Archive for the ‘New Jersey’ Category

Sandy just bruises us a bit

October 30th, 2012

Here’s best hopes and wishes for those in Sandy’s path. We had comparatively little damage here. Our flooding, lost power, and tree-on-house destruction would normally be sources for self-pity. With this monster storm though, we feel lucky.

Here are a few snaps of our hill in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

Well, there was that tree. This 40 to 50 foot pine fell without creaking or other sound, suddenly blocking the road. The car normally in its path was not and it fell both away from our house and short of the neighbor’s.
Everyone, his brother and niece seemed to have called the city. Plus a Public Works big shot lives nearby. They told us they didn’t know when they could get to it, but were there within a half hour. They took about half the tree but used a loader to move the rest off to the sides so folk could drive through.
Pre-Sandy old coot (and weatherman/woman) wisdom was it would be a waste of time to rake before the storm. That was partially true. Here is our formally totally clear patio after the blow.
On the other hand, we got trash, recycling and yard-waste pick up all on Monday. So 16 big bags or cans of leaves went to the city compost piles.
A neighbor’s R.I.P. Halloween tombstone ended up in the gutter flood of leaves and water. I retrieved it and one of the downed-tree gawkers recognized it, taking it off to the rightful owner.
Our several maples were denuded by the big winds. The three big basswoods in the back haven’t even bothered to turn color much less give up their foliage. This dogwood held on to about half its covering.
The skies still misted and more rain is allegedly coming throughout the day. Yet, early this morning, the sun tried to peak and promise.
With the big winds gone and guts down to 20 MPH, the political yard sign went back up.

Pix Notes: You’re welcome to anything useful. They are Creative Commons, so just cite Mike Ball once.

We know numerous chums who lost power and had water damage both here and in New Jersey. I hear that my WV buddies and getting a foot or two of snow as well. However, Sandy was relatively kind to us and Boston did a fine job.

 

Interminable Sports Dinners

May 15th, 2012

I was a jock. I ‘fess up.

Now, I was also a scholar, but I was also a wrestler, then a swimmer into college. Compounding that, I was my high school paper’s sports editor. I didn’t want that spot, but it was the one that was open. Once I got to college and in J-school, I became the the loudmouthed pinko for the world to recognize.

Regardless, in my time and then our sons’, I went to a lot of sports dinners. The boys were (#1 son) baseball, (#2 and #3) soccer. #1 did crew in high school, following my edict that he had to do three years of some team sport, any team sport. Then he blissfully announced that he’d done his time. A deal is a deal in our house. I didn’t bother with his siblings. If they didn’t get the love of team sports in years of youth soccer, they didn’t. They didn’t.

My sports-dinner evenings seems Sisyphian even then. They were seasonal, so all the fall sports together, then the winter, then the spring. My high school had 2000 students…a lot of jocks. How many damned plaques can you call out in an evening? Something a little short of infinite!

Bromances flowed. Those of us with sainted coaches (Victor Liske for me) could go on and on and on. We did. I even wrote a farewell column to my coach, as our swim team was his last after over two decades. He was so fabulous as a person and mentor, his boys still quote it.

After my first such dinner though, I knew the routine and was resigned to it. What I came to resent was the blazer.

After a couple of years of lettering, I was due a PHS letterman sweater. Then the athletic director unilaterally decided that the sophisticated, manly option should be a blue blazer instead. Pissed I was. I had the letters and the team pins to attach to them. One did not sew a big maroon P on a blazer, nor dangle it before a current or potential girlfriend.

The solution wasn’t bad — go to the sporting goods store and buy the navy-blue sweater with the proper number of maroon stripes on the right arm. Yet, we in my situation thought of getting the sweater at the dinner as a reward for the agony, bruises and many hours of practices. Somehow the heavy-handed decision rankled.

