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.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Where Has the Music Gone?

I was watching Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfus in the 1973 film, American Graffiti the other night.  I  noticed how music set the theme of the high schoolers’ last night together.  There was the coffee shop jukebox, the car radios and the 45 rpm records playing such hits as “At the Hop.”  Where are they now?  Not the students, but the records and jukeboxes?

Today’s kids have their phones in hand and plugs in their ears to stay connected. 

I grew up listening to music on 45 rpm discs, snorting at my folks’ old RCA 78 rpm record player in a giant piece of furniture.  But then we were all saved by the cassette tape back in the ‘60s.  Oh, there was the eight-track tape cartridge that disappeared rather quickly.  Singers who were recorded only on eight-track were soon orphaned, never to be heard from again.

This is the speed of technology. 

In 1965, I was working at Western Electric up in the Kearny, NJ, Meadows.  AT&T introduced the Touch Tone while I was there, and asked visitors how much quicker they could use the new technology.  Well, for me, I found I was making three wrong numbers in the time it used to take to make one.  (Later I wondered why we continue to say we’re “dialing” a phone number?)

My trouble is that I like old stuff and feel a kind of loss when those objects disappear,  My grandmother’s mechanical carpet sweeper with a wooden body was an architectural beauty.  My Dad’s brace and bits are still terrific for drilling boards.  And Mom’s cast iron frying pans are good for another century.

I know this dates me, but I started working as a cub newspaper reporter using a Royal manual typewriter and a Speed Graphic camera that could have been the property of Superman’s Clark Kent.

It’s difficult playing catch-up when the world is accelerating.  I tried sharing my CDs with my daughter, knowing she liked certain artists.  But she said, “No more CD player at home.  No phonograph either.  We stream everything from our phones.”

Okay.  I understand, and I can get with the program.  All I have to do is get one of the kids to bail me out when the computer acts crazy and files disappear.  Then I go back to my old-timey music and typewriter.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Talking the Tawk

I knew I was no longer home when I moved to New Jersey and asked a clerk to give me a sack for my purchase.  “Sack?”she almost shouted.  “D’ja mean bag?  Wherja come from?”

Jersey has an identity problem, lying between Phil’delphia and N’yawk, both in its distinctive accent and the words we choose.  It starts with the little things, like telling someone “I’m going down the shore.”  Never the beach.  Or looking curiously at the bennies (from Brooklyn, Elizabeth, Newark and New York).  Or believing jug handles are part of the natural order of road intersections.

There’s a bit of both Philly and the City in the way we talk.  Oops, I meant to say tawk when you ask for a cuppa cawfee at a diner.  Linguist Ann Şen (pronounced Shen) at the University of Rochester suggests the “aw” sound  for “o” is a carryover from the Revolutionary War when Tories wanted to sounded more Brit.  So we have the towns of Fai-uh Lawn and Fawt Lee on Route Faw.

You can see distinctions between north and south Jersey accents divided somewhere along the line that separates the 201/908 and 609  area codes.  We’re in 732 country.  But you won’t hear anyone call the state Joisey.  That’s an invention, says Rutgers linguist Fay Yeager.  Our state may be a punch line in the Midwest, but we’d drop the r and say Juh-sey.  If someone makes that joke, you tell him or her, “Pah-don me, but you ahn’t pr’nouncin’ it right.”  She says our talk is distinctive because we drop the th diphthong and the r sound.  Curiously, we began dropping the r’s back in the 1920 to sound more upper class, like the British — saying finga instead of finger.

There also were waves of immigrants who brought their own pronunciations.  Go to a market and ask for half a pound of capicola and the deli clerk will repeat gabacoal.  Your mozzarella becomes mutzadell, ricotta ree-goat, prosciutto pruh-zoot.  It’s a carry-over of southern Italian reinforced by TV episodes of the Sopranos and Jersey Shore.  My German-American Dad once asked a cop for directions to the “Gettals Bridge.”  The officer gaped and said, “You mean Gothals.”

The th sound is unusual in many languages, so it disappears or becomes a d sound, as in “We been tru dis tree times already.”  Fuhgeddaboudit!  The German-Pennsylvania Dutch influence in northwest Jersey does use the th sound as it was intended.

Linguists are even trying to pinpoint county word choices, noting that Monmouth and northern Ocean say downspout (the pipe carrying “war-der”— water— off the roof), sprinkles instead of jimmies, and sub instead of hoagie or hero.  You might also identify a firefly and not a lightning bug if you’re in south Jersey.  In Atlantic County, you won’t hear about the bennies as much as you will the shubies — those tourists coming in on the A.C. Expressway with picnics in a “shoe box.”

