Archive for October, 2010

Sanity Rally, Boston Style

October 30th, 2010


Six hundred and forty-two, at last check, clicked Like for the Rally to Restore Sanity Boston. They must have gotten lost on the way.

Generously, 200 of us were there, sans JumboTron (insurance and permit troubles, report the last-week organizers of the satellite Rally to Restore Sanity), sans big name hosts and musical guests, sans undercurrent of one-upping Glenn Beck’s self-indulgent right-wing cliché fest. With all the things it was without and all it wasn’t, it vibrated soothingly with the feelings of yesteryear. It was like a hippie event, at least for those of us old enough to recall those.

Truth be told, most of those at the rally looked old enough to recall.

The crowd largely milled about, chatting amiably, snacking and in general producing the feeling of a coffee hour at church. Adhering to the no bummer, no hater requests for signs, some were hipster wry, as in this one reading, I HAVE A SIGN. sign
littlemore There were a few short-lived cheers, like, “Stop the insanity.” Some of the placards seemed to channel Jon Stewart, like this one.
The requisite unverbalized jibe also appeared, in the form of a coffee party. coffeeparty

One pol worked the crowd. Jim Henderson, independent for Secretary of the Commonwealth. He wondered about the efficacy of this. Several people approached him to say they were voting for him, but at least one fellow took some of his handouts to re-hand out.

In the main, it was a civilized, mannered gathering, in the spirit Stewart requested. Some might say that made it a bit boring. Then again, is that bad in this era of ranters, haters and screamers?

Liberal Religious Race Clumsiness

October 25th, 2010

While a master of self-promotion, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed is even better at candor and thought-provocation. He crisply nailed the background on why Unitarian Universalists have had such trouble attracting non-white middle class and above members of different skin tones and cultures. UUs are perhaps most fretful about this, but is applies to other liberal religious groups as well.

In his Jack Mendelsohn lecture in Boston yesterday, he simultaneously promoted his existing and pending books (new one due in March) related to aspects of the subject while providing both cautions and how-to. In an predictable sidelight, the audience at the UU Urban Ministry was almost entirely white, seemingly middle class and above, and middle age or older. That is the reality and the issue at hand.

For UUs or any other liberal religious sorts, his clear punchlines go far beyond the usual hand wringing. He has little patience with laments like, “We’re open, why don’t they (blacks, Latinos and others) come in?”

Click note: Use the arrow on the player at the post bottom for a 7 minute Q&A from the lecture on a prickly issue for UUs on attracting blacks and Latinos.

More background: There are other related resources I cite a post earlier this year here.

Grimy History

Morrison-Reed has made himself into an historian on African Americans and UUs, before and after the 1961 merger of the two into the UUA. He uses vignettes (snapshots as he says) to illustrate the issues that reach back over 150 years. Among his examples are:

1860 — New Bedford, MA, Baptist minister Rev. William Jackson, appeared at the American Unitarian Association (AUA) Autumnal Convention. He was among the first black men to declare himself a convert to Unitarianism. Apparently he was hoping to be welcomed and serve as a building block in his community. Instead, the group took up a collection ($49.46) “and he was sent on his way”

1887 — Freed slave Joseph Jordan in Norfolk, VA, became the first African American Universalist minister (completed process 1889). The denomination helped support his school for black kids and adults, but not his church. With a dwindling congregation and lay ministry, the church and school closed after his death. There seemed no effort or interest in ordaining  black Universalists.

1929 — Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown had become the first black Unitarian minister (1912). When the American Unitarian Association stopped funding his pioneering church in Jamaica (1917), he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church in NYC during the Harlem Renaissance. It was heavily social activist and Morrison-Reed says every socialist in the city belonged.

1938 — In Cincinnati, the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood finally received AUA attention 20 years after Rev. W.H.G. Carter founded it. Other churches of the denomination had given it the cold shoulder and no one had informed the association it existed. When a minister visited to investigate, he recommended that the church in a poor neighborhood not receive Unitarian fellowship or get any subsidy. It eventually dwindled and closed.

From such cases, Morrison-Reed extrapolates. What if either part of what became the UUA has encouraged African American ministers and churches? How different would the church and its diversity be if, even when integration was difficult and unlikely, they had ordained black clergy and supported their churches?

Too Late and Not

He is an anomaly in a few ways. On a very superficial level, there aren’t many UUs, much less UU ministers, who wear dreads. More to the point though, he was raised a UU, not at all common for African Americans even today. (The membership is under 2% black as well as relatively small.) Personally, he is also intellectually and emotionally out-there. As he speaks, he is prone to raising his voice or lowering it to a tearful whisper as he freely reveals his rage, disappointment and hope.

