Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Heir B&B

August 6th, 2014

Sure enough, you can stay at Suzy Cunningham’s on Gravel Lane in Romney, West Virginia. That means little to folk, even those who live in Hampshire County.

SuzysWhen I was thinking about a trip to my only constant home of my childhood, I was very surprised thato Airbnb had anything at all in Romney. I was very pleased to see that the Gravel Lane Guest House was one I knew well.

I tuck a cropped image of it here.

I have to wonder how many of these deep-memory/ghost houses are in the Airbnb catalog.

The back of her house shared the yard with the back of my grandparents’. Suzy and my grandmother, Mable Michael, were best friends for many decades. Suzy was maybe a decade older, likely born at the end of the 19th Century and they could chat long enough to drive all the rest of us away.

My grandfather, Bill Michael, grew patches as he called his massive gardens, every summer. Mable and Bill would play a little vegetable or fruit game frequently. She say, “Bill, I could use a few pole beans.” That was code for I’m ready to can and freeze. He’d put me to work helping him harvest several bushels. Likewise if was fruit, he’d drive up the adjacent mountains and return with huge wooden baskets of fruit.

Then the community gathered under the massive maple tree between the two houses. Suzy and Mable, other friends, relatives and any kid who didn’t hide would be put to work. We’d shell peas, string beans (remember when they had strings you had to strip?), and Lima beans. Adults got the heavy metal lawn chairs and kids squeezed onto picnic-table benches or sat on the grass.

Hours of food prep led to hours of washing and bagging or boiling and sealing jars. After a few of these episodes, the whole basement wall of shelves became stocked with several layers of beans, tomatoes, beets, picked cukes and more. One of Mable’s two basement freezers had labeled, dated freezer bags and Tupperware. (The other freezer was for meat; her son often brought by a butchered half deer too.)

My grandmother often used me as courier. I’d ferry things to or from Suzy. Mable was the great baker, so it was often a pie, cobbler or bread loaf from Marsham Street to Gravel Lane. Suzy always insisted that I come in and sit. The curtains were half drawn or more. The living room should have had the feeling of a horror movie, but Suzy was ever cheerful and every visit offered really good hard candy.

For her part, Suzy liked Mable’s front porch. It faced the mountains. We saw the apple and peach orchards. More impressively, we could watch the rain. It was a science lesson as the rain clouds formed behind the mountains, gathering and darkening as they crested. We knew what kind of rain Romney would get by seeing it fall first on the orchards. It was the weather version of a phalanx of soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder straight ahead.

Suzy even had me bring her favorite rocker to Mable’s porch. It had upholstery like a carpet bag and elaborate curved arms carved like swan heads and necks.

Suzy died long ago and Mable maybe 15 years later. My grandmother inherited and used the swan rocker. The massive maple gave into old age, no more to host the 17-year cicada invasion. That was a highlight of one youthful summer watching them push out of their shells,which were left clinging to the bark.

Suzy was not a relative, but then again was at least as good and familiar. Her house was not ours, but we were always welcome…without knocking. Like most of my grandmother and mother’s friends, she insisted I call her by her first name. As a Southerner, my default was Ma’am or Sir to anyone older than I, at least any adult. Somehow I was on a first-name basis with many who were 50 to 80 years older than I. That worked for all of us.

So seeing Suzy’s house in the catalog (only $95 a night for two and a little more for three or four) was homey in a commercial way. Over the years, the house was lightened up considerably. The beautiful wood floor aren’t smothered in oriental rugs. The appliances aren’t the creepy post-WWII colors and on and on.

But its Suzy’s house and when we visit next, I intend to stay there.

The WABAC (and round-and-round) Machine

May 14th, 2014

gmimeoFrom first grade, I was what could loosely be called a Red Cross volunteer. That is, my mother ran the local chapter, and pressed my older sister and me into service as needed.

