Friday, January 30, 2009
I’ve worked all my life to get to the point where Christmas is nothing but a day off work. Gone are the days of fighting traffic, making lists, standing in line, and going into debt just so everyone I know can have the latest Chia Pet. Other Bill long ago introduced me to Jewish Christmas, which means going to a movie and eating out at a Chinese restaurant. It makes for a perfect day.
It wasn’t always this easy. For years, Christmas was a thousand points of stress for our family. After my Dad died when I was six, acquaintances who were mostly business associates of my dad would always drop by the house and bring to those poor semi-orphaned Wiley children gifts that would hopefully take our minds off our loss and contribute to a happier holiday. As if a Bolo paddle and a six-pack of sugary Pixie Stix were a suitable replacement for a dead father.
This parade of charity went on for far too many years, even after my sister and I stopped being friends of the children of those business associates. We gave. We received. It was what we did. The problem was, we couldn’t afford to go out and spend much, so beginning in October, Mom would start crafting ideas for cheap homemade holiday gifts that were budget-conscious responses for the store-bought crap that was given to us.
She started off by baking. My mother was a mediocre cook at best, but she could knead a mean loaf of bread, and she was a skilled candy maker. Peppermint fondant and gooey chocolate truffles were her specialties. Several weekends were spent punching down dough and cooking up exquisite smelling loaves of buttery homemade bread. It became a stressful race to make sure everyone on the list got crossed off once for bread, twice for candy. My sister and I would be put to work on the assembly line, sucking the air out of Baggies and knotting them up so the food could be safely frozen in a rented freezer at the local butcher shop. Mom would be consumed with fret, worry, amphetamines and cheap bourbon, wondering if she had forgotten anybody. Usually by mid-December she would accommodate this fear by cranking up production again for “extras,” edible gifts for people who didn’t exist, but might appear sometime in the following ten days or so. We had often been the taken off guard by acquaintances of the past, who showed up at the door, unexpected and unannounced, with Barbie clothes or Hot Wheels cars, and my embarrassed mother would bite her lip while thinking, “I wonder if they’d like those pillow cases I bought in August that are still wrapped and in the hall closet.”
These former friends, mothers who were blessed with the wealth of their professional husbands, would spend days cruising around town in their station wagons, delivering gift wrapped goodies to everyone, including the charity cases like us. Before long, it became the only time during the year we ever saw them. They’d pull in the driveway and honk the horn until we submitted, like curb service waitresses handing out receipts and peppermints in exchange for tips. They never even turned off the car or came inside. Like suburban Santas, they had many more deliveries to make before the wagon was empty.
I once told my mother, “Why do they even park? They could just drive by and toss their gifts into the driveway, as if they were delivering the newspaper.”
“But how would they get our gifts?” she asked me.
“Oh yeah,” I said. But I never really thought any of those wealth-endowed people took our bread and candy seriously. I mean, please, a loaf of white bread, and mis-shaped candy that wasn’t even individually wrapped in little paper fan-folded cups or shiny cellophane? God, how pathetic. Why not just give them a loaf of batter-whipped Sunbeam bread and a roll of Necco wafers and leave it at that? It would sure have saved a lot of time.
Eventually, my mother came to see my point of view, and as years went by and her government salary received tiny increases, she modified her plans. The first thing to do was to phase out the candy. It was a delicate operation to heat the chocolate mixture to the exact temperature for the precise amount of time. One blink, and a soft, luscious truffle would turn into nothing more but a crunchy, chocolaty sugar bomb. One year my mother was thumbing through Ladies Home Journal, and in the back she found genuine pewter plates for $3.99. A pittance to pay for what she called a semi-precious metal. Around the rim of the plate was the line from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine, and Thou.” This line had universal alcoholic appeal, I guess, and my mother immediately got out her checkbook.
That year, she continued the bread baking. Cases of nothing but the cheapest wine were purchased to go with the semi-precious pewter plates. In short, a pretty crappy gift. But she’d always lived under the umbrella of the universal cliché that justified cheesy gift giving: It’s the thought that counts.
That year she had completely overspent her budget, and she was livid that the Rubaiyat plates turned out to be the size of a saucer, nothing big enough to break bread on. To recoup some of her money back, during a mild alcoholic rage during which she caught my sister sticking her tongue out at her, Mom took back the $100 she gave to her that year. It was a cruel punishment for Kathryn, but a bourbon bonus for herself.
So the next year, again from some magazine, Mom discovered a recipe for something called brandied fruit. All sorts of fresh and canned fruits were sliced up, put into a big ceramic jug and covered with cheap alcohol and granulated sugar. The fruit would ferment, turn brown, sweeten the pot, and make this thick, brown, vomity-looking, toxic compound that Mom and her new boozer husband enjoyed as a lumpy dessert cocktail, served over ice cream. In September, production began for large-scale distribution as large ceramic vats were procured. Each night the mixture was gently turned (not stirred), for whatever reason, and by the third week in December, cases of mason jars were brought into the home and filled with this lethal brew. Slowly, pints were ladled out, and each spoonful was inspected to make sure that it wasn’t contaminated with roaches. We had sometimes woken up to find inebriated palmetto bugs staggering around the kitchen after drinking some of the slop that spilled outside the crocks during the daily turning. As far as we knew, no vermin had found its way inside the vats, but we wanted to make sure that if they did, they were picked out before serving them up to our acquaintances, who just refused to let go. Hey, it wasn’t as if we were going to have to eat that crap. Mom’s personal brandied fruit stash contained more expensive, out of season fruit soaked with pricey brandy. The mass-market crocks contained nothing more than Del Monte and grain alcohol.
These pints, given to our former friends, were called “starters.” Mom typed up directions on what to do with these starters (put in a crock, keep adding fruit and sugar and occasionally a fifth of something flammable to provide you with a lushy dessert for an entire year.)
Most of the society lady recipients put on brave faces of delight when learning about this remarkable potion, but I suspect most of those pints were, if not tossed out the window on the way home, then quickly received by their new owners’ garbage disposals.
These former friends flaunted their two-parent families by sending us Kodak Print Christmas cards of crew-cutted males and French-twisted females gathered around something expensive, looking so white and Christian and Republican. Staring at these pictures of my peers, I would never even consider that any of them would turn out less than model citizens. It wasn’t until adulthood that I learned they had problems and scandals that would make my homosexual admission as lame as an episode of Leave it to Beaver. The pictures, sometimes shot at poolside or pointing Carol Merrill-like at the new Cadillac, gave off the Scotch-pine-scented air of perfection and wealth. We knew these photo-cards cost four times as much as the scratched-and-dented cards my mother picked up eleven months earlier at the half price after-Christmas sale at Woolworth’s. We weren’t dirt poor, but we had to cut corners and make do whenever we could, so finding the crappy half price cards that no one wanted in the first place was quite a step up for us.
Up until then, we had developed the Christmas Card Recycling Program. Here’s how that worked: We would cut the fronts off all cards that didn’t have any writing on the back side of them. Then we would tape a blank piece of card stock cut to the same size as the front. Bingo: instant free card to be used next year. How we cursed those who wrote on the inside back covers of those cards, especially the expensive Hallmarks. White Out hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had been we surely would have painted over a lot of ink. Since Christmas cards were of all shapes and sizes, none of which would fit an a regular business sized envelope, cards that had to be mailed out would be sent in big manila envelopes swiped from the Small Business Administration, where my mother worked.