That may somewhat relate to his 60-something age. We men do tend to relax our defenses as we age.

Intriguingly enough, Morrison-Reed does not necessarily see growth in attracting African American congregants. Rather he as much as says UUs have pretty well blown it with blacks. He warns that without careful planning and action, we could do the same with the rapidly increasing Latino population.

There is obvious visual humor here. The past president of the UUA is black and the current one is Latino. They don’t represent the composition of a typical UU church. Indeed, Morrison-Reed notes that churches in the association often set themselves apart from the larger community by class trappings, as in where they build.

Moreover, most UU churches do not appeal to black and Latino area residents for more obvious reasons. The music is often sonorous and does not use terms, ideas and allusions familiar to non-UUs. As you can hear in the clip on the player below, he also says we need to get over our fear of saying Jesus and even Christ beyond the annual Easter sermon.

On an even trickier point, he addresses the concerns of former Catholics and ex-Christians who don’t want any of the trappings of their former, oppressive upbringing. Morrison-Reed is firm in saying that each of those needs to own their religious wounds. They should discard what they found hurtful and move forward, holding on to what was good.

That’s tough, but he says it is essential.

Click the arrow on the sound player below for just under 7 minutes of Morrison-Reed’s comments on my questions about incorporating God and Jesus in UU churches.


Maples Flashing and Burning

October 22nd, 2010

’tis the season…to admire the premature defoliators. Our sugar maples abound in Hyde Park, all Boston and New England.

They also flash and crash, with short, intense color. Far more patient trees, such as Norway maples and beeches, deliver the color and coverage long after the sugars are nude.

With apologies to botaniphiles (surely not a word), I note that plants, even large trees, are very, very short on brains. They can’t benefit from psychological counseling for their problem. How is it that we have not breed these colorful trees for longer display?

Consider (and click a thumbnail for a larger view):

mapleriver From the historic stone Paul’s Bridge, the contrasting undercoat of the dark Neponset highlights the too eager maple.
In Boston, often sugar maples are on every street corner. maplecorner
maplereadytodrop Several maples in the backyard are as garish as any fop. They remain delightful, but for all too brief a time.
Even the decrepit ancient maple in the front — all too eager to let wind take its branches the rest of the year — seems to know when it is time to perform. oldandpretty
maplesteps To the eye is one thing; underfoot is another. When the maples finish their tricks, someone has to move, compost, bag and otherwise deal with the little dainties on the ground.


Superficial Blessings in Aging

October 20th, 2010

leo“Our men don’t show their age,” said my mother, stunning me. There was a universe of interlocked family, culture and genetics in those few words.

Plus personally, when she dropped that a year before she died, I still had the mindset as the baby in my immediate family. The great-uncles and such she cited were so WWI and WWII. I have a single, older sibling and did not think I  had joined that fraternity.

Yet a few days ago at a routine physical, the nurse doing the vital signs and measurements for the doc took me back to that “our men” phrase. Something I said about bicycling and being 62 caused her to say loudly, “No.” She actually checked my chart and came back to add, “You sure don’t look it.”

My mother surely would think that was genes, Cave family ones. Maybe so.

I think of my favorite of the family, Leo, shown above in his late sixties, shortly before his death from a brain tumor. He was one of five brothers and as those who also worked at West Virginia Pulp and Paper (later WESTVACO) and lived in its town of Luke, Maryland, he got cancer, surprising none of us. Yet, he had long been a boxer and otherwise physically active, and never looked old, even with some silver at the temples. My youngest has Leo as his middle name.

We had overwhelming family reunions for the Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia septs of the family, variously spelled Kave as well as Cave. It apparently goes back to the Norman conquest of the British Isles and propagated throughout them. There were 100 or 200 folk who’d show at a reunion, with an elder, Roy Cave, closing in on 100, somehow remembering the names and faces of everyone, even we little ones he had not seen in five years or so.

In retrospect, I admit that my mother may have been onto something. I looked into memory, family albums, and even neighbors and strangers. Sure enough, “our men” were surprisingly smooth skinned and whether balding (my group) or hirsute, they bear little gray and other obvious signs of the decades passing.

From my early 20s, I showed that combination of the baldness gene and testosterone that makes for a shiny scalp. I can’t seem to totally finish the job and have a sort of yellow cotton-candy covering, but I have long accepted baldness.

Otherwise, I’m not sure beyond genetics why I don’t show the wrinkles and spots I should have. Lord knows, I’m out on foot and bicycle and ski in sun, wind and snow enough to earn them.