Moreover, when we got the blazers, they sucked. Turns out that the school went as cheap as possible, which meant they were constructed in New Jersey prisons…badly. I have a huge chest and shoulders. The big sizes in particular had absurd shoulder pads, giving them the effect of bad formal football uniforms.

Fortunately, my grandfather, the man of many jobs and an unbelievable skill set, was among other things a tailor. I showed up with the stupid, insulting, ill-fitting, ugly blazer and started to complain. He was on it and shut me up. He took it next door to his dry cleaning and tailoring shop immediately. He returned in less than half an hour, with an altered, customized jacket. He’d taken in the waist to suit my build as well. The shoulders were flat and beautifully contoured. Granddad was an artist. I could only say thanks and wonder why I’d been upset.

Too Much Virgin Mary

October 11th, 2011

micpietaBoy, did I get sick of the Pieta.

Michelangelo’s marble gasp maker (here in a Creative Commons pic) became a yawn maker in 1964 and 1965. Everyone, her brother, three kids and friends had to see it at the New York World’s Fair. It was what we now call a meme and was a quiet but relentless must-see object for millions of Americans.

Sometimes, I thought they were all staying with us. Relatives we hardly could place and numerous chums from the many states we’d lived as a family suddenly remembered us in our new location 20 some miles west of NYC. We were a pied à terre for many, many feet.

“Oh, yes, we definitely want to see the Pieta when we go to the World’s Fair,” they say. They’d all say.

So, there I was, a teen and tour guide. My mother either worked or maybe hid from some of these trips, but my sister a bit and I a lot found ourselves trucking to Flushing, Queens again and again and one more time.

It’s a nice piece of work. I think I originally found it strikingly beautiful, but after dozens of viewings, I found it a commercialized irritant.

To Roman Catholics, this was more than a famous work of art. There were the Holy Mother and the recently dead Savior by one of the world’s greatest sculptors in one of the world’s greatest cities in one of those rare world’s fairs. Moreover, transporting this was a huge deal, logistically, economically and even diplomatically. In fact, the Vatican had a reproduction commissioned to ship to prove that the original could make it flawlessly. That remains in a seminary in New York State a half century later — suddenly disposable. Moreover for the Catholics, the Pieta was herald and harbinger for Pope Paul VI, who wrapped up the statue’s visit with one of his own, plus, of course, mass. The science-fiction-movie scape of the fairgrounds remains, replete with skeletal gigantic globe and a plaza marking where the Pope’s slippers stood and he prayed.

As a non-Catholic, I was less than blessed. What I knew is that the summers and holidays would be scheduled tightly with religious and art tourists.

In fairness, many were Southerners and gracious and generous. They’d treat me to transit and food. Yet, each was intent on riding the holy conveyor belt by the image of the dead Savior.

And a conveyor belt it was. The fair organizers were nothing if not efficient. They projected quite accurately that the curious and devout alike were each was a potential constipator of the great viewing tract. There could be no prolonged gawking or praying time. There certainly was no rosary saying.

The Pieta got overhead lighting and appeared ghastly white, far more morbid than the image above as it appears in the Vatican. the background, the whole room, was dark blue. I assume that represented the heavens, with the white lights kind of standing in for stars. There actually was a people-moving conveyor. You’d wait on line, then step lively onto the moving walk, and be literally and maybe figuratively transported past mother and son.

That got pretty old. By the time I was into my second dozen viewing, I would have liked to be able to double or triple the conveyor speed. You want holy statuary? Here. Pow! Thank you and good-bye.

Instead, I regret not buying a shrunken head.

The first few times I was there, I saw clearly fake shrunken heads, in the international pavilion. I think they were from Ecuador and the Jivaro there. I had rubber rats and skulls and such and admired the detail of these models, but they were pricey for me at the time, I think  $50. I didn’t spend all my money on one.

As it turns out, they were real. The Times and Herald reported that the pavilion tendering them was informed to their surprise that such human parts were illegal to import and sell in this country. And I could have had a truly disgusting artifact, had I been sharp and quick enough.