At its worst, one time the three of us picked up the slack when real volunteers punked out. We worked all evening and night, stapling white, pink and red tissue paper (flowers) all around and on a flatbed trailer to be the basis of the RC float in the next day’s July 4th parade. (Actually, I recall enjoying being able to stay up all night, which I perceived as limited to adults, not elementary school kids.)

More typically, it was newsletters, newsletters, newsletters. Teens and adults also joined in, but it seems my sister Pat and I always had our role (after homework of course).

We became very adept at folding 8.5X11 sheets into precise thirds and stuffing them into number 10 envelopes. We used sensuously smooth whale bone to make the creases. Even now I wonder who ended up with those ivory treasures as they became illegal to own.

The newsletters themselves were most often done on mimeograph machines, as the Gestetner model above. My mother’s chapters tended toward that brand, which seemed indestructible, even when operated by volunteers as young as 6 or into their 80s.

I haven’t even gotten into this repro technology with my three sons. They are aghast hearing of the cheap thrills of moving from manual to electric typewriters. I’m not so sure they believe my tales of batch processing on a shared mainframe computer long before PCs existed. I did save the manual from my first PC, an Intertec Data System Superbrain. It had a 9-inch, monochrome screen and 64kb of RAM (not as typo — 64 kilobytes; we didn’t know of giga anything in 1981). A word processing program would load in 32K, leaving 32K for data.

Actually with no graphics or color, that was adequate. Moreover, even booting from one of the floppies (hard drives were about $5,000 or more), it was ready to use in seconds, much faster than today’s boxes. There basically wasn’t anything to test before loading the OS.

Here and now, we have Apple and Windows computers, desktops, laptops and tablets. We have laser and color inkjet printers, which we share wirelessly.

Mimeographs were not that way. (wikipedia as a good backgrounder on the technology.)

I remember the fragile, wax-based sheets you’d baby into readiness, wrap about the ink-filled drum and hope to hell they held at least for the print run.

You’d type without a ribbon to etch the sheet so the ink had places to go. You’d hope that the hollow letters, like B or g, did not destroy and tear the stencil. If you wanted illustrations, you drew directly on the stencil with a metal stylus or physically glued a doctored piece of stencil in place.

Those mimeograph users really had to be competent.

There are still mimeograph machines around. They are generations removed from the ones I used. They are now large, expensive and special purpose.

On the way to iPad Air and such, we went through the horror of desktop publishing. Starting around 1985, that software on PCs pushed the likes of mimeographs into closets. Suddenly everyone was buying dot-matrix printers and the likes of PageMaker or a half dozen other layout programs. You could do newsletters in a fifth or a tenth of the time…all without fragile stencils and smearing ink.

Of course, if you were around, you saw the dreadful results. Newsletters, promotional material and even Christmas letters looked the same. Everyone tucked in all the pictures they could and used dozens of fonts and headline styles per newsletter. It was the hideously overwrought style we were taught to avoid in our journalism-school classes — circus layout, from being in the garish style of a Ringling Bros. poster. Every became editor, artist and publisher in one.

That curse carried over although the technology is long gone. We see its vestiges in Apple-based culture. That would be the likes of barely illegible sans serif fonts (from days when serif type was jagged, but no longer necessary), and white or other light type on a dark background, and still online and in print too many damned headline and body styles.

Stop it already. Contain yourself!

In fairness, I should relax myself. Most people just don’t know where their bad habits and preferences arose.

 

Wanda’s Day — I Won

May 11th, 2014

When my mother lived, I sent her or handed to her Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards and gifts. She played both roles from her divorce before I was 5.

wandacollegeAlso, I initiated a running patter related to the era…about what the dull-witted still call broken homes.  As early boomers, my sister and I were among a large and growing cohort. Many of our parents had married in the passions following WWII, only to discover they had no business together. Many were like my mother, Wanda, with one, two or three kids but no basis for staying married.

