It’s a common word, something you see every day…
E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-E-D, embarrassed. That’s what I felt when I was eliminated from my school’s inaugural spelling bee in the first round. I was also I-N-F-U-R-I-A-T-E-D, infuriated, because I never wanted to be a part of the competition in the first place. As I saw it, spelling bees were not potential pathways to academic glory but rather protracted exercises in dodging humiliation. You hang in there as long as you can, take your best guess when necessary, and wipe the sweat from your brow when someone else gets knocked out on a word you didn’t know, either. That’s under the best circumstances. At the other end of the spelling bee spectrum is the real possibility of making a shameful mistake and inducing self-inflicted P-S-Y-C-H-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L T-R-A-U-M-A, psychological trauma.
Despite my reluctance, I had trudged up to the stage with the rest of the seventh and eighth graders and haplessly plopped down onto my assigned folding chair. The gymnasium seemed uncomfortably full, mostly due to the presence of the rest of the student body and what seemed like the entire faculty and staff. That included my mother, who worked in the office. She gamely chalked up my lack of enthusiasm to the general pattern of surly behavior that was emerging in my early teens. I imagine that she was glad to be there. I just wanted to be anywhere else. Read More
I’m no numismatist, but I do like coins. Of all the humble, ordinary objects that are a part of our everyday existence, they are among my favorites. I enjoy the jangle of change in my pocket, the durable thinness of a dime, the palpable heft of a quarter, the smooth circumference of a nickel, the tiny visage of Lincoln’s statue within its memorial on the reverse of a penny. I take comfort in their familiar ubiquity, their inevitable presence scattered along the tops of dressers, loitering within desk drawers, and accumulating in every tray and compartment between the driver and passenger seat. The jaded among us cast spare change aside as though its monetary worth were its only value, but small children, unhampered by experience, will treasure a penny as a highly desirable object. There is a primal satisfaction in the possession of these virtually indestructible metal tokens with their perfectly circular shapes and curious iconography.
As I said, I’m no numismatist, but I have collected coins. If the uniformity of our solid currency has ever appealed to you, then you might also have found yourself attracted to that shelf in the hobby store with the assortment of deep blue Official Whitman Coin Folders. Each trifold portfolio of sturdy cardboard contains a matrix of paper-backed holes labeled by date, mint initial, and the number of millions that were produced. Unlike other historical chronologies, the Whitman Coin Folder is unencumbered by interpretation or nuance. It is truly nonpartisan. Everything has its own little place, and that’s that. And well before the popular preoccupation with video games and their motivating multilevels, these collector’s folders hooked the anal retentive with visions of completeness. The rows and rows of holes are just begging to be filled with their corresponding coins. Read More
Traffic was backed up for four miles on the southbound lanes of I-35 near Huxley, Iowa on Tuesday afternoon as crews labored to clean up a spilled semitrailer load of Jell-O pudding cups. Meanwhile, a mere 25 miles away, former Jell-O spokesman Bill Cosby was a featured speaker at the Get Motivated “business seminar” in Des Moines. These are indisputable facts, and for some reason, they are funny. Even the Associated Press coverage of the accident, which mentioned neither the brand name Jell-O nor the nearby presence of Cosby, was amusing, mainly due to the line “Pudding cups littered the interstate.” The heart of the matter is this: a pudding spill is funny.
Of course, it is unlikely that the semi driver has joined the chorus of chuckles. Although he escaped uninjured, he did endure the harrowing experience of driving down the highway and suddenly discovering that his trailer was on fire. After pulling over to the berm and detaching his cab, he awaited the arrival of emergency crews while his trailer became engulfed in flames. His cargo spilled from the side of the trailer onto the roadway. Far from being amused, the driver was likely grateful to be alive while overwhelmed by the practical implications of the incident. What was the cause of the accident? Who, if anyone, was responsible? Were the trailer and its contents insured? What needs to be done next? Meanwhile, I doubt that cleanup crews found much levity in the unenviable task of removing the mess while impatient motorists backed up mile after mile. Read More
Priceless proof in the absence of memory.
