Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Welcome to the New Age (Thank You and Move On)

I went into a RiteAid drugstore this morning to find those mini Bic lighters.  My mistake.  I had to interrupt a clerk chatting with an octogenarian lady about her health to ask where I’d find them.  She walked me to the candy and food aisle and there they were, three for $3.99.  And some good-looking chocolate to go with a wonderful Bordeaux I’d found.   

When I checked out, the clerk asked what year I was born.  “Why?” I asked.   

“We have to ask everyone.”   

“What?  For buying Ghirardelli chocolate?” 

“No.  The lighters.  Didn’t you see the sign on the door?  We check age for cigarettes, lighters, all that.” 

“Look at me! Do I look like a teenager?” 

“What year were you born?” This pit bull was not going to give up.


Back story:  I needed to replace the insert in my favorite lighter, a Breitling watch promotional piece given to me by a niece who works at Tourneau.  When I went to an air show at McGuire Air Force Base last week the Air Police wanded me, along with the 10- and 11-year-olds I was with.  Then the AP (we used to call them Apes) asked suspiciously, “What’s this?” 

“A lighter.  For lighting cigarettes.” 

“I’ll have to take it.” 

“Why?” I asked. 

“We have jet fuel here.” 

I replied, “I think I’m smart enough not to smoke around jet fuel.” 

“We have jet fuel everywhere.”  And, poof, my lighter disappeared into his pocket.  Turned out all of us tourists and gawkers were stuck behind 100 yards of Jersey barriers, another hundred yards from the planes, which kept flying back and forth, from the left and then the right, upside down and right side up,  Very loudly. 

I hate to be a grumpy old geezer.  I should have been proud that the Air Force was protecting me against terrorists of all ages, and that RiteAid was shielding the health of geezers.  Still, I wonder what the immigration requirements are for moving to Canada.  The U.S.A. is becoming a very scary place to live. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Upwardly Mobile

I worked my way up in the corporate world.  Literally.  After starting on the ground floor at the Western Electric factory in the Jersey meadows I spun off to the canyons and peaks of Manhattan.  My first office was next to a Xerox machine on the 5th floor at an east side building, then gaining career momentum I segued west to division headquarters and a 9th floor office.  After a decade, I had clambered up to the 23rd floor at the parent company, followed by a shuffling of the deck that landed me on the 26th floor of a midtown skyscraper on Park Avenue—ground zero for the captains of industry.           

Full Car:  My daily meetings with the bosses took me to Mahogany Row on the 34th floor where the elite sat in their offices guarded by their gray-haired watchdogs.  I discovered then that I was spending more time traveling vertically than horizontally.  This introduced me to elevator situations.  

I was elevating up from the lobby one morning when a man rushed toward the closing doors.  The only other occupant in my car, a vice president standing near the control panel, vainly punched the button to hold the doors as they closed silently.  Shock and embarrassment crossed his face.  Then I saw his finger had been nowhere near the hold button.  “Sorry about that,” he told me, staring at the ceiling.           

Stinky Car:  I had a proofreader who came to my office monthly.  Malcolm was one of the most knowledgeable guys in the business, so good he could tell you whether a period was in roman or italic.  His brother was our corporate counsel and both had graduated Yale, but there the similarities ended.  Malcolm was about five-feet three inches tall, his clothes were tattered, he smoked Gauloises and he exuded an odor that triggered the gag reflex.  At some point, Malcolm was banned from the bank of elevators.  He suffered the ignominy of being ordered by the building guards to take the freight elevator.  He wouldn’t accept the insult, and after proofing our annual report he announced proudly he could no longer accept us as his client.  His career lurched downhill because of an elevator.           

I Spy:  I was chatting about elevators with Susan, my secretary.  “These rent-a-cops on Park Avenue can be mean,” I told her, and she answered that they always looked at her and smiled when she passed.  I told her she was being self-conscious, and that “They’re busy staring at the monitors to see that no one gets mugged in the elevators.”           

“How would they know that?” she asked.           

“Cameras.  You can’t see them, but every elevator car has a camera.”           

Susan’s face went white.  “Oh, my Gawd!” she whispered.  “When there’s no one in the car I pull up my skirt and straighten my pantyhose!”           

Punch Line:  One of my favorite amusements was to get on an elevator with a friend.  As the car filled up, I’d start a monologue, usually something about a girlfriend and a horrifying episode that had taken place over the weekend.  The story would build in intensity and people would stop talking to listen—to eavesdrop!—on my drama.  As we neared the lobby, I’d reach the climax with, “…And then she smashed her wineglass on the floor, reached into her handbag and pulled out a pistol.  ‘You’ll never say that again,’ she said, and then….”  As the doors opened, I’d step out and say, “I’ll tell you later what happened.”           