Up here as well as down South, we fairly associate hard aging with visiting and living on the ocean. I think of the apple-headed dolls my mother-in-law used to make, how the fruit withers into caricatures of elderly humans. Skin cancer risks aside, there are real drawbacks offsetting the joys of the sun and breezes on Cape Cod.

Yet, as with longevity and proclivity to various diseases, this surely has to do with the hand dealt us from conception. Some blessings are obvious, like a metabolism that does not slow and lets us chow down lifelong. Others are silent as in resistance to diseases. For the Caves, it seems to be looking OK later and later.

I did come to accept being one of “our men” although I would have not arrived there on my own. In my fifties, yeah, I was coming into the patriarch group. Yes, I have earned what rime interweaves in my temples’ hair. Looking younger than my years may not add a minute to my longevity or increase my health, but, heck, it’s something.


The Give-Me-Mine Game

October 18th, 2010

Sitting in training for Boston elections wardens and clerks, I got a dose of I-want-mine overhearing the more elderly group in plastic seats across the aisle. What they want and need is deserved reality and anyone who differs or does not deliver is worthy of disdain…at best.

The immediate issue was the Social Security Administration’s announcement that they would not bump payments in 2011 with a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment). That rationale that the Consumer Price Index has not triggered this boon had not satisfied my neighbor. To him, this would be not have been welfare or a gift on any level, rather payment of a debt.

Hence we can look into the basket of entitlement. It also contains the bastardization of the concepts of altruism, camaraderie and national sharing.

The rampant disdain with which generations slur each other with entitlement knows no rationality. Each cohort seems to hold to the double pretense that 1) they suffered and struggled and 2) the following generations merely want to take, take, take, without earning.

We find that the Korean War Era sorts, now in their 70s and 80s, have been the drivers for the AARP‘s demands. The concept to much of their literature and lobbying has been that it is morally wrong and indefensible to have the retired share the national pain, even following the devastating financial turmoil of recent years.

Those of us in the big, ole Boomer cohort might speak up, to our peril. We might remind the KW sorts that it has been the Boomers who have funded the seemingly endless benefits for both them and the WWII types with ever-increasing slices of income in withholding taxes as well as working longer and harder as a group than they ever did.

Greediest Generation

Amusingly enough, it was the WWI and WWII generations who pegged the KW folk first with that epithet of the Entitlement Generation. The Tom Brokaw-dubbed Greatest Generation of WWII folk slandered their KW siblings and their own children with that, as the vast majority of the latter did not fight in or around Korea. Many WWII types stayed in and did though. Moreover, the younger KW folk did not struggle through the Great Depression, in that their parents and grandparents watched out for them and fed and housed them

So the charge is that the KW generation wanted the glory and national sense of obligation that the WWII one demanded and got from a grateful America. The KW people don’t seem to agree in the slightest. To them, everything they get is richly deserved.

Most of them worked and lived in that post-WWII America with its fantasy of a never-ending economic growth spiral. At least for white America, this was a time of padded positions, payrolls and pensions. After all, wouldn’t we all keep getting better and better off — a banquet with no bill?

Fortunately for them, the Baby Boom provided decades of climbing payroll and Social Security taxes to support the rapacious desires of its elders. Many of both WWII and KW era folk are double and triple dippers, that is they took long-term military pensions, Social Security and Medicare payments, and private pensions.

Meanwhile, it has been Boomers and following generations or subgenerations that miss out. Vastly fewer companies offer any type of pension, they are supposed to work longer days for many more years to keep SS and Medicare funded, and they did not wildly procreate in a fantasy of a never-slowing growth spiral. Simply they don’t have a huge group of their own children to ride on for the rest of their live.

Greediest Generation. That is, too much is not enough and it better not slow down or stop. If there is pain to be shared, that should happen to others, to younger Americans.

Another amusing twist is how Entitlement Generation is such a great migrator. It is the hot potato of insults. From KW to Boomer to Gen Y to Millennials, everyone seems to claim it is the guys after them who are the lazy bums, undeserving types.

Give Me Mine

We may be ending the outrageously irrational stereotype picked up by Gen X and Gen Y types of the Boomers as destroyers. The meme seemed to be that Boomers had the good jobs and wouldn’t give them up to the rightful new owners. Of course, that overlooks inconvenient facts, including that 1) the Boomers had to worker longer hours for more years since anyone after we stopped being an agrarian nation, 2) they paid and continue to pay for the preceding generations’ needs and wants, 3) as a group, they simultaneously financed most or all of Gen X and Gen Y schooling while caring for their own aging parents, and 4) are looking a retirement without those niceties such as pensions.