Many of my tourists left with Pieta nicknacks, but none had any interest in shrunken heads.

Cryptic Message From the Basement

October 6th, 2011

Hideaway

Folkies in the basement, oh my.

A request from a high school chum, whom I’ve not seen in decades although spoken with by phone, got me doing a real search. I tried the old Google/Yahoo/Dogpile routine, but ended up actually contacting live humans, primary sources as academicians like to put it.

He wanted to know the rest of the message that appeared on the back of the membership card for the folk music club in the basement of the Jewish deli in near North Plainfield, New Jersey, in the mid-1960s. How’s that for obscure.

He remembered that it started out, “Just for today…”

I learned two things. First is that another friend (his name is blanked for this post) is a packrat. He had his card — from 46 years ago, for the sub-restaurant where we spend a couple hundred weekend evenings.

Second is that I should have recognized the lingo. Searching today for the text, I found it bubbles right under us all. This is part of the much longer Just For Today resource for families and friends affected by alcoholics. It appears Al-Anon sites,  like this one, including the lines from the card that read:

Just for today I will be unafraid.  Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.

backsmall

Stand-alone, those words certainly fit that place and moment, a transition from beatniks to hippies. No foul.

Yet clearly someone in the small cabal that created the card must have dealt with alcoholics and maybe been an Al-Anon member. It was not a factor in my family or those of my friends. For us, if we drank at all, it would be a small glass of wine or beer or maybe a shot of some liqueur snuck from a parent’s liquor cabinet and shared — a silly tipple for the drama and not effect.

Wisdom and beauty don’t need to come marching to the door, kick it in and yell.

You Look Just Like (other)

July 31st, 2011

mbavatar

The tactlessness of our fellows is a massive force. I have experienced it in the you-look-just-like trope since childhood. If you do it, stop immediately.

The routine goes like this. You are in a social or work/social setting with anywhere from four to 50 people. You exclaim at high volume to someone, “You look just like…” and insert a name of someone either unknown to others or famous.

Cross-post note: This kind of rant seems to belong both here and on Marry in Massachusetts.

Let me make it plain. Regardless of lack of sobriety or imagined perceptiveness, you are wrong, very wrong. The object of your exclamation and other will know you’re an ill-mannered ass, whose mother had trailer trash pretensions of sociability. Whomever you are comparing to whomever looks at best only vaguely like each other. Moreover, it’s almost certain that you are a different ethnic background that the alleged twins, with the added flavor of racism.

I’ve been hearing that from elementary school. It took me quite awhile to realize that the folk who said it invariably were of different ethnic or racial backgrounds…that all of the other looked alike to them. So, I have always been blond and kind of Nordic looking. Yet whether I was trim or chubby, had lots or little hair, or whatever gross anatomical status and age I was, I heard it.

If you do that, think and stop.

For the object of your attention, the proper answer is along the lines of, “Horse feathers!” or some other contradiction. Without the other person handy corporeally or photographically, you’ve put the just-like person in the flight-or-fight situation. You are also really revealing:

  • You’re a poor visualizer
  • You have intrusive, poor and self-centered behavior
  • You are indifferent to whether you are insulting someone or putting someone on the spot
  • If you look little like the two people compared, you likely are revealing your stereotypes, racial and otherwise
  • You expect everyone to shift his or her attention to you
  • You are so arrogant that you don’t consider the near certainty that you are very wrong

When this shtick gets amusing is when you can check on the spot. This is easier with smart-phones, iPads and such. Honest to God, if you get called on this even once, and proven to be way off base, take the lesson.

For me, it was finally realizing it was the swarthy Mediterranean types, Ashkenazim, Asians and others who had none of my physical characteristics that pronounced my twins.  Boy or girl, man or woman, young or old, it was invariably someone who looked nothing like anyone in my family who’d say, “I know this guy you look exactly like,” or “You know that actor (name); you could be his twin.”

