Maria and I recently visited Susan and Mark, old friends of ours who live in North Carolina, and we were at a loss for something to fill a Saturday afternoon. The women wanted to go to shopping for drapes to match the cushions, or vice versa, which to me seemed only marginally less painful than having a root canal. Mark agreed, and as he flipped through the local paper we found the answer: a gun and knife show.
Neither of us owns guns or non-kitchen knives, so we figured we’d get an education.
The show was held in a cavernous building that must have been two hundred yards on a side. The admission fee was ten bucks, and there were two lines to get in: one for unarmed customers, and one for those “carrying.” It was perfectly okay to bring a gun. They just wanted to be sure it wasn’t loaded when you walked through the door.
However, they didn’t frisk anyone to see if they had a pocketful of bullets. And there were a dozen vendors inside eagerly selling every variety of ammunition, clips, autoloaders, silencers, scopes, and other deadly accessories, so if someone had come to the gun show with mayhem in mind, there wasn’t much to stop them. Except, I suppose, the deterrent effect of the other 200 gun-loving patrons, surrounded by weaponry, who presumably would turn the shooter into a multi-ventilated shadow of his or her former self before too many shots had been fired.
The first table we visited was a knife display. These weren’t your grandma’s knives – there were razor-sharp mini-scimitars, Bowie knives longer than David Bowie’s list of hit songs, and tiny purse-friendly switchblades in designer neon colors. They even had a medieval-looking hand weapon that consisted of a leather-wrapped stick with one, two, or three spiked metal balls dangling from the end on an eight-inch chain.
I wanted a picture, and was positioning my smartphone over the table to snap a shot when a grizzled guy chomping an unlit cigar appeared on the other side of the table.
“No pictures of the flails,” he rumbled. Feeling foolish, I pocketed my phone and picked up the two-ball model, as if testing its heft.
“Pretty nice,” I said, clueless as to what to look for in a quality flail. “How much?”
“Single ball twenty bucks, two for thirty, three for forty. Stainless steel balls, genuine leather grip. Handle’s hardwood.”
He awaited my reply. In my khaki shorts, New Balance walking shoes, and gray cotton golf sweater, I didn’t fit his usual customer profile. We moved on.
A guy walked by with a rifle slung over his shoulder, and I realized why people brought weapons: sticking out of the barrel was a wooden dowel with a paper sign taped onto it reading: “FOR SALE OR TRADE.” It reminded me of the popgun rifle Wile E Coyote points at the Roadrunner that shoots out a flag reading “BANG” when he pulls the trigger.
The next table was arrayed with 50 rifles in a row, each chained to the next so you couldn’t raise them much above table height. Their burnished wooden stocks and oiled barrels gleamed in the harsh fluorescent lights. Similarly, the handgun tables had hundreds of sinister-looking weapons, from petite two-shot ladies’ pistols (the vendor’s description, not mine) to hulking hand cannons that would terrify Dirty Harry.
The sheer number and variety was staggering. We approached a rifle vendor and I picked up a small-bore shotgun. At a loss for words, and inspired perhaps by the walking FOR SALE gun signs, I asked, in my best Elmer Fudd voice:
“Excuse me – would this be good for hunting the wascally wabbit?”
The guy behind the table smiled thinly and turned away, clearly not interested in such nonsense.
I actually considered buying a self-defense baton. These are metal sticks that, when you flick your wrist, telescope in length from one foot to nearly three feet. Tapering to a dull point, it locks open and will only collapse again if you strike the tip solidly on a hard floor.
“Say you’re in a parking lot, and some guy’s comin’ at you with a broken beer bottle,” the seller proudly explained.”You can whip that open and give him a hot rap on the head or arm or leg or whatever, make him feel some real pain, from a couple feet away.”
He jabbed the end of the extended stick at my midsection and chuckled.
“And a poke with this here into some soft tissue can be very persuasive.”