So, back to the election training, the 70-something near me was livid about no COLA. His only example of rising costs was that his medicine has risen from $7 a month to $9. He depended on SS; what was he going to do?

After he ranted a bit, an even older woman next to him suggested that he go to Walmart or Walgreens and get on a program that would provide his drug at $5, as she had. The denouement that illustrates another example of the KW types was that he had. He was now getting his prescription at $2 a month cheaper than before. He was marginally better off. That was not as good a story as being wronged and short-changed though.

Let us take a moment to note the consistency of his generation. Keep giving to them until it hurts…you.

Who shares?

All of this leads to deeply underlying questions about why any person or group should share any resources they can gain. This is that key issue of altruism.

Psychologists, sociologists, economists and even very partial philosophic sorts like followers of Ayn Rand like what they consider the obvious, common sense view of kinship and self-interest. You watch out for your own kind (class, blood, even schooling related). That’s a hard stop. It’s allegedly natural and the only reasonable approach to living, working, and reproducing.

We know these wimpy types, like hippies then and Unitarian Universalists then and now, exhibit the unnatural act of sharing and the more unnatural feeling of empathy.

Disclaimer: I am a long-time UU. That may explain much to many. In fairness, I should disclose that in puberty I was a Randist — Virtue of Selfishness, sexual/sexist drama and all. I got better.

Cinder-Heart Background: Wikipedia does a good job with links to altruism-related discussions. A more disturbing and immediately thought-provoking article appears in a recent The Nation on George Price. This genius of genetics caused reappraisal and ongoing discussion of why any person or group would benefit others instead of themselves exclusively.

The drawbacks to the larger society of self-interest are wide and deep.

Most obviously, looking out exclusively for yourself, your offspring, your frat brothers and such lessens society and the nation. We tend to plug in adequate or inferior folk, whether we are hiring someone, choosing a company officer or politician, or even buying one manuscript over another. Duplicated many millions of times a year, this smothers and robs us all.

Here is where altruism is at its weakest. The scientific and pop consensus has long been we watch out for our own. If our twit of a child is barely adequate for a position, we are certain to ignore the greater good of the company, shareholders and society to advance and protect our favored one.

There are a small number of less emotionally driven folk who hire and promote more rationally. Yet which of us has not been astounded by marginally competent or worse coworkers or bosses, many of whom seem installed by virtue of nepotism or similar sentiment?

Perhaps in some splendid — and rational and fair — future world, the boobs and bumblers will not displace those with better minds, skills and hearts. Lackaday, we have no cause to believe that is likely in any of our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, I suggest that whether we are engaged in work, volunteer activities or recreation that we be mindful. Appreciate the reasonable and effective you encounter. They truly are human treasures who enrich all who come into contact with them.

Cross-post: This also appears at Marry in Massachusetts.

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Life in the Toilet

October 14th, 2010

One of my probably too often repeated shticks is how I want a super. When you pay mortgage instead of rent, you are the super.

I suppose the rich or indolent types call someone when the toilet stops working, the sink leaks or the light switch doesn’t switch. Having grown up moving every couple of years between small, medium or large towns, I liked the apartments with superintendents best. Where we had to fix things, that we was invariably I, as the alleged man of the house headed by a divorced mom.

Many little useful skills were part of the non-super life. They are at least as useful as camping and survival knowledge from Scouts and family. Yet, every time the house presents an awful or new repair challenge, I long to pick up the phone.

Toilet trek

Head down, face inches from the procelain bowl, I was not re-enacting the stereotype of penance for overdrinking. In fact, I was using all my weight and force to set the wax ring under the new toilet.

At that moment, even knowing that not even tap water had yet touched the bowl, I knew the cultural, hygienic bias against that receptacle for human waste. It took me back decades to a college course we j-school students all seemed to take — a vocabulary curriculum based on Havilah Babcock‘s I Want a Word. I don’t recall whether porcelain is in the book or the prof added it, but I do recall the etymology. While some dictionaries use the derivative basis of cowrie shell, that comes from its resemblance in color and shape to a sow’s vulva. Apparently farmers can tell you how the whiteness and folds bring hidden pig parts to mind. Thus, whether for waste handling or food display, porcelain ware is forever smirking.

When water dripping down from the first floor roused me in my basement office, I could have used a super. The toilet was gushing from its failed valve inside the tank.

The very old-style toilet still looked easy enough to retrofit with new works, but nooooooooooooo. I had replaced the parts in other tanks and figured this was a one-hour fix. Instead, the metal fittings inside were frozen to each other. No amount of tools and straining could loosen them for the fix.