At last, I heard the real message. That was, “All you blond, WASP types look just alike to me.”

How dumb is that?

The times there was a picture of the alleged twin or the rarer occasions when we could be together with the proclaimer, without a single exception, the consensus was either, “You look nothing alike,” or “Gee, I guess you are not that much alike.” Never once was the follow-up, “Oh, sorry. I’m a jerk.”

With my many experiences like this, I’ve never done it. In fact, I felt for our middle son, who did, truly and unmistakably, look like Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter movies, particularly the first several. People would stop him on the street, either to inform him of that or to ask if he was the actor. I am pretty sure if Radcliffe had met Eli or saw pictures of him then, he would have agreed there was a similarity. There too I see the humor in that among our three sons, he looks the least like my side of the family and the most like my wife’s. He’d never be seen as twin of a Norseman or blond WASP.

I should have been more racially savvy about this by high school and figured out the cultural component. I got a flavor of it then with a Chinese friend. She was born in Canton, came to America at 8, and was the only Chinese student in our three-year high school of over 2,000 students. She grew up with white folk, black folk and no Asians outside her family.

One day she and I were in NYC, playing around in the West Village, Little Italy and Chinatown. As we walked around the latter, suddenly she turned to me and said with surprise, “All these Chinese people look alike to me.”

Bad, Worse, Worst, By Cracky

July 13th, 2011

Dig in the cliché bag. You don’t have to go far to find, ta da, that no one can afford to live in Manhattan.

My recurring chuckle on that emerged after reading a humor piece One of the Grumpy Old Men of the Blogosphere. As he writes, “I walk around smacking the young folks with my cane and tell them that when I started blogging seven years ago it was a different blogosphere than it is now.”

Thus it is on so many topics, including NYC.

A few weeks ago, number one son considered another job, moving from Davis Square. One of the company’s options was California and another 200 miles South. He commented that Manhattan, where he was born and lived his first six months, was far too expensive.

Where’s my cane?

Truth be told, residents of the City have told that truth for well over a century, like Bostonian love to brag about ephemeral weather. Even such visitors as Mark Twain spoke of that, as in 1876. Before the pop term meme, pride in the mercurial weather was conversation filler and marginal assertion.

Let’s set aside that over 1.5 million live in Manhattan, over 8 million in the five boroughs, and over 18 million in the metro area. Let’s pretend that they all moved there decades ago, “the last time the area was affordable” or that they inherited a rent stabilized flat.

If that’s not enough to kill the cost fantasy:

  1. Compare NYC prices to other high-rent/ownership cities
  2. Ask old, long-term locals

I got my first lessons in this shtick in the 1960s, when I was in high school about 20 miles west in New Jersey. Having moved from exurban Virginia, I was ready for a real city and thrilled to be there. For a small bag of dirt (under a buck, really), a bus would drive into the Port Authority station. I was a regular.

Many other students were afraid to go and had parents who refused to let them take the bus to see the larger world. I think of one of our class trips, to visit the United Nations, when a teacher asked the captives how many had been to Manhattan before. I thought that had to be a stupid question and that surely 100% would raise a hand. Under half did, including my seatmate, who said his father had been last when he left the Army there after WWII ended, over 20 years before. That dad found it dirty and did not feel safe, so he and his family had sat 22 miles west all those years without the museums, shows, restaurants, and wowsers, the energy of Mahattan.

I was all over the 14 miles of Manhattan and much of all the boroughs, with limited Staten Island time beyond the ferry and a few near-dock spots. I promised myself I’d live there after college, and did for a decade. Even as I moved to first the East and then West Village, people all around me who somehow managed to afford living there said no one could afford to live there.