Finally, it was time to pass the torch to a younger family member to shoulder the responsibility as Trinket Curator for the Non-Friends. The following year, my Aunt Judy, a crafty and bright woman with unlimited imagination and creativity, had gotten into candle making. In the fall of that year, she showed us this thick, hexagonal candle about the size of a cantaloupe that she hollowed out and, with tweezers, inserted a teensy nativity scene into the hot wax until it solidified and surrounded little two-centimeter plastic swaddling Jesus in paraffin. Joseph, Mary, and several barnyard animals were also skewered into the hot wax until they stuck there for all Christmases to come.
My mother was simply awed and insisted that Aunt Judy show me exactly how it was done. This, she proclaimed, would be the present of all presents, containing all the Christmas essentials except for alcohol. Lights, candle, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, ACTION! A Ball of Wax, a Plastic Christ, and Thou.
It was discovered not by accident that my stepfather, a petroleum tanker truck driver, had access to a warehouse where 44-pound cases of paraffin were stored. Gulf Oil, the company he worked for, was one of the primary manufacturers of paraffin for home canning. In the grocery stores, you could buy little one pound boxes that sat perfectly positioned right next to the cases of mason jars. From the warehouse, Ray made off with 132 pounds of it for the Christmas Candle Project. Having free, stolen wax made this gift project even more of a dream.
At a craft store, we found teensy nativity scenes in stapled plastic bags with card stock covers that hung from pegboard hooks. They were 29 cents a crèche. The candle molds were purchased, It took two days to make one candle, and it was a long, drawn out procedure. The wax had to be cut off an eleven-pound slab, then melted in a pan over boiling water so that it would not ignite. Then the wax was colored, scented, and poured into a greased mold and left to harden overnight. The next afternoon, the candle was removed and painted with whipped, frosting-like wax to create a snow-like finish. Next, a red-hot ice pick was driven through the candle, where the wick was inserted. Finally came the microsurgical procedure of inserting the wee Christ family and barnyard animals into the hot-knife-melted floor of the carved-out candle. It was not only not fun, but it was potentially dangerous.
I had to make fifty of those in 90 days in order to make the Christmas deadline. I grew impatient with the slow-melting-over-boiling-water method and soon stepped it up to the directly-on-the-burner melting process. I did a lot of the work on the weekend, where I was left home alone while my mother partied across the state with the Wax Procurer.
Once, while I was on the phone with my back turned, the old aluminum coffee pot filled with hot wax started smoking and then burst into flames. Fearfully, I grabbed the handle with a potholder and dashed over to the sink and opened the faucet into the pot, which caused the flames to mushroom out over my head. Hair was singed. Polyester curtains were melted by the flames. Thousands of pin-head-sized droplets of wax blasted all over the kitchen, my face, arms and the front of my shirt. I was damned lucky I didn’t burn the house down. Cue the carolers and sleigh bells, please. Come on, it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together.
After that incident, as always, my mother included our dime-store Christmas cards with the candles that were picked up or delivered (which saved on stamps.) But that year it was different. Inside each card was a hand-written plea requesting that we no longer continue the charade of holiday gift giving. The request was bold and left no room for second-guessing. It was stated that we would not be giving them gifts next year and to please cross us off their gift list in the future. And then there was the token line about always cherishing the friendship and some bullshit about not having to prove that with gifts. This Christmas nightmare was now over, and I am sure everyone was relieved. I always admired my mother for being the only one with the balls to cut the cords with these people, most of whom we never saw again.
So now in my fifties, I am proud to have no shopping to do. My sister and I called it quits on the gifts years ago, and all of my friends are happy to have the day off for big breakfasts and playful sex, or whatever it is they do. The nephew is 28 now and makes more money than I do. There are no children in my life, and children are what modern Christmas is all about, anyway. I want a bumper sticker that reads: “Greedy Children are the Reason for the Season.”
During the year, I always like to send my sister little echoes of the past. Maybe I’ll pick up a game on eBay that we used to have as kids, or send her links to websites of people we used to play foursquare with. Or a can of Pssssssst. I was in the grocery store the other day and looked up and saw mason jars and paraffin right next to each other, and I wondered two things. How many one-pound boxes of wax would it take to replicate that candle, and do they still make those little plastic micro-Christs that come in stapled plastic bags? I’m sure it could bring back some loving memories for my sister.
Merry Christmas to all, and pass the chop suey.
Friday, January 23, 2009
I am very proud of the avocado tree in my back yard. The first house I ever lived in had an avocado tree in the back yard, and being able to repeat that was a primary selling point when we bought this house. A little nostalgia of the first two years of my life, about which I remember nothing.
Almost every year, the avocado tree produces more fruit that two men can handle. In the summer we are both hauling bags of them into work and distributing them to willing takers. One year the avocado tree produced nothing. It was the same year that our dog-beating psychotic former next door neighbor cut down his avocado tree (which was bigger than ours). It was also a hurricane year, so I don’t know if our tree just missed its partner, or was damaged by the storm.
But now it’s back and budding like crazy.
Unfortunately, so are the squirrels.
In the summertime, I come home every day to avocados on the ground that had been half-gnawed away by those nasty rodents. Yes, I said squirrels are nasty rodents. Shave a squirrel’s tail, and you’ve got a rat. Don’t tell me they’re cute. They’re not. They carry disease just like rats do. And they are smarter than rats, but still not too smart. But they are smug. And greedy and selfish and wasteful. Hey squirrel, if you want to have an avocado, go ahead, but eat the whole damned thing. Don’t leave it on the ground for me to pick up after working 8 long hours.
They don’t listen to me. In fact, they mock me. I’ll be collecting the damaged produce, and there will be two or three squirrels in the tree and on the electrical wires all laughing at me. I throw rocks. I never hit them. And in the interim, I can only stew.
Recently, I remembered a friend of mine from high school who used to shoot squirrels out of his grapefruit tree with a BB gun. And that sounded like a great idea to me.
At first I tried a slingshot. I try my best not to look like an NRA member. Although I got closer to hitting a squirrel and was sure that I one day would, the slingshot broke after owning it for a week. Then I tried a pellet gun, but it was a pistol and was not the least bit accurate. Plus it would only irritate the squirrel if I hit it, not kill it.
Go ahead. Send PETA after me. Let them pour blood all over me. But they won’t get any free avocados from me if they do. I’d had enough.
I was more than pleased to find out that you can buy a BB gun at Walmart without even showing identification. No 3-day waiting period, nothing. So other Bill and I picked one up, and we brought it home and started target shooting a tin can on the other side of the yard. The gun was very accurate, and so was I. I hope people will be startled to find out to find out that there are gay men in the world who know how to use a gun. I used to have a .22 and a shotgun when I lived in the woods. And I’m a damned good shot. That’s right, I’m tough.
So in no time I was picking off one or two a day of those little rat-bastards. I enjoyed watching them plunge to their deaths from my tree. It only took one shot, and they were instantly dead, so it was very clean. I’d load them into an old plastic grocery bag and toss them into the big can in the alley.
My hope was that it would get around in the greater squirrel community that my avocado tree was not one to be messed with, because there was a deranged homosexual with a gun down on the ground below it. Satisfied, at the end of avocado season, I was convinced that next year there would be a banner crop.
Several years ago my mother gave me a squirrel-proof bird feeder. For some reason it only prohibited Virginia squirrels from getting into it. When I lived there, I never saw a squirrel even near it. It was always full of jays and cardinals and mockingbirds and finches in the spring and summer.
The feeder is basically just cage wide enough for birds’ heads to get through. Inside is a core of sunflower seeds, held in snugly with a tight wire mesh. The feeder did not work the same when I finally put it up in Florida. For the first few weeks, we enjoyed the hungry fowl pecking out the sunflower seeds, and the dog just loved it. She would put down her mai-tai and stub out her cigarette and climb up to the window and wag her stump and growl.