My paternal grandfather died at the age of 86 when I was twelve years old. Given the fact that he lived just around the next block during the entire time I knew him, it seems only natural that I would have many memories of our brief time together. Yet, sadly, I cannot recall any specific moments that we shared. I only remember what it was like to sit quietly in his tiny living room when Dad and I would stop by for a visit. The two of them would drone on about topics that did not interest me at all, and I would pass the time by rocking in a swivel chair and scanning the latest National Enquirer that had been left on the end table. Sometimes there would be something interesting on the TV, but most often not.
I can only remember Grandpa as a mysterious and taciturn widower, Grandma having died when I was six. He did not live alone, though, as he had a faithful dachshund named Gidget for companionship. A highlight of visiting Grandpa, one might think. But as much as I found my grandfather to be remote, his little dog was completely unapproachable. Apparently she had once suffered abuse at the hands of youngsters, rendering her hostile toward anyone who happened to be in the same peer group as her former tormentors. Between Grandpa’s perpetual frown and his vicious wiener dog, I didn’t care to linger when we visited. Read More
The forlorn, former home of Cans ‘n’ Stuff
The street on which I was raised runs nearly three quarters of a mile, a straight line along its entire length. We lived almost dead center, whence I could pedal my bike a satisfying distance in either direction. On the west end of the avenue lived Big Ed and Little Ed, a father and son whose nicknames reflected their seniority but not their relative size. Big Ed, as I recall, was a quiet, gray-haired man of small stature. Little Ed, however, was bigger in every way, from his large frame to his frizzy, black hair, which framed a happy-go-lucky countenance. They would have been an odd couple under any circumstances, but for a brief period of time they were business partners. They ran their unique venture from a tiny and disheveled storefront at the eastern terminus of our street.
Cans ‘n’ Stuff was surely one of the stranger establishments to have emerged in my hometown. Its eclectic stock was an outgrowth of its proprietors’ respective hobbies. Big Ed collected beer cans, a fad of rising popularity in the seventies. Little Ed collected record albums, singles and related memorabilia. Naturally, they opened a shop that sold used records and beer cans. It was, perhaps, one of the greatest moments in the history of entrepreneurial zeal executed without so much as a shred of market research. What, after all, was the target demographic of Cans ‘n’ Stuff? Whom did Big Ed and Little Ed envision as their customers? Read More
For years, Brian and I had little to say to each other due to the icy chasm of our eight years difference in age. We had few common interests, after all. Not until I reached adolescence did our cold war start to thaw, a more or less civil diplomacy emerging in the unlikeliest of venues: on the virtual football fields, baseball diamonds and tennis courts of pioneering Intellivision video games. It was my older brother, who followed sports and occasionally actually played them, versus his nonathletic and sports-illiterate sibling in highly competitive contests of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Countless battles unfolded on the color screen of our wood-paneled console television as we stretched out on the living room floor and blindly manipulated the controllers, keeping our wide eyes locked on the action.
Sometimes we were woefully mismatched, as when we faced off in football. Clearly Brian had the far better grasp of strategy. I had only one effective weapon in my pitiful strategic arsenal, a potentially devastating play that I called The 9929 Twenty-Yard Fadeback. Named for the four-digit code one entered into the controller to call a play that included a receiver going long, the scheme exploited a curious anomaly of Intellivision Football: its quarterbacks never threw too short nor tossed the ball out of bounds, instead firing off passes that would spiral all the way off the scrolling screen if they were not caught. By some strange compromise of gameplay design, those golden arms could accurately throw the length of the football field. Read More
I am sitting by the front windows at a table adorned with a small vase of fresh-cut daisies and miniature yellow roses, clacking away at my laptop while sipping from a large mocha espresso. It is mid-morning, well after the breakfast rush and still more than an hour away from the onset of the lunch crowd, yet there has been no scarcity of customers. An ebullient woman dressed as a skeleton and a cocky guy in the garb of a Mardi Gras king are competing for the approval of the audience as Let’s Make A Deal unfolds on a flat-screen display. No one pays any attention to the spectacle, though, its raucous proceedings muffled by the general din of conversation and an industrious, cheery staff.