In a final effort, I figured that if I got the tank off, I might be able to turn it to leverage the self-welded connection. Of course, the bolts and nuts holding the tank has been dripped on for decades and were also petrified beyond wrench power.

Pressing middle son Eli into service, we paired to remove one nut/bolt set. He then used a small hacksaw for a long time from underneath while I used the big screwdriver above. Eventually, we got the second bolt and the tank off. It was a wasted effort. The connection to the works was so fused, we could not budge it.

Well, simple enough, right? I’ll just replace tank and affix the new one to the bowl. After all, it’s an Eljer, a brand with lots of installations. Not so fast, handyman.

Neither Home Depot nor Lowe’s had anything comparable. after finding the gigantic supply place (Economy) in Mattapan closed on Columbus Day, I was there early Tuesday to find new disappointment. Regular readers know how I love to point out the provincialism of the Boston area, where even simple shopping often requires finding the one local spot that carries something. This case transcends that.

I ended up going to three plumbing suppliers to find that this or that did not carry Eljer. Finally, I got assurance that Ellsworth in Dorchester did. I was crushed again to learn 1) they do have some Eljer, but the company hadn’t sold my tank model for many years, 2) that tank’s holes for connection to the bowl are not a current standard, so other brands wouldn’t fit, 3) if they could get the exact replacement, they would need a special order, which would be both as expensive as a whole toilet and take a long time.

Learning experience

Happening to have the compendium of home repair from Reader’s Digest (a self-serving gift from my mom when I was her super), I saw that installing a new toilet was not a very big deal. In fact, it should be quicker and easier than the work Eli and I had already put into the failed repair.

Heading home with a van one-third filled with porcelain and related goodies, I recalled a second of our four toilets that needed replacement tank works. At least I still had those I had bought for the first-floor unit.

Sure enough, replacing a toilet where there’s existing framing and pipe is not all that big a chore. I did make one mistake — a honking big wax ring goes under the bowl the seal the works to the flange in the floor. I scraped and rubbed the disgusting previous wax off and got the toilet ready to tighten to the floor, when I saw the plastic gasket that should be in the drain. It was clean and ready to use, but on the floor across the bathroom. Harrumph.

A trip to the hardware store for a new wax ring preceded lifting off the new bowl and scraping away the not-yet-disgusting wax. Then I found myself leaning, pressing, twisting and looking down into the bowl to flatten and spread the wax for many years of leak-free evacuations and flushings.

How does that line in Matthew 11 run? Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Of course the necessary, cynical corollary is that there is no rest for the weary.

Ecuadorean torture

If you pardon, flush with success on the ground floor, I looked at the leftover Korky toilet-valve kit and may have spoken aloud to myself, “This won’t take long.” That’s always the teaser in a sitcom.

Sure enough, the basement toilet I had shut off a month before for its water running slowly but non-stop into the bowl would torment me. I had replaced the flapper, but its troubles were in the valve instead. The period of ignoring it were over. Here came Toilet Man!

Well, this newer model must have been on sale when the previous owner paid for the half-bath across the basement from the office. As I bent to check the connections, I noticed MADE IN ECUADOR. Other than hippie hats knitted with alpaca wool, what’s made in Ecuador? Not good toilets, I soon learned.

I had no reason to check in or under that toilet, other than to replace the flapper. Doing that, I had noticed that the bolts connecting the tank and bowl were heavily rusted. I was willing to ignore that last month. Oh ho.

Feeling under the tank and looking against the wall, I saw that the bolt were not plumbing-standard brass, but some ferrous metal. They also had lousy washers and had dripped and leaked, like for years at a slow rate. Suddenly, I felt like a surgeon going in a patient for a simple operation and finding a questionable tumor.

The short of it is that:

  • I needed another trip to the hardware store for a decent set of bolts, nuts and washers. Those came in keen professional plumber toilet installation blister pack.
  • Removing the now corroded and frozen bolts and nuts was serious work but within 30 or 40 minutes, I had chipped away to rust in and under the tank, and used pliers, wrenches and screwdrivers to get them out.
  • The valve was also nasty, but once the tank was on its side, I was finally able to work my leverage scheme that failed upstairs.
  • I replaced the parts, reassembled all, and cleaned up the bowl, seat and floor from all the rust, grime and I-don’t-want-to-know that oozed, flowed or rubbed out.

My wife suggests that we celebrate, a potty party as it were. (Imagine getting Bostonians to differentiate between those words.)


Mayonnaise, Scotch and the Rabbi, II

October 5th, 2010

Back on the Charles when the gigantic CAIN’S sign snuggled next to MIT’s drab buildings, I worked for a while in the mayonnaise factory. Part one of that tale is here.

