet,” that’s exactly what I did. I slowly turned my gaze downward until I was looking at my feet.

“They’re not doing anything,” I said, playing the fool with award-winning skill.

I closed the door when I heard my mother’s exasperated harumpf! and went my wisecracking way.

See, I can remember these idiotic quips, but the big one still eludes me. It’s become my White Worm.

I know that my mom and I joked about this incident for a quite a while after it happened, with me imitating her by standing arms akimbo and shouting “you worm!

Maybe the remark will come back to me one night. I’ll be half asleep, ready to drift off, and the offending sentence will buzz through my brain like Halley’s Comet cruising across the sky.

Or perhaps I’ll be buttoning my chest or watching my feet when the magic happens, and I'll shout, “yes, that’s what I said!”

I know that line is crawling around some dark corner of my head like the ugly little bugger it is and I want to pull it out into the sunshine.

I owe it to mom. And I owe it to Festus.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Kitsch of Death

That didn’t take long.

I’ve been in my new apartment for about two months and I just had my first decorating catastrophe.

I’ve been trying to change. For years I’ve never really bothered to put a personal mark on any of my apartments--mostly because I was living in towns I didn’t like, working at jobs I had grown to hate.

It didn’t seem worth the trouble to make my place homey when I was always dying to find another gig and skip town like an escaped convict busting out of death row.

I’m going to do things differently with the new place. Not only am I only going to keep it neat, but I’m going to put up posters, photographs, and knickknacks to make it look like someone actually lives here. And I’ve got plenty of stuff to choose from since we’ve been cleaning out my family’s house.

One of my favorite items was a wall-clock sized thermometer from Hatfield Quality Meats that had been hanging in our home for several presidential administrations.

This thing is a kitsch classic, emblazoned with the face of a cartoon pig wearing a chef’s hat. It’s a tacky salute to a bygone era when…pigs wore chef hats.

My father was a meat salesman and after getting the thermometer as a freebie, he brought it home and proudly showed it to my mother. He wanted to give the thing a prominent place in the dining room, but my mother took one look at the Hatfield pig and turned in a real McCoy. She banished the temperature-telling porker to the porch wall.

It makes me think of that atrocious leg lamp from "A Christmas Story" that Ralphie’s dad so dearly loved and Ralphie’s mom so thoroughly loathed.

Hog Heaven

However, unlike the leg lamp, the Hatfield thermometer—spoiler alert--wasn’t destroyed under suspicious circumstances. It was doing just fine until I got my hands on it.

We were all set to put the Hatfield hog into the donation pile, but I got this sudden urge to keep it in the family. I actually liked the thing, so I packed it up, brought it to my new place, and hung it over the doorway leading from the kitchen to living room.

All right, I thought, so satisfied with myself, I’m making my mark. Only I didn’t make it for long.

My landlady had given me these sticky hook things for hanging pictures because she doesn’t want me hammering holes into the walls. I thought they could handle Hatfield, but then I came home and found out otherwise.

It was a pretty grisly sight. There was shattered glass all over the kitchen floor and the porcine chef, now uncovered and exposed, look forlornly up to the ceiling.

The only thing missing was a circle of yellow crime scene tape and two detectives from “Law & Order” taking my sobbing statement. It was a case of negligent hamicide and I was the guilty party.

I was so upset I want to go to crying all the way home, wee-wee-wee, but I already was home.

I shot an email to Hatfield Meats asking for their advice, which was really a stealth appeal for a replacement, but an executive wrote back to say that I was “probably one of the few who still have one of the thermometers.”

One of the few? Maybe I should call Indiana Jones.

I was ready to give old Hatfield a proper burial (throw it in the garbage) but my sister encouraged me to contact a local glassmaker to see if I could get a new cover for the thermometer.

So I’ll give him a call and see if I can’t get Hatfield repaired and returned to his rightful place on my wall. It’ll be something to squeal about.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Smokin’ Faces

It’s been eight years since New York’s anti-smoking laws drove cigars, cigarettes and Tiparillos out of the bars and restaurants and sent smokers out into the streets.

You won't hear me complaining. I don’t miss the smoke stench that would take root in your clothing after a night out on the town, or that smoker’s cough you’d get, even though you didn’t smoke, you didn't chew and you didn't go with girls who do (or did).

I grew up when smoking was still acceptable, when cigarette commercials ran on TV, and movie stars didn’t hesitate to light up.

Some of the stranger, more personal, artifacts from that distant era have been turning up in my family’s house in the form of ceramic ashtrays that we made as children.

I had forgotten how my fellow Cub Scouts and I used to make these things for our arts and crafts projects.

Now let’s think about that for a moment: children making ashtrays. Kids were actually aiding a deadly and disgusting addiction by making one of its more important accessories.

My dad used to recite a parody of the Boy Scout oath that went “On my honor, I will do my best to smoke cigars and cigarettes.” Maybe it wasn’t such a parody after all…

We’ve found two of these ashtrays so far. One is the simple coiled clay model that just about every kid made and then there’s the ingenious ceramic house one of my brothers designed.

The idea was that you put your cigarette through one of the windows and the smoke would rise out of the little chimney. I remember my parents--who didn't smoke--marveling at my brother’s ingenuity while visitors to our home complimented his handiwork and made full use of it.

All of that is behind us now. I don’t know what Cub Scouts are making these days, but I would hope ashtrays are off the list.

Full Smoking Jacket

There is, however, one thing I do miss from the Tobacco Age and that’s the smoking jacket. I suppose it’s a little strange to miss something that you never had and was out of style long before you were born, but I miss smoking jackets nonetheless.

Maybe it’s because of all the old movies I saw as a kid, but I associate smoking jackets with class, dignity, intelligence…and money.

Yes, all right, I admit it. The characters wearing smoking jackets in those old flicks weren’t exactly living on Skid Row. They had mansions or palaces, or really cool flats like Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Rathbone often put on his smoking jacket and fired up the old calabash pipe before cracking his toughest cases. (Of course the contents of the pipe might have helped, too, but only Mrs. Hudson knows for sure.)

Smoking jackets were intended to protect the wearer from falling ash and absorb smoke from cigars and pipes, though I suspect your lungs did the yeoman’s work on that count.

A 1902 newspaper editorial declared that smoking jackets were “synonymous with comfort” and Fred Astaire, who sang about putting on his top hat, was so fond of smoking jackets that he was buried in one.

I recently learned that my great Uncle John on my mother’s side of the family had actually owned a smoking jacket factory in Manhattan during the Twenties.

Details are pretty sketchy, but I do know that the business, like countless others, was wiped out by the Great Depression.

People weren’t particularly interested in purchasing silk smoking jackets when the cupboard was bare and the landlord was pounding on the door.

My dad’s father was also in a rather exotic line of work at the time of the stock market crash. Grandpa Lenihan, who had been everything from a barge captain to an honest-to-God cowboy, was cleaning Turkish rugs when the stocks went south. And like great Uncle John, my grandfather saw his enterprise go under.

I thought that smoking jackets had gone the way of straw hats and walking sticks, but they seem to be on the comeback trail.

While wasting my time on Facebook, which, of course, is redundant, I came across an ad for an actual smoking jacket. It goes for $195, which I’m sure is a hell of a lot more than what ancestor charged, but that’s inflation for you.

But it’s kind of interesting. Great Uncle John had a smoking jacket factory just before the stock market crashed. So is the return of the smoking jacket a portent of another financial meltdown? Will we be ground out in the ashtray of fate while we're heedlessly puffing away?

Let’s hope not. But just in case, I think I’ll treat myself to a smoking jacket and a Turkish rug. If we’re going to hell, we might as well go in style.