In her case, her husband was the handsome war hero (Battle of the Bulge and so forth) and she had been the campus queen, theater star and scholar. They made each other swoon, wed and two years later produced first my sister then less than two years later me. It was only when we were part of the Occupation Army in Japan that both Wanda and Bob wondered what the devil they were doing married to that stranger. They were OK when he was off in Korea directing artillery shells, but face-to-face they wanted different things. She wanted a union of equals as her parents had and he a woman to order him around as his mother had his father. Incompatible.

Bob took up with a bossy woman, they divorced, he remarried, and Wanda asked only for us kids and minimal child support (no alimony request). Then Bob and his second wife became deadbeats. He got a transfer to Germany with his new family of two sons, my half-brothers. He stopped paying child support as soon as he left the country. Wanda asked the US Army for help. They replied that as an officer he was honorable and they trusted him to fulfill his obligations, and would do nothing.

The humor in all of this and character-revealing aspect, is that Wanda never, ever bad-mouthed Bob to my sister and me. She would note that he was smart and good looking and yes, a war hero. It was only on one our moves when I found both divorce proceedings and those from when my sister and I were visiting Bob and his second wife in OK when he decided they would keep us and take us to Germany that I learned of and asked about his chicanery.  Wanda drove to OK from eastern WV with her father, who was in a cast from his heel to his waist from a work accident to fight for and reclaim her children.

She truly loved us. She showed it in ways big and small.

Oddly and with brutal irony, I found that Bob’s second wife did not have my mother’s grace, honesty and compassion. I have never been in her presence or on the phone with her when she did not slander and lie about Wanda. For a few examples, she would say that it was Wanda who was in an adulterous relationship in Japan, not she and Bob in Korea, or that she and Bob did not even meet until they were back Stateside — both total lies. More amusing to me was defending their decision not to pay child support, because they, with two military salaries and Army subsidies just couldn’t afford support, with no consideration of a single mom with two kids, or even the court orders.

The gist of that is that I won the Mom Game.

I grew up moving every few years as Wanda took jobs in challenged Red Cross chapters to support us. Invariably, I meet other kids, particularly boys, who were being raised by divorced moms. Just as invariably, nearly every one of those sons heard constantly what cads men were (what kind of insulting message is that for a future man?). Meanwhile, Wanda never defamed her ex.

As I grew, I came to realize Wanda differed from many mothers and fathers. A defining trait was her rationality. Key was her posture that if my sister and I had better reasons for courses of action, we’d win. That was both a burden to us, but great freedom. She expected and demanded that we live rationally. As a result, many friends over the years said they so wished their parents were like Wanda. Their parents were arbitrary, often violent to them (abusers call that discipline), and as often alcohol infused. She neither hit us nor was ever drunk in my childhood.

I now recall so many motherly things she did for me, some of which I did not know about until many years later. For one, in eighth grade, she got a call from the principal asking for a conference with all of my teachers. The Red Cross chapter building adjoined the school’s athletic fields and she knew the principal from running first-aid, home-nursing and water-safety programs. She walked into an ambush of irate educators.

The core of it was that I asked questions in several classes that were not in the courses or assigned text books. We had many reference books, including three sets of encyclopedia, at home. From second grade, when I asked a question, Wanda would invariably reply, “Look it up.” I did and we’d discuss it.  I knew a lot and rather expected my teachers to have such curiosity.

As Wanda told me years later when she revealed the meeting during my college years, she was amused, not angry, at the teachers. She said she asked them whether the problem was that I asked them questions they could not answer. She said they replied, “Yes,” with the anticipation that she’d realize I was out of bounds. She said she replied, “Well, then don’t you think you’d better find out the answers and be ready for the next time someone asks?” That apparently was the end of the meeting and their chance to shame her.

I won the Mom Game and I didn’t even know I was playing.

Here’s an ethereal but sincere Happy Mother’s Day, Wanda.