Learning there was both formal and informal, practical and even philosophical. I learned jar-capping tricks, a surprise peril of working the conveyor belts, why restaurant food tastes better, and even a Teamster form of tax.

First there was the ballet that must occur in all factories. Years later for various magazine stories, I visited, analyzed and wrote about businesses, including factories. Each subordinated natural human inertia and whimsy to the process and output. That required considerable choreography and knowledge transfer.

Magic on the Line

At that Cain’s site, we turned out lots of quart and pint jars of mayonnaise. We also would have rare runs of small jars of horseradish, plain and beet. Then on occasion, we’d switch lines to limited runs of gallon jars of mayonnaise and French or other salad dressings bound for restaurants.

For the latter, I was surprised to see that the contents looked a bit darker and came from different vats. A long-timer explained that those were premium versions of Cain’s products. Restaurants got better oils and other ingredients. Maybea  diner’s perception that food out tasted better had as much to do with the materials as what the chefs did.

When I first saw the gallon process, I wondered how we’d keep up with the lines. The human part was attaching the big lids securely. We’d have little time as the massive jars came under nozzles and received their dollop in a second or so of disgusting, diarrhea-sounding deposit.

I had never consider the matter and related it to helping my grandmother can vegetables and fruits. The lid turning and tightening process took much longer than the gallon jugs on the assembly line would allow.

Instead, I learned the technique in a few seconds. The lid fit nicely in a standard-size man’s hand. We’d put a hand on the jar, place the lid on the opening, snap it on over the threading and give it a quarter turn to complete the job in under two second. We had sore forearms after an hour, but we could easily keep up with the line.

Say What?

More surprising was how many of the workers were hard of hearing. I had relatives in the 40 and up ages and initially didn’t get understand why the men were forever leaning toward each other and asking for repetition, even in the lunch room. By the second day, I got it.

The clinking glass jars were the problem. At then end of my second day, I got to my apartment with ringing in both ears.

The thousands of jars used a shift fed onto a gently vibrating conveyor system that nudged them into a narrowing chute. The jars ended up single file to advance under the filling nozzles. While the clinking was pretty quiet, particularly to those just passing by, hours of the incessant high tones did their damage. A couple of the older guys said they knew the cause, but figured a steady, union job that supported their families was worth it.

I added ear plugs to the hairnet for my costume

The same guys also seemed to enjoy the occasional visits from the rabbi or committee certifying Cain’s products as kosher. From their stories, they all seemed to be Roman Catholic and even with all their church’s trappings and rituals, they views Judaic food laws as amusing.

With no meat entering the plant, apart what we brought in our lunch sandwiches, inspecting Cain’s must have been easy. Everything was clean, well documented, and from known providers. Cain’s product labels had the U in a circle indicating certfication from the Union of Orthodox Congregations.

As a lowly worker, I never saw the visits, but heard from the old guys how it went. The rabbi would arrange an appointment and do his inspection (what the employees insisted must have been blessing the vats of mayonnaise). Then he’d retire with company executives for receipt of his fee and considerable drinking.

That doesn’t fit my image of an orthodox rabbi at work. Then again, I was passing through. If the tale wasn’t true, it should have been. It’s much more interesting than looking at books and checking production facilities.

Truckers Tales

An occasional excursion to Cain’s warehouses gave me a quick glimpse into new-to-me history. Those guys were long-time Teamsters, now union brothers. They were busy in spurts, but mostly they waited for a task and talked while waiting.

One liked to describe driving rickety trucks over the terrible roads from Boston to Buffalo long before interstate highways. Weather could literally kill you and there was a fair chance your truck would break down at least once.

One at the warehouse also reveled in the bonuses of his job. His favorite was in the days after Prohibition ended and they were back to carrying booze. It involved a desk drawer and paper bag.

He in particular was fond on Scotch and preferred it re-bottled. He said he’d remove a bottle from a case’s corner. He had a spare bottle and a bottle-sized paper bag. He’d put the Scotch bottle into the bag, place the neck in a drawer and crack the glass. Then he’d filter any stray glass by letting the whiskey filter through the paper. In a short time, he had almost a full bottle of his favorite for free and he’d replace the now broken bottle in the box.

Broken in shipment was the expression.

Final Parting Gift

A few years later, after journalism school and running the weekly newspaper in the capital of South Carolina, I found a Cain’s blessing. I moved to Manhattan to get to a real city and fulfill my teen pledge to myself to live there. Jobs were hard to come by, particularly in papers or any kind of writing. Numerous newspapers had merged or failed, as had many newsstand magazines.

