Monthly Archives: January 2012

haakon’s crew

Ada and I and her sister and her cousin and a group of others were gathered in the apartment on Wojciecha Street . Everyone was  having a great time talking excitedly about who knows what . I sure didn’t know what because the excited conversation was all in Polish . So I decided after a time to take a little break .

I told Ada I’m going down to the Dublin Pub for a beer  .

” One beer and then come back ,” she said . ” I’m worried . Maybe you shouldn’t go . It’s dark and if something happens you don’t know the language . Maybe you shouldn’t go .”

” One beer ,”  I said , and I took a set of keys . I locked the apartment door . I turned the key twice to lock the door .

I walked along past the park , past the prostitute who patrolled the stretch of Wojciecha next to the children’s hospital wall  just across from where the anxious taxis rendezvous  while they wait for radioed assignments  . I turned the corner and walked past the little brick church with the stained-glass window dedicated the city’s residents who fell in World War I . Szczecin was a German city then . The names on the bronze plaque under the window are German : Auslender , Baumann , Englehardt , Frick ………

I turned the corner at the church and walked another block past wooden gates with carved lion heads or neglected angels with broken wings . I walked down the steps then into the Dublin Pub . It might have been in Ireland with the dark- stained wainscotting all around   and the framed scenes of Blarney castle and the Liffey Bridge , and a posted poster of  colorful Dublin City doors . Guinness and Paddy Whisky waited conspicuously at the bar .

But I ordered Zwiec which costs a fraction of the price of the imported Guinness . I ordered in Polish because there are no Irish in the Dublin Pub , not behind  the bar, not  back in the kitchen  , not among the customers . No Irish at all in this Irish pub.

As I sipped my Zwiec I spotted behind me a table of people drinking tequila . I first noticed  people pouring salt on their hands and squeezing lemon juice  into it . They would  suck the sour salt and then shoot the tequila . This was an unusual sight to see in an Irish pub in Poland .

So I went over . “Who’s the one who knows how to drink tequila ? ” I asked .  This was a very un-Polish thing to do . I was taking a chance . Worst scenario : they go away thinking here’s another rude American . There was a slight hesitation , maybe five to seven seconds .

“I guess that would be me ,” one of them said . ” I am Haakon and these are  some of  my crew . Our vessel is in dry dock for several days .”  His English was smooth with a Scandinavian twist . I  introduced myself and Haakon introduced his crew . One guy was Polish , two were Russian , two were Norwegian . ” And that is Bo Ek , ” he said , pointing to the first mate . ” Bo is just a Swede .”

Just a Swede  raised his glass . They all raised their glasses . ” Join us please , if you will , ” Haakon said . And so I did . They drank toasts to me and I to them and all of us to Szczecin and all of us to America and all of us to the other represented nations and my one beer had transformed  itself miraculously into another animal altogether .

Eventually Haakon and his crew decided to move on . There were some night clubs on the main street and they were headed there for more booze and other entertainments . I was invited but I declined . It was time to waddle home and to explain why I was a few hours  later than expected .

When I arrived back at the apartment house gate Ada’s son was arriving there , too. He had been to his pub and he too was a little worse for wear . So we decided to go over to the Oriental Restaurant which was open all night for a snack and a sobering cup of coffee . It seemed like a good idea at the time .

There was a problem , though . Polish dead bolts lock when you turn the key once . When you turn the key twice they lock so that the peolpe inside even with a key cannot get the door open . I had turned the lock twice and I had locked the group inside all night . Ada’s cousin had called a taxi to take him home and when the taxi arrived they all understood  that they were locked up until I came home to release them .

I eventually did return , of course , and let them all out .  Luckily , Ada’s son was there  too , to help save my life .


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more melville

Somehow Melville and his bride-to-be ended up living downstairs from me for awhile . Nobody was supposed to know that they were even going together because , I guess , Melville hadn’t yet actually divorced his estranged first wife . They fixed their lunches together in their  kitchen each morning but if one of them had a tuna sandwich the other had cheese , if one had chicken the other had beef . They drove to work in separate cars . Joe was going to write a story  at the time  called WHITE BREAD WHEAT BREAD  about their self-deluded sham but I don’t know if he ever did .

This was at Saint Clement Catholic Elementary in Venice and we were all teachers there . Domini the ex-nun taught  there , too , and Sister Agnes . Terry , a gay guy who was desperately trying to pretend that he wasn’t , was principal . Bingo Bill was pastor . 

We were supposed to have read an Archdiocesan pamphlet called To Teach As Jesus Did  when we signed on for the teaching job . I never read it but  Melville probably did . Melville met his first wife while he was in the seminary , so he obviously had a strong religious background .  Jesus probably wasn’t living with his girlfriend when he was doing his teaching . Maybe the pamphlet mentioned something about that : Don’t be living with your girlfriend out of wedlock in some cheap apartment while you’re teaching in a Catholic school and while you’re actually still married to another woman .