I resented the insuinuation that my abs constituted “soft tissue,” or rather, that he could so readily discern that. But he was right: that hard metal stick created a well-defined, non-negotiable boundary between us.It seemed like a bargain for only 25 bucks. But then, I’ve been around for sixty years and haven’t yet found myself in need of a “soft tissue persuader” or head rapper.
So why would I need one now? I’ll just avoid honky tonk bars at closing time and save myself the money. I passed on the deceptively innocuous-sounding baton. But I couldn’t resist asking the vendor before I left:
“Could I use this to whack a wascally wabbit?”
No one wants to “get old.” But who wants to “be young?”
I am glad I grew up in a world with land lines. The beauty of being housebound when communicating by telephone, having to grip a solid ergonomically designed handle that cradled comfortably in your neck as you yakked away with your best friend while lounging on the bed. This was circa 1970 and a huge part of my “being young” which I would never trade. The clammy interface of a smart phone that places us “on-call” 24/7 is what the youth of today will rue when they hit the right side of 50. How sterile.
Growing up without Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. What a blessing. Not that there wasn’t pressure to be heard and seen among your peers, (which is basically what drives social media), but the small (and familiar) community of high school dictated the universe that counted, not the entire (and anonymous) digital world.
Airplanes with two-tier pricing. There was first class, where the seats were a little bigger and the meals a little better; and there was second class with decent leg room and decent meals. Food, beverage, and baggage were all included in the price of the ticket. To step foot in an airport today means that you have already navigated a multiplex pricing/seating/eating system of additional fees and perhaps torn your hair out in the process.
Movies with giant screens, velvet chairs, no commercials and a preview or two. This latest gimmick I read about to encourage the smart-phone generation to come to the movies makes me so happy I have left the left side of 29 behind:
Having tried 3-D films, earsplitting sound systems and even alcohol sales in pursuit of younger moviegoers, some theater chains are now installing undulating seats, scent machines and 270-degree screens.
For an $8 premium, a Regal theater here even sprays patrons with water and pumps scents (burning rubber, gun powder) into the auditorium. Can’t cope with two hours away from your smartphone? One theater company has found success with instant on-screen messaging — the texted comments pop up next to the action.being slathered in movie theatre perfume and being an unwitting audience to the text messages of strangers just sounds beyond uninviting. theme park experience when I want to see a movie.
Being slathered in perfume and unwittingly subjected to the text messages of strangers strikes me as a modern day scenario of Sartre’s vision of hell in the play No Exit.
So while I do not like the changes I perceive on the exterior of my body or the aches I feel in the interior of my body, I draw infinite pleasure in remembering the way it was.
It’s December 4. Get ready. (Can you hear the collective sigh about the speed of time?)
The days will now fly, in full swing, to the rhythm of the holiday season.
There will be parties to attend. And cookies to be baked. Trees will be lit up; candles will be lit. Some of us will sauté latkes; others will hang stockings on the mantle.
We linger in the past with our rituals. And we usher in the future with toasts. But there is an interstice before the craziness envelopes. A small window of time, when you can sit for a bit with a cup of coffee on a cold winter day and prepare for the countdown. Breathe with us!
Laurie ran a local farmstand that sold tomatoes, corn, peaches, the usual summer fare, along with odd items like jumbo homemade Hula hoops covered with electrical tape, and dreamcatchers made from jute and antique jewelry findings. She sold local honey at exorbitant prices, and by the cash register there was a take-a-book, give-a-book exchange-shelf filled with tattered thrillers from 10 years ago.
Often when I rode my bike, I would pass by Laurie’s to buy an overpriced peach or two and chat about the weather, or the tourists, or what it’s like in the winter at the Shore. Her black Lab mutt, corralled in the back, would whoof loudly when I approached the counter.
“Calm down Sammy, it’s okay!” She laughed. “He’s almost 13.”
As if that explained his ill temper.