I’d go to interviews where more résumé/portfolio clutchers appeared than chairs could hold. Many were much older men, with mortgages, wives and kids. More important, they had decades more experience than I.

After doing temp work, I turned my attention to the many trade magazines in town. Cain’s helped me get a job at one of the first I approached.

Sure my résumé had college journalism, the grant study, and being editor-in-chief at the weekly. Blah, blah, blah — bubkes compared with other job seekers. Yet, both to indicate that I really was a writer and to differentiate myself somewhat, I put summer and college jobs on too. I figured that the résumé should be readable and that being on a carpentry crew for a couple of summers might help, particularly at Construction Equipment.

As it turned out, the editor was a fine writer, John Rehfield. He called me in and told me it was in part for those extra jobs listed. It wasn’t carpentry, rather mayonnaise packer. He just had to know more about it.

He also liked my portfolio and personality. However, it was Cain’s that catalyzed the call.

Coincidentally, I asked him why he’d hire me when all the other writers were engineers. A civil engineer himself, he laughed heartily, leaned forward and said, “You can write. I can teach you anything you need to know about construction. I don’t know anyone who can teach an engineer to write.”


Mayonnaise, Scotch and the Rabbi

October 4th, 2010

A post on skyline signs at Universal Hub put me in the memory tumbler. Yeah, yeah, Citgo…but I have personal flashbacks related to the gigantic lit CAIN’S sign by MIT plugging mayonnaise and pickles.

Up here for a year and a half or so in the late sixties, I lived in Cambridge while I was on a grant to study underground papers in Manhattan, Boston and Cambridge. I filled in income with summer jobs at places like Advent and Cain’s. Sharing a big apartment on Broadway nearly Inman Square with my girlfriend and four other women, I’d head toward the back of that sign to work. The front faced Boston on the Charles.

The only part of Cain’s that came home other than stories was a radish knife. That’s not like a wee paring blade. Rather, a foot or so long machete-like blade for coarsely chopping the forearm-size horseradishes before processing.

I was a cook even then and admired them. One of the older guys said they had lots of them and they weren’t worth sharpening, so I should just take one.

The Spider Lady

Back home, the spider lady loved it. She worked as a grad student in Harvard’s arachnid lab. Her bedroom had walls pied with prints, photographs and posters of bats and spiders. She was spider-like herself, way thin with long arms and fingers (although only the usual human number of each, I am pretty sure).

I had a car and drove her out to her family digs. I think they were in Dover. It was the next estate to Gov. Francis Sargent’s. She could likely fixate on spiders or anything else given her station.

She also liked meat…bloody meat. She saw that radish knife as another tool in this fixation. The six of us shared a kitchen and she was often there doing vigorous things with steak.

The apartment was jolly and there was a pleasant sexual undercurrent. It was five women, two female cats, one male one (Balls for his most obvious feature), and I. Frequent humor was of synchronized menstrual cycles, human and feline. The women other than my girlfriend were largely busy with studies or work, and boyfriends were not common visitors or visited.

(Promise note: This apartment was also the setting for a Fourth of July overnight psychotic break, replete with endless arias, neighbors calling police and a holiday visit to MGH’s psych ward. More on that in a future post. Also, the tale of Balls’ vanishing and the night of the gigantic bottle of retsina will be another one.)

Spider lady loved that knife from Cain’s though. Thus, none of us was surprised to see her in the kitchen flailing on a chunk of dead cow, bringing the massive, lobed blade down too hard. I think everyone was there when we learned how powerful her spindly arms were, as she took a massive swing, cut the steak straight through and continued splitting the butcher block cutting board in two.

Lunch in the Locker Room

Back down to the mayonnaise factory, I found another kind of education entirely. I had grown up earning my way as a paperboy, working agriculture, lolling as a lifeguard, getting sore and calloused as a house carpenter, but this was my first factory job. It was also my first brief stint as a union member (Bakers and Confectioners, the Teamsters).

In the height of the Vietnam War and me with long hair and an earring, I was a bit trepid. A couple of us were 19 or 20, but the regulars were in their 40s through 60s. Many were WWII and Korean vets and I was unsure how elbow-to-elbow work would go, much less lunch at a long table in the shared locker room would go. The two youngest of us had to wear hairnets because of our hippie dos, as well.

The first lunch settled that. One of the oldest guys, gray, pot-bellied and with forearms like Popeye unfolded his Record-American tabloid (later bought by the Herald). Oh, crap, thought I; here we go. He read about battles and deaths over there, swore and said we had no business sending our boys to die in Vietnam. The room heard widespread grunts, obscenities and agreement. I, of course, felt like a total fool, because I had already stereotyped the reader as a conservative, warmonger. Instead, we basically shared the same politics.