In no time I noticed that the feeder had to be refilled every other day. There must have been some kind of bird action going on during the day while I was at work. I noticed that the dog was even cutting back on her cocktails, because she was obviously obsessed with all the activity outside the front window. I was saving hundreds on gin and tequila. I thought she might be going to AA meetings behind my back.
But then I figured it out. I saw a squirrel inside the squirrel-proof bird feeder. He could actually crawl in and curl around the inside and just suck down seeds like the pig he was. I thought it was just a fluke, but then I continued to see it every day. That was it.
So the next time I saw this happen, I put on my camouflage. Dressing the part always gives me the affirmation that I’m doing the right thing. I went outside and pumped up my trusty Daisy five times and slowly crept around the side of the house. I aimed and fired.
The squirrel flew up in the cage and danced around in this horrible seizure-like routine. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew he was thinking, “Ow, ow, ow. What happened? Why am I bleeding? Why can’t I get out of here?”
At this point this redneck homosexual started to freak out. What have I done? I didn’t want it to suffer. I just wanted a quick death. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Oh GOD!
Naturally Other Bill was watching along, from the inside, horrified. I ran around and came inside from the back of the house.
“Is he dead yet?” I asked Other Bill.
Bill said, “No,” but it sounded like, well duh! As he pointed with his arm, Carol Merrill-style to the unpleasant sight happening on the other side of the living room window. We both stood and watched. The dog went to mix a daiquiri. Finally the squirrel lay still, but he was still breathing.
“I should go shoot it again and put him out of his misery,” I said to Other Bill. He didn’t disagree.
So I grabbed the gun, went outside and shot him point blank in the back of the head. Now it was more like premeditated murder to me. Not some far-away, pick-off shot. I should be locked up, I thought.
To my dismay and utter horror, this still did not kill the squirrel. He continued to breathe. Bill was inside, running in circles, shouting “Ew, ew, ew, EW!”
“What should I do?” I cried. I felt just awful making an animal suffer. Even if it was some rat-bastard.
“I don’t know. Come inside. Watch TV. It’ll die soon enough,” Other Bill urged.
I put on the safety and came inside and flopped down in the couch to enjoy a taped episode of Judge Judy. We love huh.
So after enough people were called “idiots!” on the show, we wandered back into the living room to check on the squirrel. He was still breathing.
“God DAMMIT!” I yelled, “why won’t he die?”
Other Bill had a look on his face as if he had just taken a bite of rotten seafood.
“What should I do? I should go shoot it again,” I said. I took the gun and went out again.
I think I’ll end the details here. You don’t need to know the step-by-steps of putting a bullet into the chest, spine and another one to the back of the head. At some point Other Bill asked me if I wanted to take it to the veterinarian, because maybe it was some kind of mutant non-killable species that should try to be preserved for science.
And you really don’t need to know that I was so horrified, so remorseful, and so guilty that after he finally died, I made Other Bill twist it out of the cage. For moral support, however, I was there, holding the bag open for it. And there’s no need to tell you where some of the squirrel blood landed.
I’ve learned my lesson. I retired the bird feeder, and the gun is under my bed, because the dog can’t get it there. (She can be a mean drunk.) It’s the middle of winter now, which means the squirrels are eating palm nuts these days. They eat millions of them. And that’s fine with me, because if they don’t eat them, they fall to the ground and sprout new palm trees which I have to just pull out of the ground.
It’s a little scary now, because there seem to be more squirrels around now than ever. They gather in groups outside my computer room, chewing on palm nuts, staring at me while I write. More and more squirrels join them and line up on the fence just outside the window.
It reminds me of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I’m thinking it might be a good idea to stay inside this summer.
I subscribe to a satellite TV service that begins with a D. I won’t for much longer, but as I write this, I still do. I have been moderately happy with the service, although I feel like I was swindled after the first three bills came in. And when it so happened that my DVR began truncating the recording of programmed shows, I grew tired.
I would call Satellite D when I had problems, and I’d always give my phone number to the computer that answered. That got me nowhere, because their computer always told me, “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that as a valid phone number. Please enter your account number or say, ‘I don’t know it.’”
It should come as no surprise that I don’t know it. How would I know it? My bills are paid automatically through this program they have called autopay, so I never see anything on paper from them.
Before I subscribed to the new service that starts next week, I wanted to turn off autopay on Satellite D so they would not get ruffled when I canceled them and autocharge me for fees I didn’t agree to.
So tonight when I called and gave their computer my phone number, as usual, it told me it didn’t know who I was. It then asked my account number. “I don’t know it,” I whined. Then a menu of stuff that I didn’t want to listen to spewed forth, so I said “Agent.”
It did not compute. So I said, “Agent” much louder.
It still did not understand. So I screamed, “AGENT!”
It got it.
But before it transferred me to an agent, the computer wanted me to tell it what I wanted to talk to an agent about. I spoke slowly and said, “Turn off autopay.”
The computer told me, “Please hold on while I transfer you to an agent.”
It didn’t transfer me to an agent. It transferred me to a queue that played instrumental music similar to that played in the activity room of the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I listened to that schlock music for 11 minutes and 36 seconds. Then I hung up and redialed.
And I went through the unknown phone number and the unknown account number and screamed, “Agent” three times, and when they asked me why I wanted to speak to an agent, I remained silent. Their computer then said, “Please hold on while I transfer you to an agent.”
Once again, no agent, only the Bad Music queue, which was playing an instrumental version of a Barry Manilow song. I turned down the speakerphone, resigned to the fact that for the next two days, the default song in my head would be “Copacabana,” and I considered slitting my wrists. Fortunately, the next six tunes were not any I recognized, perhaps because I was listening to a voice in my head that blasted, “Her name was LO-la. She was a SHOW-girl.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer so I got an idea. I hung up again.
Again, with the phone number, the account number, the agent screaming, and when the computer asked me what this call was all about, I said, “Order Hi-Def.”
No instant hookup to annoying tunes this time. The computer told me, “Great! I can help you with that, or I can transfer you to an agent to help you with this right away.”
“AGENT!” I shrieked joyfully, and not two seconds later, I heard, “This is Chris. With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking tonight?”
And in less than two minutes, my autopay was turned off.
I learned my lesson, all right. They’ll pay attention to you if they think you’re going to give them money. If not, you get subjected to The Hundred Strings Orchestra Plays Hits from the 70’s.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
In September of 2008, I finally threw in the towel and spent countless hours at work researching to the penny the cheapest airfares. I filled out online applications from the San Francisco County Clerk’s office and gave them my credit card number. This was after I e-mailed Other Bill and asked him if he wanted to go to
Other Bill had never been to
We have now done most of the must-sees in
We took a bus to the bridge and decided to walk across. Amazingly enough, there is no pedestrian toll. At the entrance to the bridge there is a telephone that is directly wired to a suicide hotline. A sign above the phone-in-a-box reads:
THERE IS HOPE
MAKE THE CALL
THE CONSEQUENCES OF
JUMPING FROM THIS
BRIDGE ARE FATAL
Like, duh. How many suicidal people get to that phone and think, “Fatal and tragic? I never considered that. Maybe I will just make that call.”
Now the city is considering building some sort of aesthetically pleasing safety net that will catch anyone who jumps. So instead of being dead, they’ll just have ugly, scarring rope burns. Or maybe it’ll be some kind of chain-link catcher, and when you land on it, your body will be ripped into hexagonal pieces that will squirt through the fence as if you were being squashed through a Play-Doh Fun Factory. It will make nice chum for the smaller fish.