Skyscraper Legends:  New York is full of curious tales.  Ask me about the Amish guy and the elevator.  The colleague who was trapped overnight in an elevator with a Czechoslovakian cleaning woman.  Or about why there’s no 13th floors in New York.  Or…but this is my floor and I have to get off.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Comfort Food Came from the Can

A curious thing took place at our dining room table sometime in the late 1940s.  Our meat-and-potatoes supper changed into something my mother called “creative cooking.”  Even though I was just 10 years old, and a boy at that, I sensed every woman was out to prove she wasn’t a boring cook.  When my mother wasn’t exchanging 3 x 5-inch recipe cards with her friends, they were promising each other recipes or were collecting recipes for a new church cookbook.  In fact, church dinners were a command performance that made me dread the experimental dishes — Mexican tamale pie or Italian sausage and mushroom casserole — placed in front of me.           
It’s clear now what was happening.  World War II was finally over, anything was possible, and miracles could emerge from the kitchen — amazing dishes like Indian curry that were previously unknown in our small Oregon town.   
I’ll never know where my mother learned about shrimp curry.  Her exotic dish consisted of one can of Campbell’s frozen condensed shrimp soup, thawed, heated, laced with curry powder, and poured over rice.              
Another night, her quick and simple entrée might be Porcupine Balls.  Leftover Uncle Ben’s rice was mixed with ground beef, shaped into balls, drowned under a can of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup, and baked in an oven. 
Campbell’s was a staple in our house.  Condensed mushroom soup was poured over pork chops before baking.  Condensed tomato soup was served as a time-saving, nutritious spaghetti sauce.   
On special occasions — after church or when relatives came to visit — dinner started with cocktails.  Since my parents were teetotalers, cocktails consisted of a quart can of Campbell’s tomato juice, liberally splashed with Worcestershire sauce and a very small dash of Tabasco, and served up with Ritz crackers and onion dip.  The dip was a touch of class.  It meant buying a container of sour cream and mixing in a package of Lipton instant onion soup.  
This cozy tradition lasted until after I was married with children and began substituting wine for tomato juice. 
Memories of these meals flooded back when I found three metal boxes where Mom stored her recipe cards.  I had almost forgotten what a basic commodity Jell-O was in the late ’40s.  An entire section of one box — dozens of gummy recipe cards — were dedicated to gelatin salads.  There were Perfection Salad (gelatin with peppers, pimentos, chopped cabbage and diced celery) and Fruit Salad (gelatin with a cup of unnamed dressing, cherries, pineapple and marshmallows).  And there were Stuffed Eggs in Gelatin Mayonnaise, Shrimp and Swiss Cheese Gelatin Salad, Cranberry Orange Mold, and Crunchy Corned Beef Salad Loaf.   

Judy's recipe library.

Though Mom passed away years ago, her recipe box is an archeological treasure of how Jell-O sustained our family.  
As I recalled those meals, I realized this was my definition of comfort food.  Bland, often mysterious, but probably nutritious.  The period marked a transition from cooking with raw materials to using processed food.  The tin recipe boxes also offered an insight into how hard women worked to be inventive and to change food presentation after a long war and years of rationing.  
Before Julia Child there was Betty Crocker.  Before Rachel Ray there was an underground exchange of family-tested recipes.  The early ’50s was a time when a new dish could be invented and called Something-something Surprise.  Creativity lay in the naming.  There was Feathered Lemon Delight (fried chicken), Snip Doodles (cookies), and Snickerdoodle (coffee cake). 
Before Hamburger Helper, there was the slice of bread crumbled into a pound of ground beef to make meatloaf stick together and go farther. 
Before the Nabisco and General Foods snack foods, there were Mom’s Gizzies, a Christmas treat made in vast quantities with Wheat Chex, Cheerios, pretzel sticks, and nuts, all laced with Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and celery salt, and baked for one hour.  For kid treats, there was our all-time cavity-inducing favorite: Rice Krispie cookies made with marshmallows.
Pizza was another novelty first mentioned by my sixth-grade teacher.  I had my first taste of pizza — oh, the rapture — when I was 13 years old and had moved to New Jersey.   
When my wife, Judy, spotted Ming Tsai’s honey-roasted poussin on horseradish beet purée with soy butter sauce on Food TV, she told me to run and download it from the Web site.  Then, she cut back on one ingredient, added another condiment, or substituted an item.  