“He’ll probably outlive me.”
He did. Someone in town mentioned that Laurie had died suddenly two weeks ago. I couldn’t believe it, so I rode my bike over there and, sure enough, it was boarded up. There was a white piece of paper on the bulletin board outside, weatherized with a taped-on piece of plastic wrap, with a simple announcement: “LAURIE’S FARM MARKET WILL BE CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT AND PRAYERS.”
Nearby, stood a creepy makeshift totem with purplish lipstick and braided blue rope for hair. It was decorated with draped netting and dangling clamshells, and at its base, lay a painted rock displaying the epitaph “Grow in God’s garden.”
Burnt-out battery-operated candles and a broken wine goblet completed the sad sidewalk tableau. A girl in her twenties passed by walking a dog. I asked her what had happened.
“She just died last Saturday night,” she said, shaking her head. “I live next door, so I heard right away. Real shame.”
“How’d she die?”
“Asthma attack. 54 years old.”
Now I was feeling uncomfortable, and very mortal. She had been six years younger than me. And dying from an asthma attack must be horrible – basically, you struggle for breath, unsuccessfully, until you suffocate. The neighbor didn’t know if the business would reopen.
“Depends if her kids want to run it,” she said, tugging her dog away from snuffling in the roadside weeds. “Which I think they don’t.”
She’d mentioned once she was divorced, but I had no idea she had grown children. And I’d thought the woman who made the hoops and dreamcatchers was her business partner or life partner or whatever, but nope – just someone Laurie had allowed to share the selling space, so she wasn’t taking over either.
She was a friend, but I hardly knew her. Like my older brother, she espoused a homespun hippie philosophy of live and let live, and doing the right thing for the world. With her jeans and work shirts and unruly blond hair, she could have been a pot-smoking Dead Head, but she wasn’t.
She worked hard. She got up early to go to the local farms to pick out whatever they had that looked good that day. Often she harvested it herself, and she had the dirty fingernails and scraped and calloused hands to prove it. But she wasn’t complaining. She seemed to love her work.
Two years ago she had boxes of exotic melons, perfectly round and bright yellowish green, like lime-saffron bowling balls. The fruit was remarkably sweet and juicy, with a subtle floral flavor that snuck up on you after the last bite. I tasted a sample Laurie had set out at the stand, and bought two on the spot. We cut one up that night and it was every bit as perfect as the sample. But we waited two days before cutting into the other one, and by then it was slushy, almost rotten inside, and we had to discard it. Apparently, they had a short shelf life.
“Snooze ya lose!” she laughed, plopping my free replacement melon on the counter. “Ya gotta eat the fruit while it’s sweet.”
My father was born, lived and died in the same house. But that’s a rarity. The odds are that if you’re over 50, you have lived in several different places in your life. I’ve lived in nine.
It’s always interesting to return to the place where you grew up. For some of us, it’s depressing. Inner city neighborhoods that once were great places to live, now are not so much. For others, it’s just a strange experience because so many years have gone by that most of the people we used to know are gone. I moved out of my hometown of Lodi, New Jersey in 1975, the year I got my first job. If that looks like I couldn’t wait to get out, you’re right. But just about every year since, I have returned to the town of my birth to partake in a cultural landmark — an annual Italian street fair called the Festa de San Giuseppe.
Most people in the New York who have been to an Italian feast have been to San Gennaro in Little Italy. That’s the king of Italian feasts. It has great food and even greater crowds. In fact, the crowds can be compared to a subway car at rush hour. It’s not a fun experience and no one would do it if the food wasn’t so great. By contrast, the smaller feasts like San Giuseppe in Lodi are comfortable and the food is every bit as good.