So we were walking across the bridge, and there’s this tiny little emergency golf cart thing that someone drives across and picks up someone who can’t complete the walk (or jump). We got to see that in action. I’m not sure if the rescuee was a jumper, or someone like me, who when we got almost to the other side, had the luck of having his back give out. To add to this, it was September when we were there, considered
Travel tip: When you’re on the
After that, Other Bill decided it would be fun to rent bikes down at Fisherman’s Wharf and ride them across the bridge. That way we would always be sitting down. I agreed to riding up to the bridge, but I wasn’t about to compete for sidewalk space on the bridge while operating a two-wheeled vehicle. Other Bill suggested training wheels, so I hit him. People who ride bikes in
On the second trip, we took the ferry to
Travel tip: Never listen to the opinions of straight people when planning your trip. They’re always wrong.
So we got to
One deterrent to the unseasoned big city traveler is that
The less talented but still sharp homeless hang out downtown in the theatre district. I saw one homeless woman walking next to a man for two blocks, trying to convince the guy to give her a buck. “C’mon,” she told him, “if you give me a dollar I promise to leave you alone.” We had to make a turn, so I never saw how it played out. As we approached the
I immediately fantasized about standing over him, screaming, “Why don’t you stand up, go get a shower and a haircut, find a way into rehab, and become a functioning member of society, you filthy leech!” But of course, because I am gay, I have learned to be tolerant of other lifestyles, so I didn’t do it. And I saved fifty cents, which bought me one-half of a Milk Dud at the theatre.
Travel tip: Always carry a pocket knife when you travel so you can split a Milk Dud at the concession stand. Make sure you pack it in your checked bag, though, unless you would rather give it as a gift to a TSA employee.
Getting around in
If you don’t know anyone nice enough to pick you up at the airport, you can either spend about 45 bucks to be cabbed into the city, or, for a little over five bucks, you can take BART, which is a rail system, but you have to take another rail system to get to it. To get to our hotel we had to take a rail system to a rail system to a rail system, all three of which are independent of each other. Frankly, it’s very easy, but entrepreneurs make money taking pictures of the terrified and confused tourists walking around in circles at the airport. Your picture will be made available at the airport before boarding your plane back home. For a nominal fee.
Once you get downtown with your MUNI Passport, feel free to get on any bus, any cable car, any street car, or any MUNI Metro car, but you will first have to pass a test, telling the operator the difference between all four of these. Most people don’t know the difference between a cable car and a streetcar, and if you don’t, they make you walk to the Cable Car Museum to learn. The correct answer is they’re all the same, except the cable cars cost more of you don’t have a MUNI Passport.
Travel tip: I just saved you a long walk to the Cable Car Museum. Or maybe not. You’ll find out.
On the first trip, we selected a room on a fifth floor bed-and-breakfast walk-up. Nothing says “welcome home” to a weary tourist (on the verge of cardiac arrest from climbing steep streets all day) like five flights of stairs. In addition, we got to share toilets and showers with other guests on our floor, all of whom we saw naked or grunting, because they had not yet learned how to use a latch. We soon grew weary at surprising naked people who threatened to sue us, so we bathed and urinated in the in-room sink. Usually not at the same time.
Travel tip: Make sure you add colostomy bags and moist towelettes on your pre-travel list if you are to stay in a bed and breakfast.
But no residents in
The gay tourist should always take the pilgrimage to the Castro, but beware that it is not the Castro of the historic 70’s, when champagne and semen flowed freely through the streets. The Castro is entirely different than it was in the days of Harvey Milk. For one thing, I saw a woman there. Also, the Castro men no longer wear Levi’s and tight t-shirts and leather jackets, nor do they sport thick mustaches. Unfortunately, I do. I was asked if I had just stepped out of a time machine. It was mortifying. So if you’re going to make the trip to the Castro and want to fit in, make sure you are thin, hairless and in your twenties. Otherwise, people will look at you just as they did at me when we were in the Haight, trying to find out if there were any openings in communes. The Castro still has the occasional sex toy shop, but places like Headlines, All American Boy, Mr. S. Leather, and all the cheesy peep shows are gone or have moved in search of cheaper rents. Hopefully they will end up in neighboring storefronts (read: the ground floor cells) at Alcatraz Luxury Condominiums. What is taking that credit check so long?
On a swelteringly hot August Saturday in 2005, Other Bill and I set out on a shopping trip to our favorite discount store, Big Lots, in search of cheap cookies.
Pulling into the parking lot, we encountered a cruise alert: a seriously well-built young man in camo pants, a tight black t-shirt and a nylon skull cap. Like any good homosexual worth his salt, I looked at his face and nether parts as we slowly drove past him, ignoring the urge to reach out and pinch him, which I easily could have done. He had a dark, scraggly beard and looked tough. In other words, a fantasy playmate for me. I uttered my standard, “Woof,” at him, which I am sure he did not hear.
We parked and got out of the car, and Other Bill said, “Looks like your new boyfriend is going into our store.” This prompted salivation and anticipation of more opportunities for sizing him up in the cheap cookie aisle.
I turned around to grin at Other Bill, and it was then I heard a scream and turned back around and saw my tough new boyfriend pulling a purse out of a woman’s hands. A man was calling my new boyfriend a son of a bitch, which I had to admit was appropriate, and I immediately assigned my new boyfriend to the Ex List.
The tough guy ran into the parking lot, not far from us, and being a police department employee, my first instinct was to get back in the truck and run the son of a bitch down. Then I realized I was not a sworn officer, but rather an office boy, so sanity got the best of me. From out of nowhere came a big bruiser of a guy in a black polo shirt, who chased down my new ex. We figured we had better bite the bullet, officially declare ourselves as witnesses, and chase after them so we could get a front row seat to the action.
The bruiser chased my ex across the street into the K-mart parking lot. The suspect looked perplexed at the crowd that was tuning in to this docu-drama. Words were exchanged between the two men. My ex pulled something out of the purse, then threw the handbag down and quickly ran away.
Several people by this time had already called 911, and the bruiser, who we later learned was the Big Lots store manager, returned the purse, sans wallet, to the victim. The crowd disbursed, leaving only the victim, her husband, Other Bill and me under a tree that barely made enough shade to cover us all. We saw two police cars speed by, and we hoped they would stop and talk to us, but apparently they had better things to do, like capture the robber.
In less than 20 minutes, several police cars showed up, told us they had caught the bad guy, and they asked if we would be willing to go and identify him. Since one cop was, how you say, exceptionally handsome, I agreed to ride with him. Other Bill went with the victim and husband, and I got a spot in the un-air conditioned cage in the back of the police cruiser driven by Officer Hottie.
Courteously, I tried to carry on a conversation with him, diligently trying to ignore all the similarities between this situation and countless cop porn movies I have seen. It was a tough challenge, and I decided it is much more comfortable to be an audience member in the bedroom than an actual actor in the un-air-conditioned movie I was now co-starring in.
At last we arrived, and from a distance we identified the criminal, who now was shirtless and soaking wet, as he had tried to escape by swimming in a canal under the interstate. I have to say, even though he was a criminal and a son of a bitch, he looked stunning wet and shirtless. I pondered taking him back and finding him a modeling career.
The four of us then followed an officer to the police station (not in the jurisdiction where I work), where we sat in a lobby for almost three hours, waiting for the detective on call to arrive. Once there, the victims gave their statement to him, followed by Other Bill, then finally, me.
So that pretty much shot the whole day, and the desire for cheap cookies had waned, overtaken by the need for a big lunch, which we promptly found.