I know Joe read the pamphlet because when Monsignor Mahon , who was in charge of Catholic elementary schools ,  came to Saint Clement to meet with us to tell us how dedicated we were but that there would be no raises  Joe spoke up to discuss the pamphlet with him . ” I’ve read To Teach As Jesus Did , ”  Joe told the monsignor . The proud priest smiled . ” I think that to teach in a Catholic school one needs to teach as Jesus did ,” Joe continued .  The monsignor’s smile widened . ” As far as I know , ” said Joe , ” Jesus wasn’t married . But I have a wife . And as far as I know Jesus didn’t have to pay rent . He wandered around the countryside staying with friends .” The clueless monsignor continued to smile . ” And Jesus didn’t have to buy groceries . He could do the loaves and fishes thing and have enough to eat. ” And Joe went on .  And on . The monsignor had no nose for sarcasm . None whatsoever . The sharp words , getting sharper by the minute , didn’t bother him  and he  thanked Joe , still smiling as though  he thought that he had been complimented and that all was right with the world .

Of course the whole world knew that Melville and Debbie Do Do were living together just as the whole world knew that the principal was gay  just as the whole world knew ( with the possible exception of Domini ) that the Archdiocese was taking advantage of us  by paying us so little . But that’s not my story .

My story is about the night that one of Debbie’s friends came to visit the happy couple in the downstairs apartment , the couple who were  scheduled to be married in the near future . The friend  was a cute little thing , I guess , and Melville took a fancy to her . Eventually Debbie got tired and went to bed and Melville made love with the friend in the living room on the sofa with his bride-to-be in the bedroom .

Oh , but he felt bad about what he had done . Remember , Melville had a religious background . So he drove down to El Segundo to confess to Joe . Joe didn’t want any part of it . Melville begged : What should I do ? What should I do ? Joe said again and again that he wasn’t giving any advice . Melville begged : Should I tell Debbie ? Should I tell her ? Tell me ! Tell me ! Joe tried unsuccessfully to send Melville away .

” Okay ,” Joe finally said . ” You’re sorry , right ? And you’ll never do it again .”

“So sorry ! ”

” So , go home and act appropriately . You’re getting married soon for god sake .”

So Melville went home and immediately confessed the whole thing to Debbie Do Do and added to his confession the information that he had told Joe the whole story and that Joe had told him to keep it a secret from her .

Nice one , Melville ! Debbie Do Do never spoke to Joe again . Later , if I’m not mistaken , Joe sat Melville down and told him not to get married . So Melville , also , never spoke to Joe again after that  .

The Debbie – Melville marriage lasted eleven months . The whole world had known it was doomed from the start  but  Joe was the only soul brave * enough to try to make a difference .

* alternate for brave : realistic , naive , delusional , kind , masochistic , concerned , disgusted , moral , optimistic , uneasy , caring , unrealistic 

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Between me and Hillhurst Avenue in east Hollywood was Doctor Fleiss’ office . Madame Heidi’s dad was a pediatrician with a good reputation who had renovated a large Victorian house on the corner of Hillhurst and Russell for his doctor office . I lived next door on Russell Ave.

There were two good mechanics on Hillhurst . One was up the hill a couple of blocks and one was down the hill a couple of blocks . They were both honest and competent . Ise was downhill . I tried to use the uphill mechanic .

Ise was an older Japanese guy . I wouldn’t have been surprised to have learned that he had been an officer in the Emperor’s army . He put me on the spot whenever I took my car to him .

” What did you do to it ?”

” I didn’t do anything . It just wouldn’t start / started making that noise / started spewing that smoke / started whatever .

“You had to have done something to make it start doing that . What did you do ? ” Ise had a voice like a thunder storm . It boomed intermittently amidst a constant rain-like slushing sound which made some of his interrogation  difficult to understand . His tirades created their own wind . The young Asian mechanics  moved away as soon as Ise began his tirades . There might have been some sympathy on their faces .

” You did something !”

When I picked the car up Ise would be sure to mention ” you eben had spyda webs in da wheels” or whatever additional offenses he had found  me to  have committed besides the original transgression .  It was an emotional workout taking a car to Ise . You ‘d better go in there with a thick skin .

So I liked to take the car uphill to the other mechanic who’d do an equally competent job but wouldn’t run customers through the mill .  If the car wasn’t running at all , though , and I couldn’t get it up the hill to the other guy I’d roll it down to Ise .

Maybe Ise was a more dedicated car mechanic than the uphill guy . Maybe cars was his religion . 