“This is not comfort food,” I said.  “I’ve never eaten a beet in my life.”  But at dinner that night the honey-roasted poussin was so mind-numbingly good that I grabbed my camera to record it for the cookbook we wrote for our children.  Creativity was alive and well in the 21st Century. 
Often, she and I went back to Mom’s old tin recipe boxes.  It still held comfort food for a new generation.  In fact, it’s time for me to make another few cubic feet of Gizzies for snacks before a baseball game.  And I have the strangest craving for raspberry cookies, almond crescents and lace cookies when holidays approach.  Our children and grandchildren demand them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Letter from Taipei


No one says, “See Taipei and die.” Naples, yes. The capital of Taiwan, not really. Dying while on vacation is not a good slogan, but it’s a distinct possibility.              

In May 2006, six years since I had previously visited Taiwan, the pace of traffic and people in Taipei increased exponentially. Scores of dusty scooters swarmed in packs of mechanical insects like a Ridley Scott movie. Crowds of shoppers were thicker and more erratic as they darted around stalls. Sounds were louder and more intrusive. (The irritating, repeating melody in the street made me demand, “Can’t anyone shut up that ice cream truck?” I was told that was the trash pickup alerting people to bring their garbage down to the street.) Live rock bands were amplified over the heads of hip students ambling through Peddlers Alley in Hsimenting.               

“Be careful,” my host Ming-tse Chen warned, grabbing my arm and pulling me away from harm again.              

I’m cautious about crossing streets in London and Paris, but in Taipei the pedestrian needs another set of eyes to spot scooters driving against traffic, zooming onto the sidewalk to park or dodging to the head of the cars at a stop light. The Taipei Times reported a 74-year-old man was run over and killed by a scooter during my visit; an 80-year-old woman was run down the day before.               

There’s an edge to being outdoors that I’ve never experienced in Europe or New York. The cab driver who picked us up coming back from dinner near the Taipei 101 tower had a DVD player on his dashboard and was watching soft core porn. We told him to turn it off. He answered defensively, “I’m not watching it,” but complied. Weaving in and out of traffic, he clipped a scooter a block further on and continued driving.              

I pointed at cars driving at night without headlights, and asked Ming’s daughter if there wasn’t a law about headlights. Nancy had just received her Master’s degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Probably they can see okay,” she said. “They don’t think they need headlights.” But what about me when I crash into a darkened car? The last time I drove in Taipei I only had to watch out for ox carts and pedicabs.              

Today, this is truly the city of the quick and the dead.              

Sidewalks, except on the main thoroughfares, are about eight feet wide, with half of that space filled with scooters parked handlebar to handlebar. The walkways are often a foot or more above the street, and between shops the sidewalk can make a sudden drop of a step or two. Looking down from the rooftop of Ming’s house across the Hsin Tien River from Taipei I notice the sidewalk has a two-foot-high drop-off at the corner.              

I’m not a nervous person, but I began noticing things. The balusters on Ming’s staircase are wide enough apart that a curious child could crawl through. And, at six feet tall, I had to duck my head going down staircases.               

There’s no smothering life preserver over every aspect of living in Taipei. Quite the opposite. I’m expected to be twice shy when I’m once burned. This is why the people of Taipei are very, very alert.              

It's not that no one recognizes dangerous situations. For example, friends refuse those single-use chopsticks from China now because there’s a bleaching agent in them that poses a hazard. An issue of the China Post reported legislative action to prohibit shoddy and dangerous PRC imports that are “dumped” in night markets like Shihlin Yesheh. And, the law requires seat belts when sitting in the front seat of a car — even in a taxi with the driver watching DVDs.              

I don't want to break my neck on a sidewalk in Taipei, and nothing could be more ignominious than being run over by a cabbie watching a skin movie. But daily life here has impact, noise, and elements of confusion, conflict and chaos.              

I can almost see the dice roll when I step out the front door. Taipei is a pinball machine with the pedestrian in play.               

Over the chaos stands Taipei 101, currently the world’s second tallest building, looking like a serene scepter from a Buddhist temple and just as other-worldly.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Take Me Back to the Ball Game

Early baseball game played at Elysian Fields,
Hoboken (Currier & Ives lithograph)
Ready for an argument?  Tell your buddies that Abner Doubleday did not invent the game of baseball in Cooperstown in 1839.  The first official game, you say, was played by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846.  The New York Base Ball Club defeated the Knickerbockers 23-1.  That’s how the City of Hoboken reports the first officially recorded match played under Alexander Joy Cartright’s rules, and he was an umpire. 