Weeks went by, and we heard nothing. Finally we were called to the public defender’s office to be deposed.
Let me insert here that, although I work for a police department, I know nothing about the law. I never watch lawyer TV shows. Not LA Law, nor any of the thousands of versions of Law and Order. The last law show I ever expressed any interest in was Perry Mason. Because I don’t really pay attention to the legal system, I never comprehended that the person I was about to give my deposition to would be the defense attorney for my scumbag, yet sexy, ex.
Before the deposition started, she asked me about the shopping center, and she emoted about how it was one of her favorite places and could spend hours there. “It’s a great place,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, “if you don’t get robbed.”
She didn’t much like me after that and stuck to the questions. It wasn’t until after I left that I realized that my robbery crack could have been offensive to her. But then, I don’t understand the lives of public defenders. I picture that 99% of their clients are guilty criminals with the moral ethics of something you would scrape off of your shoe with a stick. I don’t understand how you sleep at night knowing that you are trying to set free someone you clearly know should not be walking the streets of your city. She also dressed sloppily and cheaply (Big Lots attire? I wondered.) She had perspiration stains under her sleeveless blouse that did a lousy job of hiding her bra. I suspected she burned out in the workaholic, cut-throat world of making partner in a real law firm and had ended up as a public defender. So that’s how I came to justifying my insult: by defacing her profession.
Other Bill gave the same basic deposition while I waited in the lobby. We said the same thing, because we basically share a brain. Even while in different rooms, when we were asked how far we were from the defendant when the crime took place, how many parking spaces away, we both answered, probably 5 spaces, perhaps 50 feet away. I am sure the public defender thought we coached each other on how to answer the questions, but the truth is, although we may have two separate bodies, our brains have the same server. There are very few times in life when we are both not thinking the same thing or have the same tune stuck in our heads. There have been at least two occasions when we discovered that we dreamed about the exact same thing on the same night. Although this would be frightening to most people, we have grown to accept it as an unfortunate by-product of spending so many years together. The only thing different Other Bill told the public defender was this: When she asked him why he took such careful notice of him as we drove past him, Other Bill told the truth: “Because he was really hot.” I said something similar but not so blatantly outish: “Well, it was so hot, and I wondered why he was dressed like it was winter.” Both answers had the word hot in it, so we were close. Brain cloning, after all, has not been 100% perfected.
For months we waited for a resolution to this drama. Every thirty days for fourteen months we were served with standby subpoenas that reminded us that the case was still active and that we should be prepared to come to court to testify.
I didn’t see why this crime series was not just canceled. There were 3 very close eyewitnesses who saw it all and were stupid enough to volunteer as witnesses all in the name of civic duty. I figured that the criminal would just plea bargain, then proceed to rob people to cover his crack habit and gym membership, and life would return to normal.
Finally, a year and three months later, I got a call from the state attorney’s office, summoning me to court the next day. Other Bill was not called. Immediately upon learning that he was not to accompany me to trial, I started to worry.
I thought: Maybe they don’t want two men living in the same house to testify. Were we, as registered domestic homosexual partners, less credible witnesses? Whenever handed a situation I don’t like, my knee-jerk response is always homophobia. Then I summon up a worst-case scenario. In my brain, I played out a cross-examination scene worthy of a Worst of Perry Mason TV Anthology.
Is it true, Mr. Wiley, that on August the 20th you got such a good look at the defendant because you were aroused by his physique?
No, I got a good look at him because he was dressed too warmly for the season. I wondered if his thermostat was off or something.
Really, because I have a deposition from your illicit homosexual lover stating he thought the defendant was, and I quote, ‘hot.’
So are you telling me that you, as the passenger in the truck that drove by the defendant — a passenger who was so close that you could have reached out and pinched the defendant — you’re saying that you didn’t think the defendant was, as your admitted homosexual lover stated, hot? You’ve already stated you and your homosexual lover share the same brain, so would you not share the same opinion as well?
(At this point I start to squirm and sweat, and the crafty attorney in her sweaty, bra-revealing tank top knows she is about to land me.)
Public Defender (to the judge):
Your honor, in order to prove a point, I would like to ask permission for my client to stand and remove his shirt.
Judge (to defendant):
You will do as your counsel instructs.
(It is then that my defendant/ex removes his borrowed suit jacket, silk tie, and crisply starched white shirt. Underneath he is wearing a sheer nylon athletic shirt, slightly sweat-soaked in all the right areas. Revealed are his meaty brown nipples at full attention underneath the damp garment. His wide shoulders and bowling-ball biceps look like they belong on a sculpture of a Greek god, and the public defender commands him to remove the undershirt. He does so, putting his hands behind his head and flexing. His downy-soft armpit hair glistens with sweat. He changes his pose, accentuating his mountainous pecs and rippled abs.)
Public Defender (peeking at my crotch):
Your honor, I would like to enter into the court record that the witness is sporting a raging boner at this time, thereby admitting his true sexual identity, and as such cannot be trusted to—
Me (jumping to my feet, tugging at my constricting tie):
YES! YES! IT’S TRUE. I SNATCHED THE PURSE. I DID IT FOR, FOR, what’s your name?
ALEJANDRO. I DID IT FOR ALEJANDRO! I ONLY WANTED TO BE TAKEN IN HIS STRONG ARMS, TO TASTE THE SWEAT OF HIS LOINS AND TO…”
At this point my mind came back to reality after nearly rear-ending an enormous black Hummer on my way home from work. I wondered what Bill was thinking then. Surely there had been some kind of disconnection of service, which tends to happen when we are not in each other’s company.
Of course, that courtroom drama never got aired. I arrived at the prosecutor’s office on time. He’s the one, I reminded myself as an uninformed law know-nothing, who would be breaking down the defense of the lady I insulted during the deposition over a year ago. You know, the one would make me confess during her pit-soaked interrogation.
The prosecutor handed me my 5-page double-spaced transcript of the statement I gave to the detective on the day the crime took place. Details that I had forgotten long ago re-emerged. The attorney gave me pictures of the defendant taken the day of the crime, after he was fished from the canal. Shirtless pictures. Shirtless, very hot pictures which I tried not to drool over before handing them back. The prosecutor then warned me that the defendant would look differently in court. The accused had, he said, shaved the scraggly beard and gotten a nice haircut.
“May I see those pictures again?” I asked, desperate for one last look at Scruffy Criminal as opposed to Makeover Criminal, who wouldn’t be as appealing to me today. I wondered how I could smuggle these pictures out of that office. I suspected it would not be appropriate to ask the lawyer if it would be possible to have them scanned and e-mailed to me.
I took my time looking at the smooth, muscular chest, the canal-soaked pants, the tough facial expression. I released a small drop of pity.
“What if I don’t recognize him today with his cleaned-up appearance?” I asked the prosecutor. He told me to just be honest, that it was really the cop’s job to inform the jury that I was one of the people who identified the defendant on the day of the crime.
The prosecutor also told me that at age 23, my ex was a career criminal with seven priors ranging from burglary to firearms charges.
With all my questions answered (except the picture scanning question, which was, regrettably, never asked,) I returned to the waiting room and reacquainted myself with the sweet victim and her husband. I then smiled, remembering I might be able get copies of the pictures by filing a public records request. I sat down next to the painfully handsome Officer Hottie, the one who had taken me for a police cruiser ride through a porn flick. Naturally, he didn’t remember me. I’m sure he makes dozens of those films every month.