 

Fractured Methodist Tales

March 11th, 2014

Nearly 34 years ago, I sat in an unpadded pew of the Old West (Methodist) Church in Boston on the Sunday when my firstborn was to be Christened. Subsequently, my later two sons were named instead at the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church, which had horse-hair stuffed cushions. That day though, I had brought my wife and son to the prearranged ceremony at the denomination of my childhood, youth and young adulthood.

umc_crossflameThat day actually was the end of that religious association. I opened the hymnal to the Apostle’s Creed. I didn’t have to read it. I had memorized it long ago and the phrases have become seminal. That version differs slightly from that of many other churches, in that it leaves out mention of Jesus descending into Hell at death. Otherwise, it has the heavy baggage of doctrine and even bureaucracy that produced its carefully crafted message.

I sat there with my baby in the crook of one arm, looking at the page. I realized that I didn’t believe it, any of it — no Father Almighty, no virgin birth, no bodily resurrection after three days moldering, no judgment of the quick and the dead, no universal (lower c catholic) church, no saints, no forgiveness of sins, no resurrection, and no everlasting life.

Done, done and done. You have had your Methodism and you aren’t compatible.

The last I had felt any sort of communion with Methodism was before it went sour during the Vietnam war era. I did hang around the Methodist youth center building sometimes at the University of South Carolina. I could delude myself by subscribing to the excellent Motive Magazine. It was anti-war and pro-integration among other virtues (and had great poetry). It was in the mold of 18th Century Methodism founder John Wesley, a strong prison reformer and abolitionist in England and the Colonies.

Quickly though, the bishops (its governance was not by elders as the Presbyterians but Episcopal [by bishops] from its roots in Wesley’s Anglican communion) tromped on Motive. They had no patience with pinko, pacifist junk. They turned off a generation of thinking, feeling members.

That was not new to them. They had driven away what became the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches’ members. In the early 19th Century in Philadelphia and New York City, the racist and exclusionary practices made it plain to black members they were inferior as far as clergy and church pols were concerned.

Today with mixed feelings, I read in the NY Times of a Methodist bishop dropping the persecution and prosecution of a minister. His alleged violation of church doctrine was to perform the same-sex marriage of his son.

With my strong stance here and elsewhere in favor of marriage equality, I had long been disgusted by the United Methodist Church’s regression into anti-gay dogma and rulings. That they were defrocking their clergy who dared perform same-sex ceremonies was pathetic if not a surprise.

A year and one-half ago, at 80, the Rev. Thomas Ogletree performed the ceremony. He said, “I actually wasn’t thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.”

I relate. I have performed five wedding ceremonies, one for my eldest son. That was to a woman, but two of mine have been same-sex couples. There is nothing more moving than performing the marriage for your child. Three of my ceremonies were of long-term friends and very powerful, but your own child?

The NYT piece linked above concludes that the decision in this case is far-reaching. It includes:

Bishop Martin D. McLee “who oversees about 460 churches in lower New York State and Connecticut, agreed to drop all charges against Dr. Ogletree; in exchange, he asked only that Dr. Ogletree participate in a dialogue about the church and its stance on matters of sexuality. Promoting dialogue, the bishop said, could be a model for other United Methodist bishops to follow.

“While many insist on the trial procedure for many reasons, I offer that trials are not the way forward,” Bishop McLee said in a statement attached to the resolution of Dr. Ogletree’s case. “Church trials result in harmful polarization and continue the harm brought upon our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

That level of compassion and rationality is what I expect in UU churches and what I grew up with what was then my Methodist church.

I do hope that the United Methodist Church takes advantage of this offering from Bishop McLee. It has been divided on homosexuality long before being faced with dealing with marriage equality. Its bishops too are old now, at the moment when the nation has some to see same-sex marriage as the present as well as the future. Methodists in general have not been leaders here, but perhaps they won’t be the last to get there.

Freedom of Peek

March 5th, 2014

With mixed thoughts, I see that MA’s high court ruled today that perverts on the subway can legally take upskirt pix. (The news broke on Universal Hub, here. The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision is here.  )

Of course, doing so is intrusive, tacky, and and, well, sort of, some kind of assault.