Back then, Cain’s was still a family business. The founder John E. had died almost 20 years before, but the workers had known him and knew his son Bob who took over. Today, it is part of a large corporation and is Cains Foods. It long ago moved to a sprawling suburban location and the sign by MIT is gone.

When I was there though, I learned a bit about the Teamsters, something about mayonnaise and salad dressings, a major drawback of a food assembly line, and the slightly unsavory visits from the kosher-certifying rabbi. Those in part two

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Collective Diss-Conscience

October 1st, 2010

Comedians and academicians alike often note our narrowing chances for collective ridicule. Identifiable characteristics were fair game when I was a lad, but nearly all major and minor groups have champions and protectors. Outrage, thy name is (insert group or subgroup)!

Finally and fortunately, for most of us, the old diss is dead. Chums, co-workers and family would jump on us for insults based on race, sexuality, religion, ethnicity and so forth.

Spandex and hairless scalps to the rescue!

Cruel, tasteless and ill-mannered insults are still possible. You just need to pick your attack.

Lycra Louts

If you really need to ridicule someone or a group, you’d do far worse than picking cyclists in spandex shorts and clingy jerseys.

Oddly though, if you check online searches and social-networking sites, tight athletic clothes are not widely hated or disdained. In fact, there are far more Lycra and spandex admiration and even fetish hits than disdain. A lot of people seem to like revealing shorts, whether on an evening’s companion or female beach volleyball player.

You wouldn’t know about the starers and droolers if you stay with bar conversation or comments on virtually any newspaper or blog site. Quick tallies show at least half of the comments peg cyclists as reckless scofflaws worthy of maiming and death by any motorist.

Invariably in these threads, the insults devolve quickly into clothing epithets. What we wouldn’t dare say publicly today about someone based on some immutable factor like race, many of us eager and vehemently and vitriolically inject about bikers.

Variations appear even in style puff pieces in the New York Times and the New York Observer. Both ran those pseudo-trend articles recently pretending that the five boroughs’ avenues are full of beauties on expensive retro bikes (coincidentally unlikely, according to Jack Shafer in Slate).

Both papers’ writers felt the compulsion to slam it to spandex (FYI, an acronym for expands). In the NYO, Gillian Reagan writes, “Meet the beautiful bicycle girls of New York, a breed that bears little resemblance to the hard-charging, Spandex-short-wearing species of 20 years ago.” Similarly, in the NYT, Ruth La Ferla leads with model Topaz (yup) Page-Green, whom she notes typifies the “increasingly visible band of chic New Yorkers whooshing along the green-painted bike…clutching BlackBerrys and clad not in spandex but in fluttery skirts, capes and kitten heels.”

So, hard or soft, slurs on cycling clothes are still OK. (I won’t even go on about my gel-pad perineal-nerve protecting cycling shorts. I wear them for another kind of recreational health. Oops, that’s TMI and not as fun as the insults.)

More Chances

What else can you slam without penalty? Well, consider:

  • Bald guys. We avoid openly ridiculing the many woman with thinning hair, but men? That’s in open season all year.
  • Short people. That’s still good. Pointing out that they aren’t as high off the ground is safe sniping, although that’s as meaningful and as much of an insight as informing a balding guy of his condition.
  • Fat folk. This one has a new, vibrant resurgence, with a veneer of science. Honking on the overweight and those with big butts is a protected sport as well. There’s that pseudo-scientific BMI thing that doesn’t really apply to individuals as some justification too. It helps if you are a frail ectomorphic type who never developed the secondary sex characteristics of your gender. You can expand this one to women with obvious breasts and hips as well as men with big muscles.
  • Southerners. Anyone outside the region gets multiple free passes here. Go with incest, missing teeth, funny food and funnier speech, hillbilly stereotypes and more.

Vanishing Havens

What are you going to do when you want to dump on somebody, anybody, but society restricts you? I noticed that starting years ago down South when I overheard locals scolding each for racist comments. Certainly slowly in this socially conservative nation, but inexorably, we change.

Truth be told, there aren’t that many groups and subgroups folk around that we can openly ridicule and humiliate. If we need a fix, we are often forced to go to a comedy club, where the people on stage still specialize in trying to shock with bigoted and sexual terms — funniest if you have been drinking.

If what the haters and insulters fear about the relentless march of what they call political correctness goes much farther, we might have to be generally polite and considerate. Lord have mercy, if that is the case, we’d have to learn to craft jokes and maybe think for ourselves rather than relying on others around us as punchlines.