When the time came, three cops, the victim, her husband and I were ushered toward a courtroom. We were seated on a rock-hard pew outside the chambers. It was then when I learned that as a witness, I was only allowed into the courtroom to testify. I could not, like in the Perry Mason episodes, be in the courtroom to see other parts of the trial. I could not sit behind the defendant and hope he would turn around to look at me, so I could sensually paint my lips with my extended tongue and wink at him. Nevertheless, at least I’d get to sit in the witness box and get a good look at the new, improved, cleaned up robber.
There were three thugs sitting outside the courtroom as well. We had been shown to seats far away from them. The prosecutor told us that they were friends of the defendant, and we should pay no attention or talk to them.
It was then that I started to worry about what could happen to me as a witness. I instantly locked in on a mob drama where witnesses are executed in retaliation for testimony. I pictured Makeover Criminal, released on a technicality, and his band of mobsters shooting out all my windows in a drive-by frenzy. This right after I, in an act of financial desperation, just upped my homeowner insurance deductibles to $5000. Would windows cost more than five grand, I wondered. If I filed a claim, I’d lose my 20% claim-free discount.
Sometime later, the prosecuting attorney approached us and told us the outcome was good. The defendant pled guilty and would have to serve at least eighteen months in jail. Sentencing would be in sixty days.
Maybe I’d be able to see him then. I miss him already, and suddenly I wish I knew more about the law. For example, to whom should I speak regarding conjugal visits?
Imagine if you will in the not so long ago past, two late middle aged men, both closing in on age 50. Horizontally expanding as men their age tend to be, they pass on dessert at the Cuban restaurant in which they dined. They have eaten there only because a generous co-worker gave them a $25 gift card, and their drinks and entrées had already surpassed that figure. So it isn’t as if they don’t have room for flan in their not-quite-packed digestive system; they just don’t want to pay for it.
“Why don’t you take the beach road home?” the Other Bill suggests. “Maybe we’ll stop off at the Diplomat and look around.”
The Diplomat, a recently constructed, ultra-luxury hotel on the
“Well, okay,” Bill agrees, “but only if I can find a meter with time on it.”
Over the years, Other Bill has secretly thought that his partner’s stand against Disney, parking lots, oceanfront condo overdevelopment and local political corruption might not be environmentally rooted, but more a display of his partner’s jealousy, bitterness, and, how you say, cheap bastardliness. This, of course, could not be farther from the truth.
Snaking up the side streets of the narrow barrier island, they find a parking place next to a closed retail store. There isn’t a no parking sign to be seen, so they stop there and cross the street to the enormous, handsomely designed tower and enter the cool, well decorated lobby.
Bill, who is never impressed with opulence, and whose scorn for the unabashed greed of Fortune 500 corporations, which include this hotel chain, prevent him from appreciating the elegant design and meticulous decor of the building. While Other Bill looks up and turns in a circle with his jaw open (looking a bit too similar to That Girl in the opening montage of the TV show), the native Bill merely shrugs.
Bill’s browsing and window shopping is, in most cases, limited to the internet. Every once in a while, just to appease Other Bill, he will begrudgingly accompany his partner on trips to the mall in order to fulfill his obligation to this thing called a relationship. Now, while Other Bill is oogling the fountains, Bill is thinking that all this could have been done better from his computer room with a 360-degree virtual tour. He feigns enjoyment.
Other Bill, always up for an adventure, leads them outside so to see the enormous oceanfront pool. They are stopped at the door by a security guard for a private party who notices their improper casual attire and asks to see their invitations. When none can be found, they are asked not to enter the pool area.
For a while they peruse the shops and peek inside the restaurants and sniff the charring steaks. They ride an escalator up to a floor where there are conference rooms, and it is there where Bill’s harsh opinion of big business begins to subside ever so slightly.
They peek inside one room, which contains a podium and an easel perched on the maroon industrial carpeting. Facing that are three rows of gray, cushioned chairs. Not so exciting until you look to the back of the room, where on a table covered with a clean, starched linen tablecloth sit two enormous pizza-pan platters of cookies. No one is in this room; class has been dismissed or is out for recess. And these are not just vanilla wafers or animal crackers we are talking about here. These are fresh, soft, expensive, hockey-puck sized, milk chocolate chunk and peanut butter cookies. The whole room smells of them. Without even pausing, both Bills rush inside like squirrels stealing from a bird feeder. They each grab a cookie and dash out of the room and perch in a darker part of the hall. There they slowly savor their succulent bounties, keeping the bites warm in their mouths until they melt down their throats. When the last crumb has been consumed, they look at each other and say, simultaneously, “Let’s get more.”
They return to the meeting room and quickly shove two more down their throats, fearful that the legitimate occupants of the room might return and report their theft to hotel security. They remove a large cloth napkin from the nicely dressed table, and they stack the cookies high, wrap them in the napkin, and quickly abduct them from the room.
The Bills continue to quietly inspect the rest of the floor by jiggling each doorknob of every meeting room. Like vipers in search of meerkats, they suspect that someone else has been careless and left open another doorway to free food. Locked doors are left behind. Open rooms are peeked into, but if no pleasant aromas waft from these quarters, they are abandoned.
In short time, another meeting room, open and lit, awaits the couple’s exploration. This time there is a whiteboard in the front, along with empty chairs, behind which is a well-stocked, tableclothed display of exotic, fresh, chilled fruit: kiwi slices, tender, ripe raspberries, chocolate-dipped strawberries, thinly sliced Fuji applies and a mountain of fresh, golden pineapple chunks. Beside the fruit is a tempting display of cheeses: tangy Canadian cheddar, warm Camembert, and aged, smoked
What a dilemma: all this food and no take-home Tupperware. Should they go home and procure some, or do they eat what they can now and not risk the chance of having it all disappear while they fetch the containers? They pledge that if they ever visit this heaven again, they will come with pockets stuffed with plastic grocery bags. Until then, they opt for living in the present. One eats while the other stands outside, keeping watch, and then they trade off. When an elevator bell is heard, they dash from the room and run to a dark exit and rush down the stairs, where they escape through a smelly, dumpster-filled room.
Don’t forget this couple, these men who are behaving like boys from a Mark Twain book, will soon be members of AARP.
Bellies full, the gentlemen arrive back at the unticketed car, giddy from getting away with such a fine dessert heist. Any sense of guilt, fear or remorse is quickly squelched with Other Bill’s rationalization: “They just would have thrown it out, anyway.”
“I know,” says the driving Bill. “Big companies are so wasteful.”
As he steers away from the fancy hotel, the balding, gray-haired Bill looks at the empty napkin in his lap and then peers up longingly at the towering hotel, floodlit in his rear-view mirror.
“We should have gotten more,” he says.
Once you reach a certain age, or in my case, before you reach a certain age, your brain starts to get lazy. I don’t think there has been one time in the last fifteen years where this hasn’t happened: I have a list of things to do and places to go. If I’m lucky, I don’t get out of the driveway before I realize I’ve forgotten something necessary for the completion of the task(s).
I can spend a long time planning this chore outing. I’ll write down the destination and then what I need to buy, swap, borrow, return, or other verb that I have to do at those destinations. My brain works well as I prepare. But once I open the door, all is lost. I enter a black hole.
Usually I forget the list itself. As I said, on a good day, I’ll remember it before I leave the driveway. On bad days, I won’t remember it until I’m on the other side of town and it’s too late. So I’ll try to re-create the list, with only moderate success. Usually there’s a store I’ll forget to go to, or something I won’t remember that I need to get.
And even if I do remember the list, things are still not safe. Let’s say the first thing on the list is “Return books to library.” And I’ll drive to the library, chatting away with Other Bill, and we’ll get to the library and realize that even though our intentions were good and we had the list, we neglected to bring the library books with us. So we’ll go home and get the books, drive back to the library, and then I’ll discover I forgot to bring my library card to renew one of the books.