Circling back to the cliché and grumpy old and young people, I have heard it at least hundreds of times, maybe thousands, each with great assuredness. The discussion comes in two flavor:

  1. New York used to be affordable, but no longer is
  2. People have always said it used to be affordable, but no longer is, so blah blah

While Manhattan is way down the list in overall expense worldwide (maybe 32), at the moment it does top the U.S. list. Oddly enough, it’s not that far beyond the next four — San Francisco, LA, DC and Boston. At various times, it has not been at the top.

Of course, housing prices, which reflect desirability, are the largest driver. Moreover, the results for many residents are skewed in favor of the big five cities by income. Employers, particularly white-color ones, compensate staff to adjust for higher prices, bringing the real expense down.

Forget the mitigating factor though. The fun part is that for over 40 years, I’ve heard the same loony rap about unaffordable Manhattan. I also have met long-term New Yorkers who are more rational and less emotional about it. They don’t feel the need to chant no-one-can-live-here-anymore at the least provocation.

Instead, the observant and experienced say they too had heard that from much older, longer-term residents and know it’s jive. Sure, you pay to live where the vitality, personal, business and artistic, is. Yet millions have, do and want to. Let the cliché ricochet around the room or vehicle. It’s boring, but harmless, plus it keeps the easily daunted away.

Those millions manage. They just have to want it, not be afraid and make it work…by cracky.

Up in the Actors’ Faces

April 22nd, 2011

Is it odd that someone as inherently shy as I likes theater where you could touch the actors if you stretched just a bit? Well, I am and I do.

Last evening, we had that experience again, this time in Cambridge. It was our first time at the Central Square Theater. It was much like my countless off-off-Broadway evenings in my decade living in Manhattan. It was also very similar to the old New Rep, when it was the Newton Repertory Theater (hence New Rep) in the Congregational Church in the Highlands there.

I think we found our new New Rep yesterday.

Not only did we like the space and play, but we had the affirming omen of sharing the restaurant with a famous professor holding forth. Theater before theater with splendid food has all the marks — at least the public ones — of a good evening.

Cheek to Jowl

I started enjoying off-off-Broadway productions when I was in high school in New Jersey and would bus into town. Coffee houses, folk music and poets were the entertainment norms, but cheap theater was another part. I got in at the very end of the beatnik phase and the start of the Dylan/Baez/Ochs types. Folk, poetry, jazz or plays were all a few bucks and generally no waiting, reservations or the other rituals of today.

When I moved to the city in the decade there were a few Broadway theaters with bargain seats. I recall the Winter Garden had Sondheim and such where obstructed view seats were under $10. You’d be in a box very close to the stage, but a column would cut off a corner of your sight of the whole stage.

Particularly for musicals, that was of little significance. A friend who loved Follies and such had me accompany her repeatedly to such shows.

My heart though was in the rawer dramas off-off-Broadway. They were invariably in smaller theaters, mostly below Times Square. As with the Central Square Theater, the audience was from two thirds to entirely around the stage. It is like being in the play, without the extroversion. The plays were innovative, unknown to most of the audience and as such riveting and demanding.

If I want to see and hear the same tired tale or song again and again, I could turn on television.

Likewise, we immediately decided to subscribe to the New Rep when we went to our first play there — Moby Dick, An American Opera — in 2001. Not only were we right on the sprawling stage that was the Pequod and much more, but it was not some hackneyed crowd pleaser.

I could certainly go the rest of my life without another production of the 100 or so plays Boston professional, touring, college and community theaters stage. We understand that they put on what they know people will pay to see. Yawn.

Instead, I love being next to the stage and action. I love new plays that require full attention and forming my own judgments.

Fear of Sameness

So last evening, I got it all. While we didn’t go entirely blind and had read a review of Breaking the Code, we did not know the work or playwright. Our reward was a very well written and largely superbly acted blending of biography, history, melodrama, mathematics and fledgling computer science. It was very memorable and far more so than had we seen yet another hoary modern classic play. Yawn again.