For the uninitiated, these Italian feasts are basically church fundraisers. Non-Italian churches have carnivals and bazaars every summer; Italian parishes have feasts. In addition to the best pizza and sausage and peppers sandwiches around, Italian feasts always feature a statute of the church’s patron saint on which feastgoers tape paper money. It used to be just dollar bills, but these days you often see 20s and even 50s. Watch for the guy who attaches a $100 bill. He probably is either a fan of The Godfather, or he is the real thing.
Now it would be strange enough if the feast just featured a currency-covered statue. But an important part of just about every Italian feast is the procession of the statue through the streets. That’s for the people who are too sick (or too lazy) to come to the feast. On at least one day during the run, the feast comes to them, accompanies by a band playing music from the old country. The marchers carry the statue right to the doors of willing donors. This procession of the statue through the streets of town is among my oldest memories. It’s quite amazing to a small child for a band to come to your house once a year carrying a statue like the ones you’ve only seen in church. It’s like God opened a traveling branch office — equal parts fascinating and terrifying.
Anyway, the Festa de San Giuseppe was a part of my life for all the 22 years I lived in Lodi. And it has continued to be a part of my life for the almost 40 years since. As my hometown has changed to the point of being unrecognizable in many ways, one thing has remained constant — the feast still happens every Labor Day weekend. And it still looks very similar to the way it looked 50 years ago. I have dragged my wife and children to the Feast for years. Why? Because it provides a sense of continuity to my heritage and to the place of my birth. And that’s important in our transient society. The unchanging ritual is comforting. Labor Day’s ritual used to be to watch Jerry Lewis on the MDA Telethon and go to the Feast. Jerry is gone now, but the Feast carries on. And I hope it does for the rest of my life. The zeppole are out of this world!
We can’t keep our Short Shorts off.
They met, they kissed; they wed, they bred; kids fled, lives led; they’re dead.
It may be September, but some of us are still wearing our short shorts.
She spun a silk honeycomb. Of lies.
I’m not much for tchotchkes, but we’ve got a set of ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers that’s close to my heart.
You’ve probably seen them, or some version of them: it’s a married couple, in “Before” and “After”poses.
“Before” shows the couple young, happy, and dressed for their wedding day. He looks handsome in his gray tuxedo and red bow tie, sporting a mustache and glancing sidelong at his rosy-faced bride. She stands proudly in her white wedding dress and headpiece, with golden curls spilling out the sides, demurely holding a bouquet at her midsection. Her lips are pursed in a hopeful smile and her blue eyes gaze brightly ahead, focused on the future.
When you turn the figurines around, the legend on the bottom reads “AFTER,” and the changes are striking.
The groom is now wearing a strappy T-shirt and boxer shorts, and he’s gained at least 30 pounds. Frowning, he’s lost most of his hair and the dapper mustache, and he’s glancing sheepishly at his wife as if expecting recriminations. She, too, has gained a few pounds, as evidenced by her jowly face and plumper middle. She’s wearing a bathrobe and curlers in her hair, and instead of flowers she holds a rolling pin. Her young bride’s optimistic smile has been replaced by a scowl as she glares at her spouse, apparently considering where to slug him, and how hard.
I bought these when Maria and I had been married around twelve years, when we weren’t far removed from the “Before” picture of the happy couple. We’ve been displaying them on the windowsill over the sink for the last 20 years, and I’ve since come to identify with – if not resemble – them more and more.
They’ve taken a beating over time – his hair, and her veil, are badly chipped on the “Before” side, and both of their noses, “Before” and “After,” have been marred by falls from the window ledge. We, too, bear scars from our three decades of life together. And like the figurines, neither of us is in quite the shape we were when we were married, but we’re still standing.
Sometimes I’m in a miserable mood and she’s just fine, the “Before” to my “After,” or I’m feeling just fine and she’s in the dumps. We can arrange the figures accordingly.
But usually the couple on the windowsill isn’t mired in “After.” They’re facing front, smiling warmly in their wedding regalia; a much more pleasant image. Like our ceramic counterparts, we’re hopeful we can carry on living happily ever “Before.”