The dining area is a collage of browns, beiges and oranges, offset with bold murals of modern art featuring swaths of black and white, red and yellow, and a high-contrast, monochromatic portrait of a young woman of ambiguous expression staring upward as her negatively silhouetted hand cradles a photorealistic hamburger. Behind the counter is an even more aggressive design scheme: yard-long, rectangular backsplash panels in adjoining fields of midnight black and fire engine red. A light wood grain laminate dominates not only the floor but the walls as well. Unobtrusive lighting recessed within acoustical ceiling tile illuminates a variety of seating options, from a long, tall, wooden table flanked by a dual row of upholstered bar stools to a series of white fiberglass tables adjacent to a long, cushioned bench that runs along the front of the room. It’s a quirky mix of variety and uniformity, as though an interior decorator were given complete artistic freedom within severely defined constraints. Read More
Them Catholics sure know how to make themselves miserable, let me tell you. I know, ’cause I used to work with one. Fred Murphy, that was his name, he used to work down in the supply cage, only decent guy in the whole department. Everybody on the shop floor knew to go to Freddy if you needed something, ’cause he’d actually listen to you and do whatever he could to help. Maybe he couldn’t always fix your problem, but he’d go to bat for you every time. I never knew anybody who didn’t like Freddy, except maybe the old fart who used to run the supply cage like it was his kingdom and we were the serfs. Anyway, ol’ Fred was a good guy.
Now we were all second shifters back then, including Fred, and somehow or other we started up a Friday morning bowling league. Might have been Mel Gordon’s idea, he was a pretty good bowler before his heart attack. The rest of us were just in it for a good time, you know? Couple of beers, some greasy food, who cared about the score? It was a great way to unwind before the last shift of the week, and you knew the weekend was on the other side. Fred was kind of a quiet guy, not pushy at all, and it took awhile before someone thought to ask him to join our league, since it was all guys from the floor. But once he joined us, he never missed a Friday, not so long as the league lasted. Read More
Kneeling at the altar where one day their children would be served tater tots.
A big cafeteria. That’s what you need if you’re planning on running an institution that teaches children from first through eighth grade. St. Gerard, my elementary and middle school alma mater, met that requirement with room to spare. As a little kid, our cafeteria seemed like a cavernous space, an immense and spare rectangular room so large that its flat and featureless ceiling was supported by more than half a dozen pillars. If the prospect of attending a school that included students twice your height and age didn’t already make you feel small, being herded into the cafeteria for the first time erased any vestiges of pride.
For a hall that admitted plenty of sun through great windows along its length, the St. Gerard cafeteria was run with chilling efficiency. To this day, if I were to walk through its far entrance, I could show you the exact path that we were expected to follow as we wound along the perimeter in single file toward the serving area. There we would pick up the molded plastic trays upon which a small group of cafeteria ladies – some nice, others indifferent, and a few downright intimidating – would deposit the various components of the day’s meal. We picked up our milk last, dutifully inserting the half-pint carton into its designated tray compartment, and proceeded toward the seating area. Read More
Growing up in the 70’s, I heard my fair share of pop music, mostly as I dawdled over a bowl of cereal while our local AM radio station spun tunes in between news updates and weather forecasts. WIMA programmed an adult contemporary playlist that was as digestible at the breakfast table as it was suitable for dentists’ offices. Songs like Feelings, Tie A Yellow Ribbon, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head and Music Box Dancer were mixed with country crossover hits such as The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Southern Nights, all topped off with a liberal sprinkling of Bee Gees hits. From the dawn of disco to its twilight and shortly thereafter, WIMA also kept ABBA in heavy rotation.
I was familiar with ABBA because of their inclusion among the small stack of 45’s I had inherited from my siblings. Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ in the Boys Room. Clint Holmes’ Playground in My Mind. The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace. Something had to go under the needle of my very first record player, and whatever I found around the house was added to the playlist. I still remember the red and black Atlantic Records label revolving as the low-fidelity strains of Waterloo warbled from built-in speakers. It was a happy and infectious tune, and although I had no idea what the song was about, I knew I liked the music. Like most of the ABBA hits that were destined to dominate the airwaves, Waterloo was so catchy that it was hard to forget. Hear it once, and you know it. Hear it twice, and it’s stuck in your head. Read More