Early in life, I could not believe people’s need for the known and fear of the unknown. The mere idea of an eternal heaven of one unchanging, blissful day sounds rather like hell to me. Likewise, I an aghast when I hear folk say they love or look forward to loving to do the same thing every day in their retirement, be that golf or fishing or whatever — hell acted out on earth.

When I lived in Manhattan, a high-school chum decided to become a chef, enrolled in the CIA up in Hyde Park on the Hudson, and took to spending weekends based in my West Village apartment. We were together often, walking the length of the island, eating, drinking, going to theater and such. She became a successful chef.

She told me a story of sameness more than once as she graduated head of her class and worked NYC restaurants. She’d cock her head to the left as she was wont when amused to tell me that I was a better cook but could never be a chef.

She noted that I could go to the pantry or the corner green grocer and create a remarkable meal from what I found. She said that made me better with food and thus a better cook. However, as she learned in school and professionally, the vast majority of restaurant customers want, expect and demand the same…every time.

I did and still do cook by what is best and freshest, combining them generally differently each time. I rarely use recipes. In contrast, she said, customers pay for a predictable experience, one that is a package with generally the same companion(s). Their veggies, entrées, soups, desserts and all damned well look, feel and taste exactly as they remember them.

Likewise, with theater, the crowds like the predictable. They want stories they know, dialog they’ve heard, and a play that their neighbors and coworkers will also recognize.

Felicitousness Omens

Only a block from the theater is an apt restaurant for it, Rendezvous. We had been there before and returned, but not because we expected an identical experience. While some of the dishes are pretty steady, many vary by Chef Steve Johnson’s whims, by which of his herbs are in his garden, and by what pates and sausages he and the staff have concocted that week and day.

Shortly after we ordered, someone else who likes Rendezvous arrived to join a table of maybe two dozen. Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates came in, greeting his friends and the wait staff alike. Cheeks were kissed.

I did not get boorish and buttonhole him. After watching his Faces of America PBS series, I suspect he’d appreciate the light link we have. My mother came from the same immediate region as he. They were born in the same hospital in the tiny town of Keyser, West Virginia. He, she and her father all graduated from Pot State (Potomac State in Keyser, now part of the state University system).

As his series shows, it’s possible there is some family connections as well. Who knows, but just talking the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia is not an experience he likely gets often. Nor do I.

Regardless, I behaved myself. On the way out, I did ask the maitre d’ and sure enough, he’s a regular. Perhaps we’ll coincide on a future visit to the theater and we can play two former hillbillies.

Meanwhile, the dinner was wonderful and my wife and I had a fine time there and at the play. We’ll be back to both.

We do vary our restaurants. The several companies that stage in that little complex don’t have so many productions that we’d be on entertainment autopilot.

Following its move from Newton to Watertown, the migrated New Rep stuck us as fairly boring. They run a lot more conventional productions. We dropped our subscription. They have aged badly and are much more timid.

Now in Central Square, there’s what we like.

Tags: harrumphharrumphertheaterCentral Squareoff-off-Broadwaycookingvariety

Mr. Grumpy’s Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2010

I’ve been to Trader Joe’s, Stop & Shop and the Haymarket. We have that hippy-dippy free-range turkey to pick up Tuesday and pies and bread to bake. It reminds me of a story.

About 40 years ago, in Plainfield, New Jersey, two older family friends were anticipating a rough Thanksgiving. Evelyn and Rollins Justice (everyone called him “Justice,” which seemed to fit such a kind and thoughtful man) had a tough year and a tougher guest.

They ended up fearing a Thanksgiving under the tyranny of his father. Think Abe Simpson and you are in the area. The old man had retired from the railroad in his 40s, sponged off one child and then moved in with his son and daughter-in-law in Plainfield. He was entitled, demanding and often nasty. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, from morning biscuits to his rocking chair placement. Justice was old school country from the western mountains of North Carolina. He would never toss the old guy or order him to behave.