TV and our mobile population are wiping out these small, but beautiful, differences in accent and language.  Marketers have us calling the Era laundry detergent Air-a and not Eer-a, while the McDonalds folks in their Illinois headquarters advertise breakfast hotcakes — not pancakes. 

Pretty soon, tawking Joisey will be a thing of the past.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Forest Grove, Oregon: My Hometown c. early 1950s
Nicholas Kristof wrote a horrifying op-ed piece in The New York Times last August, describing teenage racial bullying.  A high school student, he writes, tells a Mexican-American girl, “We’re going to deport your ass [when Trump is elected].”  And they chant “Build a wall!”  The divisiveness is only part of my horror.  Worse, Kristof was writing about the small Oregon town where I grew up.

His descriptions challenged my memories because I was a product of Forest Grove Oregon’s Central elementary school and Harvey Clark middle school.  (Clark was founder of the town’s Pacific University and, ironically, created the first school there in the 1840s to educate Native Americans, mixed-race children and orphans.)

In the 1940s and ‘50s I saw no prejudice.  But then, Forest Grove had no blacks, no Latinos, no more Indians and — possibly—just a handful of Jews or Asians.  It was accepted knowledge that these people were not allowed to spend the night in town.  Mexican migrants could work the fields, but no one knew where they stayed.  I saw the first and only blacks when we drove into Portland 20 miles away.  Pacific had a number of Hawaiian and Japanese students, but they weren’t “townies” so they didn’t count.

 While Mom was descended from over 200 years of New Englanders, Dad was German-American, which raised a tiny bit of local skepticism during World War II.  I left this white utopia when my family moved in 1954 to the Los Angeles area, followed by another move to New Jersey “back East.”  We had left the provincialism of that farm and logging town.  I began to see the world in all its beauty and diversity.  I grew up and married a Taiwanese woman.  My younger brother married a non-observant Jew.  A cousin married a black, but she was a folk singer who ran away to Greenwich Village.  And my grandson has just married a Mexican national who is a dentist. 

Will Forest Grove ever be exposed to people who are “different”?  Oregon has its legacy of the black exclusion law enacted in 1844 that ordered whipping of blacks — 39 lashes once every six months — until they left the territory.  Today, African-Americans make up only 2 percent of Oregon’s population, Latinos 12 percent and Asians 4 percent. 

Perhaps in the more progressive parts of our country, we’ve answered the question, “Can’t we all learn to get along?”

Monday, February 5, 2018

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

I went into a RiteAid drugstore recently 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?” she demanded. 

“1939.” Satisfied, she took my money. 

Back story:  I needed to replace the Bic insert in my favorite lighter, a 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 summer 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, and 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 with cigarette lighters and that RiteAid was shielding the health of geezers.  Still, I wonder what the immigration requirements are for moving to California.  This is becoming a very scary place to live.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Immortality, Version 2.0

Grandma Fisk, lecturer and cartoonist.

My family treated our ancestors the way you’d set extra places at table.  Mom and grandma passed along centuries-old advice and anecdotes like they were something seen on the Six O’clock News.  (“Yes,” one would exclaim, “William set a trap to catch the thief stealing his firewood.  He told the children he’d drilled the wood and put gunpowder inside.  Of course, children can’t keep a secret….”  Or, “The worst thing Great-Great Grandpa Pierce’s second wife would say is, ‘Well, I pity him.’”)

Ancestors hovered in our house like so many ghosts on vacation.  Because my family were New England hoarders I’ve had a lot of their trunks to unpack, boxes to sort and albums to review.  It’s not unusual now to straighten up a room and stop to examine Great Grandpa Ballou’s letters from his Civil War regiment, read postcards from Grandma Fisk postmarked from towns across America where she lectured, or trip over the candlesticks Great-Great-Grandpa Pierce played with as a kid in 1816.             

My limited religious ruminations stop at the thought that we’re immortal until our last acquaintance passes on.  Given this dollar-store theology, I opt for saying you’re “alive” until you’re no longer remembered by anyone.  Let me suggest the Internet is a gateway to immortality.             

Grandma Fisk, for example, lectured on the Chautauqua Circuit before talking movies came along, traveling the country as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”  By Googling her name, I discovered the University of Iowa had a digital collection of Chautauqua information.  I called the librarian there, who exclaimed, “We have the programs and schedules, but we had no idea of the actual content of their talks!”  I was happy to donate her papers, photos, notes and stories, which are now online.  I like to think she’s been given a longer lease on life as students use her materials to research women’s liberation.           