Our boxer, Bungee, is so used to us forgetting things. She doesn’t ever expect us to be gone very long. When we arrive back, she’ll be in her lounge chair, reading Architectural Digest, smoking a Virginia Slims, and sipping a cosmopolitan. When we come in, she’ll look up over her reading half-glasses as if to say, “Forget something?” And then she’ll hand us the library card, or the list, or the outgoing mail.
Sadly, we often return more than once. There are sometimes two or three returns, say, to get stamps for the mail that we forgot but now have, and then again to go online to look up the ZIP code for one of the bills that is inevitably delinquent, because we have tried unsuccessfully five or six times in the last month to get it out of the house.
The dog just looks up from her magazine of elegantly furnished rooms that she would love to chew up and irreparably scratch and dent. Stylish magazines that display exquisite furnishings are porn for dogs, and she is addicted. I’m just waiting for her to be looking over my shoulder to steal my computer login password. Then she’ll start ordering it. I can tell already she’s not satisfied with just chewing up the magazine. Especially after the third cosmo.
I will drive to the gym to do some lap swimming, only to realize I have a towel, but no swim suit. I’ll get to Walmart knowing there are 3 things on the forgotten list that I wanted but can only remember two. And of course, when I get home and read the list, it is the most important thing I needed, like a fuse for the oven so we can eat. I will go to the propane place to get my can for my outdoor grill filled and realize I have not brought the empty can. And the can is empty, because I forgot and left the grill on all night.
And then there are gift cards. We have taken movie gift cards to the multiplex, only to realize that they are redeemable at some other theater franchise. And we knew that in advance. I will pick up the gift card to the Macaroni Grill, and we will drive right over to Applebee’s, where we eat exactly $21 worth of food, tax included, only to end up paying for it ourselves. I have had a $10 gift card that I have been trying to remember to bring along for three years now. It’s probably expired.
Since gas shot up sky high, and even after it came back down, I have been holding back to do all chores at one time instead of making separate trips. I map out the trip in my head so I can drive the fewest possible miles on the most direct route. I’ll first go to the farthest place away and work my way back. You’d think with that kind of attention to detail, I would be able to accomplish something except drive past these destinations, after realizing that it takes a wallet to accomplish the tasks that were meant to be performed there. That piece of leather is back at home, where Bungee has removed all the credit cards and is making copies of both sides. And she’ll hand me the wallet when the door pops open and just smile that Forget this? smile.
I recently went on a two-day trip to the other side of the state to see a play. I put all my dress-up clothes on one hanger, which I left on the doorknob of the computer room. When we got to
Forgetfulness can really do a number on me. Where I work, I need an electronic proximity card to get into the building and again for the elevator, and again to get to my office. I keep my card on a retractable leash clipped to my belt (or on the waist of my pants when I forget the belt.) When they put the new system in place, it wasn’t long before I managed to leave the card at home. Where I work there is one person who can create a duplicate card. Naturally, he wasn’t there the day I needed one. I got into the building by following in a co-worker. But I had to be escorted by a sergeant to get up to my office. And once I was in my office, I was trapped. I could go to the bathroom, fortunately, but I couldn’t go to the kitchen to get my iced tea or put my lunch (which I remembered (that day)) in the fridge. But anytime I wanted to go downstairs, I had to find someone who had the right card to get me back up to my office. It got to be annoying and embarrassing, so I just went home sick. Since then, against the rules, I always keep the proxy card in the side pocket of my car door, despite their being general orders that forbid that. Maybe a terrorist will enter my building sometime because of me, but I’m willing to take the risk.
What’s sad is that my doctor says this is all normal behavior. It’s not pre-Alzheimer’s or Aspberger’s syndrome or mental retardation. Frankly, I’d rather it be one of those so I didn’t have to call it what it is: Age Related something-ness. It starts with an F. Oh yeah: Age Related Forgetfulness.
Or ARF, as my dog calls it.
Everyone has that one teacher they can reflect back on and say, “This is the one who really made a difference in my life.” Mrs. Pettebrew, my second grade teacher, was not that one. She was a tough, drill sergeant of a woman. As a strict disciplinarian who had no capacity for nonsense (“foolishness,” she called it), Mrs. Pettebrew had a mission for us 8-year olds. She was to teach us, in a carefully regulated classroom, Southerly manners, precise hygiene procedures, and good citizenship.
Boys were expected to be genteel in an Ashley Wilkes sort of way. Girls were expected to be sweet and clean and to absolutely never, ever have bangs that blocked their vision. Whenever the class made a trip to the water fountain, a boy was selected to hold the spring-loaded knob in the on position, which left the girls with one hand to balance and the other hand to pull back their hair while they drank. We learned that “Ladies First” was not just some hackneyed phrase. It was, According to Mrs. P., the law. Sometimes Mrs. P. would trip up the fountain knob holder. Right before the first boy went for his sip, she would say to the knob holder, with an all-too-recognizable tone of displeasure, “I would like a drink, too, please.” She was, after all, a lady, too, and she came first, or at least before the boys.
We were constantly commanded to pick up trash on the campus, and if she saw some litter on the ground, she would dispatch one of us to go and pick it up. That would be followed, of course, by a trip to the in-classroom sink where we would wash our hands with cold water and Borax powder. She cut all the scratchy brown paper towels in half with the paper cutter, and we were only allowed a half sheet for drying. It was a sin, naturally, to waste anything. She even had a special metal chalk holder that could hold a column of chalk fragments that could be used until they disappeared, thus eliminating the ever-so-expensive chalk waste that the other teachers in the school recklessly never thought about.
Each Monday a new Tooth and Nails Monitor was selected to inspect and report on the hygiene of his peers. Every morning we all had to sit and display our palms flat on the desk with fingers spread. The Tooth and Nails Monitor would then stand in front of each student and check to make sure there was no dirt underneath his or her fingernails. He would also make you grin and show him your teeth before asking you, “Did you brush your teeth?” You always answered affirmatively, whether you brushed that morning or not. After inspecting all the children, the Tooth and Nails Monitor would then report back to Mrs. Pettebrew, and any child with soiled nails or bad breath was summoned to the front of the room to explain to the class the reason for their blatant disregard of proper hygiene.
There was one boy named Elliot who loved being Tooth and Nails Monitor, and everyone in the class was more than happy for him to volunteer. Elliot had an Elmer Fudd-ish speech impediment, which, to an eight-year-old equates to a flashing neon sign that reads, “Make Fun of Me Behind My Back!” His, “Did you brush your teeth?” question came out, “Butt ta teef?” Of course, the mere mention of a phrase that has the word “butt” in it was carte blanche for unending snickering. “Butt ta teef” became an overused, pre-bedtime phrase in our family that lasted for years but was forgotten about after we aged and moved on. Recently when my sister visited and said before retiring, “Guess I’ll go butt ta teef,” we had a good laugh.
Butt ta teef. I love those little lines that have meaning only to a family clique. Every family has them, and you can usually draw one of them out of someone by asking them what they called their grandparents. I have an old high school friend, Paul, who even today refers to his now-deceased grandparents as “Nana and Gang-Gang.”
“So, Paul, what are you doing for Christmas this year?” I asked him not so long ago.
“We’re opening presents and having dinner at Nana and Gang-Gang’s,” he said, with a totally straight face.
Oh, well that sounds great. Don’t forget your rattle and pacifier. To be fair, we called, and still refer to my grandfather as “Pap-Pap.”