Evelyn had volunteer work with the veterans’ hospital, she had visited remote sick grandkids, money was tight and Justice had to work. They simply could not prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Evelyn was a fabulous cook with the Southern pride of my-hand-to-your-mouth hospitality. She was sad not to be able to cook and she and Justice dreaded the response from the old man.

They didn’t discuss it with him. Rather when Justice got home, they got into their black Rambler and headed out to find someplace that was open and they could afford. The only place seemed to be the drive-in Steer Inn on Route 22.

Evelyn steeled herself as Justice went in and returned to the car with burgers, fries and drinks. Amazingly, the old man had not said a word, much less started a tirade about the first Thanksgiving of his life without a feast presented to him.

Finally, as Evelyn and Justice looked out the windshield and started on their burgers, the old man spoke. He said only, “Hain’t got no table.”

Happy T’Day and Cross-Post Note: This is what passes for a classic among my blog posts. It appeared four years ago at Marry in Massachusetts.

Pity the Feeble Racist

July 30th, 2010

groceryweaponMy still quick reflexes for an old fart kept my legs from mangling by a cart in the Roslindale Stop & Shop a short time ago. It was not propelled idly by an inattentive shopper or even a helpful, but too short, kid. Instead a hostile, angry and racist older black woman came right at me.

Sure enough, we forget or at least compartmentalize when we don’t have to deal with obvious racists regularly. After 21 years in Jamaica Plain and one here in Hyde Park — both very racially and culturally diverse Boston neighborhoods —I don’t experience or witness much of that.

There was no question this woman wanted to hurt me and why. I was a couple of feet from the front of my cart, ready to load in some greens. The cart was against a veggy display. She cut across about six feet of tile, veering hard left directly toward me, leaving me no exit and no way to avoid her.

First she glared and sneered as she aimed at my legs. I dipped into my t’ai chi background to touch the front of her cart as it came into contact with me and divert it just enough to keep it from smashing my legs.

That further enraged her and her racism became obvious. She swore about white people and said they were always pushing around black folk. She remained furious.

The three women with her, ranging from perhaps 50 to 17 were likely a daughter and granddaughters. They sort of looked down, but it was quickly obvious that this was not new behavior by the matron of the family.

Trying to give granny an out, I said pleasantly, “God bless you.” In return, she literally spit back, “No, God bless you!” as a clear curse. They left and I could hear her continuing to defame white people.

I did get an odd chuckle of recognition though. A black friend from way back had warned me of angry, elderly black women. The stockier they are, he’d say, the more evil their evil eye and the more likely they’d be willing to have at someone verbally and physically. This crazed shopping lady was exactly what he’d warned me to avoid.

Of course, like the good UU I am, I look for the lessons here. I not only ask my three lads what they can learn from an unpleasant experience or error, I ask myself.

First, I’m glad I could retain my equanimity. She was spoiling for a physical and verbal confrontation and literally bruises and blood. She picked the wrong white guy for that.

Next, I do recognize home-turf advantage. The American Legion Highway store is patronized and staffed almost entirely by African Americans. It’s much more comfortable for racists to act out when they perceive they are the norm. I rather doubt she would have pulled the same antics in the Dedham S&S.

Moreover, I felt for the trio with her. It has to be tough to regularly accompany a bigot, kind of watch out for her and be associated with her acting out.

What I didn’t feel was an empathy or even a sympathy for the racist. I don’t know wat she may have seen or heard at home or in pubic life. I do that that each of us gets our share of unfair knocks and slaps. None of that excuses smearing whole sets of fellow people, much less attacking individuals who differ from us.

Regionally, I regret how the allegedly liberal and open Boston area still has its onerous share of racists, of all races themselves. When I moved from the South first to New Jersey for high school, some time in Cambridge in college, a decade in Manhattan and the past three decades here, I was initially surprised at the racial tensions and negativity in Yankee lands. Yet in all those places, the locals were quick to scold me for my Southern roots, contrasting them to the enlightened Northern places. They seemed truly oblivious.