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sister agnes invades my space

It was the first faculty party for the year , the only one ever at the principal’s condo . We were all drinking Pisco or Wild Turkey , including the priests and the PTA parents , and we were all relaxing , I thought .  It was fun , I  thought .

I brought a date , Dana , and I took her home at some late point in the party . She asked me on the way what I had said to Sister Agnes to make her so mad . I don’t know , I said . Nothing that I know of .

What I had said to her was:  don’t believe anything he says . It was a nonsense line . It was a joke , I thought , because Sister Agnes  was in an overly- serious face to face discussion with Melville . The gravity of their conversation didn’t match the party mood . I stepped in to lighten things up . Putting my arm on Melville’s shoulder in a friendly way I said to Sister Agnes don’t believe anything he says . It was a joke for god sakes !

Abruptly , after I said it , Agnes began to sputter . She pivoted away muttering angry incantations and suddenly she was gone . I asked  Melville what was that all about , but  Melville , too , turned and muttered something indecipherable and scrambled away in another direction . It seemed that he was  angry too . Agnes had already left the party . I’m leaving , Melville announced like a judge casting out a verdict ,  and he strode out   too .

I stood there for an amazed moment thinking the alcohol they had consumed must have turned against them .

When I got home a couple of hours after this incident there they both were . Melville , my roommate at the time , was sitting in the big red armchair that Fred Kail had given me . Agnes was sitting on the footstool facing him . They were locked in a continuation of their serious conversation .

When I had first walked in the door I had heard voices . Did Melville have a girl in here ?  When I saw Agnes I stopped . All sense in the world stopped . I wished that I had had more to drink so that I could think that I was  hallucinating or that I had passed out and was having a nightmare . Melville was facing my direction and he offered me a small nod and a  weak hello . Agnes turned her head around , probably as surprised to see me as I was to see her , and she showed a silent scowl .

Some things are just too much for a simple human being to handle . Nevertheless , I wasn’t going to rip my eyes out at the sight , or turn and run from my own apartment , nor would I  yell at Melville  to insist that  he immediately turn the nun  out  .  Instead ,  I walked into my room and went to bed .

Melville told me later that  he and Agnes  were having a debate as to whether they could trust one another . I had walked over during the  Principal’s party just as  Melville had persuaded her to believe in him . Don’t believe anything he says , I said , just at that  precise moment .

Anyway , I was accidently accurate  about Melville at that time in his life .

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ties that bind

I have a closet full of ties . I gave a box full of them to Goodwill a few months ago and I still have a closet full of ties .

I dislike ties . In any practical sense they are a useless piece of clothing . Hundreds of years ago they might have made some sense . They tied your collar together . A little neck warmer .

But the nobles , of course , had to tie their haughty necks with expensive materials  so everyone would know they were more important people . Then the rich non-nobles needed to compete and show their importance , too . So they tied up their necks  with their own emblems of authority . And the less rich merchants had to get into the act . And so on , and so on , and so on .

And now we have ties . Do you know how to tell a high-quality tie ? Someone showed me  once . Turn it over at the pointy end and rub its belly . There are things to check and I don’t now remember what they are . Labels ? Thread count ? How it’s folded ?  Something .

I’m sure that everyone knows but me how to spot a superior tie . And also , of course , you have to be sure the thing is fat enough but not too fat , or skinny enough but not too skinny . Be in style . If you bow so low to society to wear ties then you may as well be in style . I think that there are , also , the right colors for certain seasons , or correct patterns for the current  year .

Don’t wear an out -of-date tie if your business or law firm or venture marks you partly by your tie . You want to show that you’re up-to-date , innovative , and creative , so for god’s sake  blend in and don’t wear the wrong tie !  Your tie and your career are somehow intertwined . If so  , then your tie might have you by the neck in more ways than one.

I wear ties sometimes because I still feel that  I have to , to funerals and weddings mostly . They are uncomfortable . I don’t keep up on the latest tie trends . My ties are mostly long -ago hand-me-downs from my executive brother who must rotate his ties regularly , or dollar purchases from thrift stores or yard sales . One was a gift from someone I met in New York . It might be a collector’s item now with the  two towers prominently displayed . I have two fish ties . I have a Santa tie . I have a colorful tie made by my sister . I have paisley ties . I have an orange tie .  I have wide ties and thin ties , long ties and short ties . I have dull respectable ties too. I’m ready .

Tecnologically the society has advanced but we are still stuck in the middle ages when it comes to ties . We  still want to show that we are subtly somehow better than others  when we wear our idiotic neckwear  , that we deserve more respect . The inexplicable thing to me is that , generally , people seem to go for this fantasy .

Congress should pass a law against the manufacture , sale , and wearing of ties . There should be a one year amnesty during which time ties can be turned in to the authorities with no penalty . After the one year : mandatory jail time .  Meanwhile the government should fund anti-tie ads on TV and radio . Tie wearing can and should be stopped .