Sure, you can state the all too obvious — women ought to wear underwear, whether they do or not, they should keep their legs together if they wear a skirt or dress. Most do. Too many don’t. I don’t want to see flashes or swathes of underpants of women or men.

Yet, what is it that seems to excite so many? Why are there websites devoted to upskirt images? Why would anyone watch a Victoria’s Secret Fashion show? Why is lingerie the, if you pardon, butt of so many comedy routines? Why do women as well as men fixate on bras and panties?

Truth be told, I remember in early puberty being turned on by men’s magazines in barber shops and plain old catalogs showing women déshabillé. That was the euphemism for in your underwear. Back then, a movie was really risqué if an actress appeared in underwear, without the dress covering the clothing that in fact covered their prurient parts.

Even today, there cultures and subcultures titillated not by the actual body parts, rather the garments that hide them. For example, Japanese press and literature frequently alludes to men’s fascination with and hope for glimpses of underpants.

As I began dating, I quickly learned to favor and choose the real over the fantasy. Is that all this fetish is about?

Even if the crotch clickers with cellphones don’t grow up and out of their fixation, even it the SJC says that’s legal, you’d hope that the targeted women and the other passengers would at least call them out.  That might stop them…unless they are into public humiliation.

Christie, Ever a Jock

January 17th, 2014

Online big, braying heads from left and right, from pretending to be real news (Fox) to pretending to be pretend news (Stewart), one phrase in NJ Gov. Christ Christie’s saga of a news conference got chuckles and guffaws all around. In his pretense that he knew nothing of the GW Bridge mess before it happened, he started with, “I was done with my workout yesterday morning and got a call from my communications director at about 8:50, 8:55, informing me of this story that had just broken on the Bergen Record website.”

[If you're nitpicky or masochistic enough, you can get the transcript at the WaPo here. ]

The risibility trigger was the single word workout. The underlying justification is that because is visually is such a porker, he can’t really work out, can’t be anything like a jock.

I have no doubt that in his Christie brain, he remains as much an athlete as he was in school. He may weigh twice as much and jiggle like a twerker (except on top) when he moves, but his mind and body remember. He’ll always be a jock to himself.

In fact, he reinforced that in answering a question in the conference about his HS chum David Wildstein, who seems to have done the bridge dirty deed. In trying to distance himself from his until-that-day great buddy, Christie said he didn’t know him much in school, that they ran in different circles, that “You know, I was the class president and athlete.”

Here again, he surely was the only person in the room who considered himself an athlete, but he thinks, says and acts it.

christorsoWe can get into how he might be strong and even quick, despite his rotundity. In his gymnasium (don’t think of the origin of that word as running naked), he could well lift more and run longer at a faster pace on a treadmill than younger, scrawnier sorts. Fat does not preclude fit.

The important aspect is that his being still is that of a jock. His pubescent identity remains and defines him. He has the poise and confidence of a competitor who has been successful an strutted his stuff in front of thousands, in his case as varsity catcher on the baseball team — not bad training for being a politician, confidence, arrogance, accomplishment, control of the situation.

As a disclaimer, I was also an athlete in high school and into college (until a gruesome auto wreck cut that short in the sophomore year). I identify with the benefits of team sports and understand how you don’t outgrow that anymore than you would if you were a cheerleader or even a U.S. Marine.

To worry the cheer leader example a bit (and putting aside that G.W. Bush was one), cheerleaders keep key attributes they had or picked up in the process. The former cheerleaders I know are, well, cheery. They have that people-person persona. They push those around them to succeed…with them. In other words, they make good real-estate agents, PR or marketing types, and other best-food-forward optimists. They smile a lot and many have kept their version of blonde hair. They are still cheerleaders at 40, 50 and beyond.

We all supposed are who our parents were, what we eat, what we wear, and many other nature and nurture background factors. I remain convince though that what we’ve done, particularly in high school and college push its way out of our insides our whole lives.