I found again and again that this was naive or disingenuous or both. Boston as a whole has never gotten over its own sordid history and racism and largely segregated sub-neighborhoods.

Here today I found that old brick back in my bag. It wasn’t the classic North End teen slurring passing black Bostonians. It wasn’t even snooty Brahman remnants running down others on race, class or schooling. It was an old bigot with absolute no reason to dislike me, feel threatened by me or certainly feel justified in physically and verbally assaulting me.

I would wish her peace and freedom from hate. However, she’s likely rounding off her life and may simply be who she is for the rest of it.
Well, God bless her, regardless.


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Dolor and Sense

July 16th, 2010

abecentSkipping pennies was and remains a teen amusement. Yet when I was in high school a dear friend a little older than my mother wove an entirely different tapestry and forever changed my mind.

She was Evelyn Justice, my biscuit lady. We had known each other from my elementary-school days in Danville, Virginia. She worked for the dentist we used and became a family friend. She was surely the kindest and happiest person I have ever known. We were sad when she and her husband moved to Plainfield, New Jersey.

Jump to high school and my mother moved us to that same city. There, I would walk across a broad park and a few more blocks to her house. She was a master biscuit maker (look and feel; no measuring) and glad to oblige me.

One afternoon though, Evelyn was still upset from what she had experienced walking home. She had been just behind three guys from school — my school. They gouged pennies from their jeans and with one in hand, they took turns skipping it along the sidewalk.

She was aghast and transported to earlier times and distant places. She had grown up in a tiny town in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The region, including her family, was among the hardest of the hardscrabble during the Great Depression. Few had much and no one had anything to spare.

To Evelyn, one U.S. cent, one one-hundredth of a dollar, was real money. A few pennies could make the difference of the family eating OK that week. Every cent was precious. The family coin jar was a shrine.

In Plainfield, nearly four decades later, she was riven by the puerile pleasures of those young men. A penny by itself didn’t count for much to them, so little in fact that they could use them as disposable toys. Those guys did not share in family fears of want and deprivation. They did not save, remake, repair and conserve.

She said that she followed behind them, picking up every penny they threw away. She didn’t care if they thought she was a crazy old lady. She knew what a cent had meant and still meant to her. She didn’t really need a palm of pennies, but she would be damned (a word she never would profane the air with herself) if she would let them literally throw away what had been so powerful to her.

She asked me and I was able to say that I never engaged in skipping pennies. Yet when she asked I realized that it would not have been out of the question for me. I had never been presented with the activity. Plus, I had never been wasteful. I had earned money selling vegetables, being a paperboy, life-guarding, and on and on. I made my own money and quite literally did not throw it on the street.

My mother said that she realized in college that she had been shielded from the Depression. Her father had a full-time job on the B&O Railroad for 48 years, including those when many were unemployed and hopeless. He also grew one or more one-acre vegetable and fruit gardens every summer for fresh and cannable food. He sold Chevys on the side.

He also had a tailor shop and made clothes for the family. That led to a story my mother told on herself. She was always embarrassed to be wearing clothes her father made rather than store-bought dresses, skirts and blouses. She was short but long-waisted and could hardly wait to be fashionable when she was away from home. She rushed with her spending money to buy off the rack and was flabbergasted. Nothing fit. She had lived her life in tailored clothes!

Even so, like many of the WWII generation, raised by those who navigated the Depression for their families, my mother carried that mindset. She taught us as she had been thought — respect objects, whether they be food, clothes or pennies.

So in Plainfield, Evelyn had me tearing up with her. Her tales of how a few pennies might mean subsistence or the rarest of the rare, a treat, brought me beyond my frugality. In our nation of plenty, even in these hard times, we toss much, thinking nothing of what it means to those who have nothing or what it might have meant to other Americans.

You’ll never catch me skipping pennies. That’s a lesson that went from Evelyn to me to my three sons and now to you.

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