A poignant search for unfading, eternal life compels me to store school photos, snapshots and Daguerreotypes.  Those “Kodak moments” are a way to store time in an album.  The Internet now gives them greater immortality.           

We can waltz through a live-for-the-moment future till the devil demands his due.  Then, the materials from the past become precious commodities.  That’s good news.  Our images and words can be archived, repeated and shared.  Their spirits can be invited to the dinner table.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Worst and Best Jobs in My Life

Every kid should work, even if he and she is studying like mad for an education. 

Or it may just be that I worked every year I was a small liberal arts college in Iowa.  I lived for my  $17 Grinnell paycheck from working 20 hours a week at $.85 an hour.  In fact, I was proud that I had the highest paying job on campus, 20 cents more than waiters got at the dining hall.  I washed pots and pans for a contracted food management service in the 1960s.  This paid for my daily quota of coffees at the student union and my 3.2 percent beers at the Rexall bar on the highway that ran through town.  (Iowa law prohibited bars serving anything stronger than 3.2 percent beer.  In fact, the nearest state liquor store was in Newton, 20 miles away.)   

When there was an opening for another pot walloper, I invited my roomie, a nice guy who had run away from Geneva, Switzerland, to join me.  Fifty years later, after his retirement as a professor of French at SUNY-Albany, he said, “Walt, that was the worst job I have ever had!”  The work wasn’t that bad, except when the cook made scalloped potatoes.  Then I needed a putty knife to clean pans of baked-on food.  If they’d given me anything sharper, we’d have had a mortally wounded cook.   

Kitchen and dining room work might be infectious.  The summer I was 18, a college chum from Massachusetts said, “You’ve got to see Martha’s Vineyard.  C’mon up and work there for the summer.”  It was the summer of Patti Page’s hit song, “Old Cape Cod.”  You remember:  If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air / Quaint little villages here and there / You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.” 

I was hooked.  The owner of a rambling old wreck called the Wesley House in Oak Bluffs hired me to wear a hot, ugly green uniform and serve three meals at day.  But when those days were over, oh boy!  All the summer workers were in their late teens.  Best of all, I had a fake ID that said I was 21.  I could buy beer for the beach parties.  I could dress sharp and hang out at neat clubs in Edgartown.  The beaches were free and the girls were fantastic. 

It was the best job I ever had.  There were only two downsides to my temporary career:  I came away that summer earning only $300.  And when I went to get a haircut, the barber would smell me and say, “You work in a restaurant, don’t you?”

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sing It Again for Me

My daughter called me up to ask me querulously, “What is the 'Frozen Logger'?  I was singing to Zeke (my grandson) last night and he said Grandpa always sings ‘The Frozen Logger.’”

First, I was overjoyed that this seven-year-old liked my singing enough to remember it.  Second, that he liked the song, since he rarely laughs at my jokes and this song is one extended bit of humor.  Zeke does his best to appear sophisticatedly unamused.  (He did laugh as a four-year-old after he saw the garbage truck, and I said “Tell them we don’t need any more garbage.”) 

“Well,” I told my daughter, “it goes like this. ‘As I sat down one evening / within a small café / a 40-year-old waitress / to me these words did say.’”

“That’s the song?”

“It gets better.  ‘I see that you are a logger / and not just a common bum / ‘cause nobody but a logger / stirs his coffee with his thumb.’”  I think I memorized this song because (a) the lyrics were funny and (b) I remember my Dad knew the song writer James Stevens up in Oregon or Washington.

I don’t know if I need to memorize more than one or two songs.  Just a couple seems to do just fine.  A few years ago I was at a wedding in Taiwan.  The reception was held along several blocks of a street covered with tents and with a stage for karaoke.  The emcee saw me as the only white guy meiguo ren at the affair and asked in Chinese if I’d like to sing a song.  I demurred, mostly because I’m not sure I remembered all the words to Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” the only other song I’ve kind of memorized.  “I’m back in the saddle again / out where a friend is a friend / where the longhorn cattle feed / on the lowly jimson weed / I’m back in the saddle again.”  

I think those are the words, but I’d better check because it’s important.

When I was six years old, I was seriously thinking of changing my name.  I asked my dad how you do this, and he said you go to a judge who will make the change legal.  “And by the way,” he asked. “What would you like your new name to be?”  

“Gene Autry,” I answered.  After all, a man should know more than one song when he has a name like Walter.