Much is made of the nerds in high school, the bookworm introverts and such who stay that way. That is even more true for the jocks and cheerleaders. In Gov. Christie’s case, I suspect his crouched glories as catcher have defined him immutably.

As this bridge scandal inevitably expands and splatters him, let’ s see how many times he alludes to athleticism and his former glories. Jon Stewart may snort, but there is a jock inside the massive pol who won’t be denied.

 

Mummifying Christmas packages

December 23rd, 2013

Among changes and missing items now our parents are dead are:

  • The sacred cookie rites moved from my mother to my sister
  • We no longer get packages encapsulated, neigh smothered, in tape

2cookies

My mother made superb Scottish shortbread and remarkable bourbon balls. Until her end, she would send us tins of each. The cookie baton immediately passed to my sister. She’s even been tweaking the bourbon ball’s recipe (like Wild Turkey 101 this year) and seems to have improved on it.

For the other, what the devil cultural phenomenon made the WWII generation tape wacky? Many boomers say their parents did the same. Packages large or small, no matter how sturdy the box, no matter who handled the shipment were smothered in tape, sometimes several varieties of clear and opaque, formal packing tape, duct tape, Scotch tape, masking tape…

Oddly their parents did not do this. We don’t do it. Our kids don’t. This fetish is like a secret handshake of what’s let’s call in this instance the Goofiest Generation.

When parcels arrived from any of our parents, we knew to get out the knives. I tended to use my big French chef’s knife. I knew that the carbon steel blade I kept sharp could puncture and cut open the worst they had done. It was precise enough not to slice into presents captured inside.

When I would ask my mother about the tape extravaganza, she’d say she just wanted to make sure everything got there, as though the box might disintegrate in the  delivery truck.That our more relaxed packages arrived whole made no impression on this otherwise extremely rational person.

It was a small, amusing foible, made more remarkable by its widespread, generation-specific nature. I don’t miss it.

 

Little Guides

June 20th, 2013

geminioutlineMy maternal grandmother, Mable, had a few odd yet predictable routines. While she was quite bright, in at least two areas, she went gut and hope.

The closest the eastern panhandle of WV had to a local but city newspaper was the Cumberland Times, from 28 miles away on Route 28. While a silly and slim rag, it had area news as well as comics, advice columns, word puzzles and of course a horoscope.

If you are an astrology believer be aware that I am not and never have been. I looked through my usual combination scientific and experiential lenses. I don’t see any value with the possible exceptions of entertainment and reinforcing what you want to be so.

It’s been many years since I even looked at one, other than the spoofs in The Onion. As yesterday was my birthday, that somehow inspired me to look. The result was:

TODAY’S BIRTHDAY (June 19). In the past, you’ve had fewer options, but now you’ll find yourself in a position to be discerning and selective. What happens in July makes you more interesting and also more interested in others. A certain someone or something enthralls you in August. September brings a self-imposed challenge and a well-won victory. Capricorn and Sagittarius people adore you. Your lucky numbers are: 3, 22, 39, 42 and 15.

That’s vague enough to fit almost anyone. The specifics about my adorant one-sixth of the world was a coincidental nice touch, as in that my long-term wife was born under Capricorn.

Yet come each morning, Mable would read her horoscope and seem to get some satisfaction. As far as I could tell, she remained rational enough that she did not alter her behavior or feel any trepidation.

Later in the day, she also sat solo at the dinner table with her Bible and The Upper Room. That wee weekly magazine has cites some scripture and has a homily on it, along with some pretty specific steps for being cool with Jesus. She’d read and meditate. She was always calm and composed afterward.

We were a Methodist family and she certainly was a believer. Among other credal tenets, heaven was one she fully accepted. She fully expected a personal identity after death, including eternal bliss. Unlike say Presbyterians with there predestination, Methodists were of the good deeds and thoughts got you right with God and in line for a spot in this heaven.

I see anything destructive or particularly negative about Mable’s two foibles. The horoscope did not control her or upset her. The devotional may in fact reinforced positive thoughts and deeds.