Back to Mrs. Pettebrew. Our second grade classroom was equipped with a rest room with a teeny, little second-grader-sized toilet about the size of a large mixing bowl. If you wanted to use the toilet, you would have to raise your hand and ask permission, and then you would have to write your name on the chalk board when you went in and draw a line through your name after you were done. At the end of the day there would be the record of everyone’s bathroom activities, which Mrs. Pettebrew took note of, and she would send you home with a note to your parents if you went more frequently than she deemed necessary. Only one boy’s parents had the unmitigated gall to send a note back, insisting that Darryl be allowed to use the toilet whenever he felt the urge. And naturally, he abused this right. He would raise his hand, write his name, run into the bathroom and stay there while all the hard questions were being asked. We all envied and hated him. He could pee ten times a day if he wanted to. Lucky stiff.
Mrs. Pettebrew, stout and well dressed (always with matching pumps and handbag), was meticulously made-up, coiffed and perfumed. Yet she was militaristically strict and use words like “cross” as an adverb, as in: “Don’t you be cross with me, little boy.” Terrified of making a mistake and having her come down on us, we were always on our best behavior. She could destroy you with one sentence. Forty-two years later, I can still remember the traumatizing sentence she used to cut me down to size. Every word.
During our music session, three kids would stand an front of the room to lead the class in song. Mrs. Pettebrew, because she was southern, could play the upright piano which was situated in the room so that when she played, her back was to the class. So while she tickled the ivories, if you were a daredevil, you could do bad things and not get caught.
It was the last week of school. I had made good grades. I had been elected to the citizenship council. I was a star pupil, a role model who had proven that even after losing a parent the year before, I could still bounce back and be an inspiration to everyone.
So I was one of the song leaders, and we were singing “Bobby Shafto.”
Bobby Shafto’s fine and fair, combing out his yellow hair…
I don’t know what made me do it, but during the hair line, I pantomimed combing my hair, which then was a crew cut, so there wasn’t much to comb, and I guess that was funny. When the song was over, Darryl, the student with the most frequent urinator points, told on me.
“Is that true, Billy?” Mrs. P. asked me. “Did you make hair-combing gestures?”
I felt my face burn red. All I could do was shrug, the eight-year-old equivalent of admitting guilt.
And then she said it: “I always thought you were one of my best students, but now I take it all back.”
OUCH! God, a whole year of being good and fine and fair, and that, that WOMAN just dropped the piano on me. I looked at Darryl, pleased with himself, the class bad boy who could pee anytime he wanted to, winning out over Mr. Perfect. He cupped his hand over his mouth and pointed mockingly at me. He would grow up to inherit his father’s business, which was and is still frequently under investigation for its links to organized crime.
We did get a break once a week from Mrs. Pettebrew; one half-hour when we could let down our fine and fair hair and step off the eggshells upon which we gingerly trod in order to prevent a Pettebrew act of emotional devastation. We got to go to the school library and listen to the librarian, Mrs. Ragsdale, read us a wonderful story. Everyone loved her. She read us all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books with amazing expression and clarity, and we all secretly wished she could be our mom and read us to sleep at night. She would generously display the pictures of the books, panning across our captivated faces. She read us Peter Rabbit, Dr. Seuss, and the Madelyn books. It was our once-a-week treat to have her enchant us with literature. Our library period included 20 minutes of story time and 10 minutes to select our books to check out. During this time Mrs. Pettebrew got a half-hour excursion to the teacher’s lounge. Today I like to picture that break for Mrs. I-Take-It-All-Back as a smarmy immersion into the secret room filled with heroin and barnyard animals to abuse.
Mrs. Ragsdale appeared to be very motherly and sweet. But beneath that, we learned, was a dark side. She was a violin strung way too tightly; a breakdown waiting to happen. Apparently all those cutesy stories and colorful illustrations took their toll, or perhaps it was just holiday stress, but that day, Mrs. Ragsdale lost it.
It was the day before Christmas vacation, and we were excited about being able to check out six books instead of the normal quota of two. The library was decorated with colorful construction paper chains and folded-down, gold spray-painted trees made out of old Readers Digest magazines. The windows were painted with candy canes and Santa faces. After we took our seats and Mrs. Pettebrew left the room, Mrs. Ragsdale approached the semi-circle without a book. We should have known that was trouble.
“Boys and girls, can anyone here tell me who wrote Peter Rabbit?”
What? What was this, some kind of sick, holiday pop-quiz joke? This was story time. No one told us there’d be a test. I knew it was Beatrix Potter, or was it Beatrice Potter? The librarian had this hideous, teeth-gnashing look on her face that indicated she would not accept just the last name as an answer. This was not, after all, Jeopardy! Or was it? I feared that if I said Beatrix and it was Beatrice, something really, really bad would happen, so I remained silent, as did everyone else. We also failed the test on the author of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.
“NO ONE can tell me the author of the books I’ve read to you all year long? Don’t you know that it’ll be important to you later in life to know the title AND AUTHOR so you can have sensible discussions about authors’ literary styles? This is great; this is JUST GREAT.” And off she went on a pencil-snapping tirade that included phrases such as, “your teacher thinks you’re so smart, but you’re not smart at all,” and “you’ll never become anything if you continue to be so stupid and not pay attention.”
Lady, we’re eight years old. We are paying attention. To the stories. Maybe if you’d warmed us up first by asking us who wrote the Dr. Seuss books, we’d have the nerve to say “Beatrix” to the Peter Rabbit question. So you have a master’s degree in library science and are working in a library where books are classified not by Library of Congress, not by Dewey Decimal, but by dots and lines that were Magic Markered onto the spines. One dot: easy reading for first graders. One line: advanced reading for first graders. Two dots: easy reading for second graders, and so on. It’s not our fault that your career landed in quicksand. And besides, since when did the Harvard Review dedicate an issue to Betty McDonald, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle authoress? And I must have missed that NPR segment, “John Updike Critiques Green Eggs and Ham.” Not to mention the Madelyn’s Rescue series on Masterpiece Theatre.
Ragsdale’s rant went on past the 20-minute mark, and finally Vickie Mansour, the class bookworm, meekly raised her hand.
“WHAT!” snapped Mrs. Ragsdale, the poster girl for hypertension.
Fearfully, Vickie whimpered, “I think it’s time to get our books now.”
Just as she said that, Mrs. Pettebrew quietly crept into the room, but the librarian didn’t see her. Mrs. P. had a cautious, if not horrified look on her face. Her thought bubble was: Oh God, I hope she’s not armed!
“Don’t you tell me what it’s time to do, missy. That’s for me to decide, and no one’s moving until I’m damned good and ready to dismiss you!”
We gasped. Mrs. Ragsdale said the D-word! She turned and saw Mrs. Pettebrew, who carefully came up to her, touched her arm gently and whispered something in her ear, which, in retrospect, I like to interpret as, “There’s a bucket of Valium in the teacher’s lounge. Go get yourself a handful. I’ll watch the kids now. And while you’re at it, butt ta teef and do your nails.”
The librarian ran from the room, weeping. We got extra time to select our two-dot and two-line books, but we never saw Mrs. Ragsdale again.
As for Mrs. Pettebrew, I recently Googled her, just to see if anyone else had written a story about or blogged her, but the only thing that came up was a listing of occupants of a cemetery in Tampa. A prestigious cemetery, of course. The one with the city’s founding fathers and Civil War heroes buried in it. She was 58 when she taught me, and this year marks the hundredth anniversary of her birth. The next time I’m in
And in case you’re wondering, there were no Google hits for Mrs. Ragsdale.