Well, no.  A story in the New York Morning News reported on a game on Oct. 21, 1845, between the New York Ball Club and a Brooklyn team.  New York won 24-4.  So there!  

But, wait a minute, the same news story refers to earlier games played there.  It stated, “A friendly match of the time-honored game of Base was played yesterday at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken.”  There was a rematch on Oct. 24 at the Star Club on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn.  (New York won that game too, 37-19.)  If you go looking for the Elysian Fields, the area is now occupied by a Maxwell House Coffee plant. 

What the heck?  The game probably evolved from a number of enthusiastic players and fans in the mid-1840s.  According to Dr. David Q. Voight in a three-volume history of baseball, the game probably came from the 18th century English game of rounders.  Rounders was also played by soldiers at Valley Forge when they weren’t fighting the Redcoats.   

So let’s establish our history by the rules of the game.  A New York Times story in 1990 reported, “Box scores for the two October 1845 games, played with eight men a team, follow the categories of cricket, reporting only the number of runs and ‘hands out,’ or number of times a hitter made an out.”  Cricket lost its popularity only after the Civil War. 

There’s been little serious historical research until recent decades.  So there’s still room enough for lots of argument. 

As for General Abner Doubleday in 1839, well, he was a cadet at West Point  when he was supposed to have laid out the first baseball diamond.  And he never took credit for anything having to do with baseball.  This poses a problem for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  Historian and author John Bowman said, “They want to play it both ways.  They want to be known as serious historians of the game, but they can’t undermine their tourist business.”   

And Cooperstown has copyrighted the phrase, “Birthplace of Baseball.”  So there!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

That Moving Experience

Judy and I had gone through the ritual of seeing our daughter and son-in-law begin their life together.  There had been the wedding shower followed by the ceremony on Cape Cod, some financial help in their buying a condo, and the baby shower — all proceeding in natural order.  We eagerly awaited the birth of the baby and were at the parents’ bedside when Zeke Addison Kramer was born in Cambridge in early January of 2007.   

Judy asked suddenly on an unnaturally warm winter day, “What do you think of our spending a year in Cambridge, helping them care for the baby so Lisa can go back to work?”  Zeke was then a week old. 

“Out of the question,” I said.  “No way will I babysit for a year.  We’re 67 years old.”  Massachusetts was a two-and-a-half hour drive from our center hall four-bedroom colonial in Connecticut.  “We’ll visit Cambridge.  Regularly.”   

When I told a friend I might leave Connecticut to babysit a grandson, she shouted, “You’re out of your effing mind!” 

Judy rolled out the arguments in the coming days as my heart sank: “This 2,500-square-foot house is too big for empty-nesters,” and Bethel taxes are outrageously high, child-care is unaffordable, one doesn’t put a new-born in the care of a commercial institution, and Lisa’s career will otherwise be jeopardized.  

I’m sensitive to the plight of American Career Moms.  I’ve written sympathetically about women in their mid to late thirties, filled with wisdom and maturity and character to make intelligent choices, who have to halt their career to raise a child.  I knew that when these women are in their forties they can try to regain the momentum of their careers, but will they still be interested in what they were trained for two decades earlier, and will their career fields have left them behind?  So they find a job, work for fifteen more years or so, then spend the final twenty years in retirement before dying.  This may be overly dramatic (hey, I’m a writer!), but it was a solid (to my wife) reason to help out at this stage of the game. 

I made a mental list of the pros and cons of moving.  On the credit side was the altruistic rationale, plus a large amount of money from selling a priced-up house.  In the debit column were the loss of friends, a writing group that was like a second family, a bucolic yard surrounded by woods where I’d stroll with a beer at sunset, a cat that would have to be re-adopted by her original mistress, a home that was also two and a half hours from our son’s family in New Jersey.  All of my reasons were daunting — and irrelevant. 

Three months later, we moved into a 20th floor apartment across from the town reservoir and park, trading space and environment for a two-bedroom rental.  It was a step back forty years to our first apartments in New York City, except we were substituting a concierge for cockroaches. 

Cambridge’s reverse 911 calls began reminding us to move any cars for the street cleaners or be towed.  The cracked pavement in front of century-old “triple-decker” houses required Judy, me and Zeke to traipse single file in our little convoy of baby carriage and market basket.  We faced the bureaucracy of getting new licenses and plates and auto inspections from angry clerks.  Voting privileges were granted, but did I care? 