Neither was rational, rather emotionally, a.k.a. faith, based. So what?

 

Banks of the Muddy Dan

June 2nd, 2013

Back to key childhood town today via the NYT opinion piece, I recalled Danville, VA. Tess Taylor, likely the age of my eldest son, wrote on how early Civil Rights protests hit even her white, establishment granddad.

In the very segregated setting only three miles above North Carolina, I went to elementary and junior high. Separate black/white schools were the norm. Even Greyhound was the white bus line versus the black Trailways. Some accommodations were not quite blended. I think of the Rialto movie theater, which kind of accommodated black folk, so long as they sat in the balcony. In fact, when I was eight, a friend thought he was tricking me by sending me upstairs with my bag of popcorn. When I noticed that the white people were downstairs and I was among rows of exclusively black people, I wasn’t bothered and watched the double feature (always at least a double and the Rialto had the Westerns and other action flicks). Later I wondered whether anyone in the balcony resented a white kid in their seats. If so, they didn’t let me know. After the movies, my classmate met me and looked chagrined. I think maybe he tasted his own racism and found his joke unfunny.

Taylor’s piece is on her grandfather’s modestly foolish upbraiding of a racist judge for coming heavy on black protesters for integration. It gives nice background on Danville as well as the perceived praise of her relative.

I’ve written on Danville here before. I lived there longer than anywhere until I moved to Manhattan after college and those were formative years.

Fortunately, my mother was not a racist and we were not infected by the malevolent disorder. She ran the Red Cross chapter, where black folk as well as white volunteered and received such services as blood, transportation, first-aid and home nursing training and such. Black folk were as welcome in our lives as whites. There were a few Jews, including the physician who rented to us, although I don’t recall knowing or even seeing Asians. It was a two-colored world.

Danvillelibrary

We moved to a far more rural Chester — middle of the same state, but not at all a city, before going to Plainfield, NJ for high school. PHS was half black. Plus my classes were a quarter to half Jewish students. I took the bus to Manhattan every chance I got. I experienced intense culture shock, almost entirely in a good way. I did hear and see Yankee de facto segregation and overt racism though, as I did and do during my decades in Boston. The first time I heard anyone openly using the N word was in my first few days in New Jersey. The separation of races in old Danville seems to have minimized open disdain, plus likely the veneer of civility in the South.

Pic note: The building was my public library and had been the site of the last capital of the Confederacy. Danville came with extra baggage.

On a far more prosaic level, I can draw light lines to other cultural transitions. I think of common tools, such as computers. I went from a manual typewriter to an electric one, on to when being a computer user meant bringing your task, like data analysis to a programmer who typed out punchcards and handed them to you to pile into a huge computer for calculation, I went on to batch processing in a shared environment and to paper tape mainframes before dedicated (and very expensive) word processors before workstations and then personal computers.

The improvements in integration and race relations have not been as linear or incessant. Yet integration advances, even in places like Boston, although there’s still a lot of happen. To return to the weak tool analogy, much as occurred in my lifetime and my towns. I think of my wife’s late grandmother, who grew up from the era before electricity and automobiles. Like Mable Thames, I have seen and benefited from much. Keep it coming.

 

My Family Didn’t Bargain

April 22nd, 2013

Surely it’s too late to become a person who dickers for everything…or anything. I wasn’t raised that way.

However this afternoon I found myself forced at my end of a complaining phone call to negotiate. It’s damn tough for me.

I grew up observing people who haggle, which suddenly became common when I went to high school in New Jersey and later lived a decade in Manhattan. Although here living in Cambridge for a while during college, I had one chum who took her sport to the Haymarket and got phenomenal deals, matching resolve with the stall vendors.

In many ways, I envy the hagglers. I’m not clear why I can’t get over this part of my upbringing. I feel very uncomfortable where others would jump right into proposing a deal, and then enjoying the back and forth, then being ready to walk away at any moment if there’s no progress.