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the old silk floss tree

Bing was the first one to come over . He stood a ways off and stared . I had the main branches down by then .

” I remember when Greta planted that tree , ” he said . ” It’s a beautiful tree .”

” Yes , it is , ” I said . What the old man seemed to want to say was why the hell are you cutting it down ? But he stood there a ways off , instead , staring .

Don from two doors down came over next . ” What are you cutting the tree down for ? ” he asked in unpolished tones of indictment . ” I remember when she planted that tree . Got it at the Arboretum .”

I was being put on the spot . Ada and I were new to the neighborhood . We’d been there almost three years but Bing had been there almost fifty and Don longer than that . They had raised kids there who had long since grown up and moved away . The two old men were watching me chop up the old tree that the former owner had planted decades ago .

“Greta loved that tree ,” Bing said .

” It’s a magnificent tree , ” I began , appeasingly . ” Beautiful pink flowers that look like orchids . But look at these roots .” I showed them the thick roots that were raising the driveway , that grew under the concrete walkway to the front door , and that were growing under the foundation of the house . ” If it wasn’t for these roots , ” I said . “But they’ll begin raising the foundation like they’re raising the driveway . Look. ”

” Sure did a job on the driveway ,” Don said .

” Can’t have roots under the foundation ,” Bing said .

” Otherwise I’d keep the tree , ” I said . ” But look at those roots !”

” I got an axe you can borrow , ” Don said .

” How you gonna cut them roots ? ” Bing asked . His tone had changed . Now we had a neighborhood project .  Rex the retired teacher emerged from the house next door . He was carrrying a pick .

” You’re gonna have ta get the dirt completely off the roots so’s ya don’t get dirt caught in the saw teeth ,” Rex said . He stood there on the lawn with the other two men and watched me work . They all had bits of advice .

Ada was watching from the window . When I came in , eventually , she said that she’s seen my  crowd of admirers . I told her that some guys are chick magnets but I ‘m a geezer magnet .

Finally I got the tree out but most of the thick roots are still there under the lawn and under the driveway and under the concrete walkway . The silk floss tree with its flowers and its thorns is gone  but I remember it fondly  . It was a great tree .  Bing is gone , now , and Rex too . Don , who turned  ninety in August ,  still offers to lend me tools and we have a beer together from time to time and we chat . The roots of those guys , too ,  will still be in the neighborhood long after they’re gone .

Ada planted rose bushes where the old tree used to be and when the roses are in flower in their brilliant reds and pinks and yellows and whites all the neighborhood geezers would admire the magnificence of the new blooms instead of  lamenting the silk floss tree’s demise .


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old mr. curtiss

Curtiss and I went one Saturday up past the Grapevine on Highway 5 past the town of Gorman , past Lebec ,to  old Fort Tejon to see a Civil War enactment . The participants pride themselves on authenticity . Their uniforms are made from the same heavy wool weaves as would have been worn by soldiers in the 1860s . If their buttons are not antique originals they are accurate replicas . They were camping out for the weekend at the old fort and a few times each day a mock battle was staged .

Curtiss and I were both teaching American history classes at the time so we thought that it would be fun to see the reenactment . We were both history buffs . On the way to the reenactment Curtiss told me about  a  sword his aunt had which had been used by a Curtiss ancestor in the Civil War .

I had a camera and I intended to use the pictures in my American History classes . I took one snapshot of Curtiss standing between two Union officers in full regalia , feathers on their hats, holstered pistols at their sides  and swords and medals gleaming . Curtiss , unarmed , stood between them proudly in  a battered baseball cap and a T-shirt .

During the following week I showed the snapshots to some of my eighth graders . That’s Mr. Curtiss , I heard some of them say . Is that Mr. Curtiss ? Yeah. That’s Mr. Curtiss . Then someone said : I didn’t know Mr. Curtiss was that old . They all were amazed . Is that Mr. Curtiss ? they asked me . Yes . We didn’t know he was that old !

I could see that they weren’t joking . Well , he was a lot younger then , I told them . That seemed to modulate their amazement . They showed the Curtiss picture around . That’s Mr. Curtiss when he was young .

When I told Curtiss that they thought he was that old he squinted his eyes and his fify-ish face  took on a  look of pain  . I could tell he was annoyed because he let out one of those chortles of his that voiced frustration . I don’t know if he was irritated that they thought he was so old or if he was irritated that they were so history-illiterate after so many months in eighth  grade history class . The juvenal mind ! he said , still squinting and slowly shaking his head .

Cynical history teachers’ lament : Never try to teach a pig to sing . It will only infuriate  you and perplex the pig .

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