And then, wondrously, we began feeling like new parents.  Zeke was the charming baby who came to us every morning.  I was enchanted that he liked my grapefruit (and, with his perfect eyesight, the olives in my martini at night).  It was a joy putting him in his first swing at the park, buying baby clothes on Arsenal St., strolling with him to the Bryn Mawr used book store, story time at the library, and lunching at Whole Foods.   

What I discovered was everything I'd missed when our own children were growing up and I was commuting two hours in and out of Manhattan for 25 years.  Would I have traded it for being a stay-at-home dad?  Perhaps not, but in Cambridge I didn’t feel like a visitor to my own home town.  And being a new parent was an adventure.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Warnings I Never Heeded

Nowadays, adults call old lies “folklore” or “advice worth remembering,” as though a superstition perpetuated for two or more generations becomes a truth.  It’s the age-old argument about folklore beating up on scientific truth.

I remember as a teenager asking my mother why she never served pork at suppertime.  “Because it’s hard to digest when you’re sleeping at night.”  Of course!  (Figurative slap on the forehead.)  Pork is different than other meat because, well, there’s a religious angle and because someone called it the “other” white meat.

Fish, on the other hand, is “brain food” that makes you smarter, and carrots will improve your eyesight.  Calves liver is needed once a month for “iron,” and here Mom insisted, “I don’t like liver either, but it’s good for you.” 

Dinner was a favorite place for teaching.  “Grapes are nourishing,” my mother would say, “but spit out the seeds or they’ll get stuck in your appendix.”  We heard the same warnings about hidden bones in fish that would choke us to death if we weren’t careful.  It’s no wonder that carbohydrates were once my cuisine of choice. 

How many years does it take it take to erase the baseless fears that have been taught?  Every day, I’d hear my mother warn my older brother not to take basketball playing too seriously because it could lead to a dangerously enlarged heart.  Or, a sore throat?  “Not a problem, son.  We’ll rub Flammacine (a defunct salve like Vicks Vaporub) on your neck and wrap it in flannel.” 

Everyone has at some time been ordered to stop sucking his thumb.  “You’ll get buck teeth.”  And never, ever cross your eyes, even in fun.  “They may get stuck that way forever.” 

And while shopping for clothes I heard, “No sneakers except for play.  They’ll make your arches fall and you’ll get flat feet.  That’s why Buster Browns are the best.” 

In the playground, the catechism was, “Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back.”  But there were also revisionists:  “Step on a crack and you’ll break Hitler’s back!” 

My grandmother provided more mystical visions, if not warnings.  Dropping a fork on the floor meant company — a female — was coming to visit.  (A dropped knife was a male, and a spoon…well, it goes on.)  And there were the usual prohibitions against walking under a ladder (common sense) and warnings against breaking a mirror (that’s gotta go back centuries!). 

Even as I headed out to college, I was warned, “Always separate your whites from colors when you do a wash.  (Oh, my God!  Mom was right.)

I finally gained enough momentum to spin away from home and into the Army.  While I was soldiering in Korea, a girlfriend there insisted my headache would go away if I tied a string around my finger.  (Didn’t work for hangovers.)  And it was terribly bad luck to whistle at night.  (She was right.  The slicky boys whistled to each other and broke into our thatch-roofed hut, stealing my wallet and uniform.

Chopsticks had all the Asian symbolism of Western knives and forks.  Girls in Taiwan snickered when they saw me holding chopsticks waaay up at the end.  “You’re going to marry a girl from far, far away,” they chirped.  But they were right.  My wife was Taiwanese. 

I was reminded by my friend Jamie Ford, author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, “It’s bad luck to play with your chopsticks.”  Yes!  My wife always reprimanded our kids for playing with them, saying with horror, “Never stick them upright in your rice bowl.  That’s how you make an offering for the dead.”  (A marginal thought, on a trip to Hong Kong we watched a young English couple waving their chopsticks like children.  The fellow nearly put out his new wife’s eye.)

So, I’m confused.  Where’s the truth?  CNN News reported breathlessly this week that drinking three cups of coffee a day may prevent Alzheimer’s Disease.  And, salt doesn’t lead to hypertension; salt is a necessity.

I might suggest, however, that New York City’s traffic department check those kids jaywalking across six lanes of traffic.  The kids tell each other, “Cars won’t hit you if you don’t look at them.”