Today’s haggle was thrust upon me. A tub refinishing company showed up to work when I was not back from the gym yet. The $399, plus $50 for a color other than white, bid suddenly shifted. The tub tech said the residual glue from the liner needed to go to get the glaze to bond — at an extra $150. I had gotten and agreed to the bid and she felt kind of stuck. The rest of the bath rehab depended on the tub refinishing.

I called after the job and the check writing. The manager alternated between unctuous and paternal.  Ha ha ha, he called his tech, and reported back to me that the extra cleaning was absolutely necessary, it took over an hour, and that we got off lucky, at the low end of the service fee. Then suddenly, we want happy customers. And so it went, with me expressing my surprise, disappointment and anger. He said he not only had the smart-phone image, but that my wife had approved the big bump. I said $445 suddenly becoming about $600 was unreasonable and that I’d told them before they arrived and even before our bid that there was glue from the old liner, as well as that their site said cleaning was part of the operation. Back and forth, back and forth, each of us added angles and details and posits.

I continued to feel and think the fee unreasonable. Then just as suddenly, he shifted to bargaining. When we were at an impasse, he asked what it would take to make me happy.  Suddenly I was back at the Haymarket, watching Peggy at work, dickering for a box of fruit. While I normally would turn away, I did feel the discomfort but felt compelled to get some morsel from the deal.

We went back and forth a few more times, but now to force the other to make an offer. He wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. I remembered from my articles for business magazines that the first one to make an offer loses.  Eventually though, he wore me down. He had no intention of telling me what he thought would make me happy. So, I looked internally at the $150 and figured he’d bite on on the low end, $50, or the silly fee for biscuit, instead of white.

He did. We did.

That is nothing to someone who grew up in a haggling family, but it was remarkable for me. I don’t do that.

I thought of Peggy and how easy that would have been for her. She attributed her attitude and skills to being Jewish. I have come to downgrade that stereotype. I do believe it is cultural though. My tub refinishing manager seemed by accent clearly Middle Eastern. Peggy was from a German, Ashkenazi heritage. As I learned working for a Roman Catholic, German deli owner, the traits that many attribute to Jews are often common among Eastern Europeans instead, everything being negotiable included.

phsToday’s bargaining session also made me recall the only time I got shipped to my adviser’s office in my three years of high school. I was a smart ass but skilled at knowing my edges, my limits. I’d push a teacher with over-familiarity and wisecracks, but ease up when she or he tensed.

My tub guy said a few times, “I want you to be happy. What will it take to make you happy?” That put me back in history class, senior year, in Mr. Sidney Mace’s room, and my moment of ignominy.

The wisecrack that broke my three year of magic was far from my funniest or worst too. Mr. Mace (or Misssssssster Maccccccccccccce as we said for his hissing sibilants) would on occasion scold me and my best friend, who sat directly behind me in the A-B row, for talking in class. That happened often as he still lived lived his WWII personal history and that was the period we studied.

It was only three days before classes ended, we’d done our papers and exams, all we had to do was to listen to yet more stories of the war campaigns he remembered.  He hissed, “Misssster Ball, it would make me very happy if you and Misssster Blumert would stop talking.” I recall then my throwaway line, “We want you to be happy, Mister Mace.”

There was a long pause and I knew that was another safe insult. However, perhaps it was the proximity to graduation or something less obvious about the moment, but after a few seconds, the whole class of perhaps 30 exploded in joyful laughter.

That was all too much for Misssssssster Macccccccccccccccce. He in turn exploded. He ordered me to report to my adviser, Mr. Otto, the short, patient guy with the fly-away wispy hair. I showed, he seemed confused, saying he hadn’t seen me in trouble before, noting that we had only a couple of days of classes, and told me to walk about the halls until the period ended and go to my next class.

The tub guy wanted me to be happy. I wanted Mr. Mace to be happy. None of that was sincere, but everything worked out for all involved.

I bet this is not the start of a bargaining life for me though.