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.

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Best State in America

 I was probably in the fourth grade when our wacky teacher (the one who regaled us with stories of his epic drinking in the Navy) asked the class to write a short piece about “The Best State in America.”  Everybody but one chose Oregon; one student wrote about California.  I was ostracized for a week.

Thing was, our family traveled every summer in the 1940s, driving throughout the Northwest or cross country in our ’39 Buick (later a '48 Cadillac).  None of the my classmates had ever been farther than Idaho or Washington. 

We eagerly anticipated summer vacation as the family plotted a route to Glacier National Park (where we had a snowball fight on the Fourth of July), or the Grand Canyon (where my kid brother and I skipped along the wall a mile above the canyon floor).  And because Dad was in love with the American Way of Life we hit every state capitol on the way.

 We didn’t have money for motels, but camping in parks was virtually free.  My folks had invested in Army surplus wooden cots from World War II (cost: one dollar each), down-filled mummy sleeping bags (at 75 cents each) and a tarpaulin that once covered a deuce-and-a-half truck.  We’d tie a clothesline between two trees, my big brother would throw the tarp over the top and peg it down with more rope.  There was no privacy, but we’d look the other way when Mom and Grandma would change into pajamas.

This was life at its best.  In Yellowstone, we scrambled into Dad’s Buick when a mama bear and two cubs tore into a neighboring campsite and emptied a carelessly-left ice chest of its meat and fruit.  In another park, we heard a scream at midnight when Mom and Grandma found a porcupine occupying the outhouse they wanted to use.  At an empty ranger’s cabin in Colorado, someone had left a magnificent collection of soda bottle caps that I desperately wanted to have but dared not steal.  The downside to that overnight occupation was the porcupine chewing at the cabin logs, keeping us awake all night long.

These real-life adventures meshed perfectly with the Holling Clancy Holling books we read: Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree in the Trail and Minn of the Mississippi.  Holling was a Michigan boy who, in the ‘20s, became a writer, artist and naturalist.  He canoed and camped, found edible foods in the wild and devised a breathing tube so he could lie under the Mississippi River to record turtle activities.    Sadly, today the glaciers are melting, there are traffic jams at the Grand Canyon, and no one seems to camp without microwave ovens and portable TVs.  The bears in Yellowstone have even been herded off for fear the tourists will get mauled.

Memories of this earlier time prompted me to create a Web site ( to memorialize Holling and his wife Lucille.  I love sharing the anecdotes about them paying for their vacations in Texas by painting murals in a resort, about showing a Chamber of Commerce group how to make a fire using two dry sticks, and even teaching some Native Americans skills they’d forgotten.  I’m especially gratified when strangers e-mail me saying they believe they found a small picture Holling painted or the Army jacket he once wore or hand-forged knives given to Holling.  My mentor is a woman in her 70s in Leslie, Michigan, who curates a museum devoted to Holling, his writing and his art.  And the Holling artifacts that my Web site uncovers often end up in that museum. 

 Thinking back to my fourth grade assignment now, I’d have to say there are 50 best states.


Friday, May 15, 2020

Vacationing with the Pilgrim

I always had a creepy feeling about being a tourist—buying a vacation, standing like a stranger in a new city, acting gawky and “untanned.”  Perhaps it’s because I always scorned the clots of people standing at Fifth Ave. and 50th Street, holding maps and looking up at New York’s Rockefeller Center as though God were going to direct them like a Gray Lines tour guide.

Rushing uptown or down on some mission of capital intensity, I’d have to stop and go around them.  I was in coat and tie while they had blousy sports shirts and khaki shorts. 

I also remembered, self-consciously, walking through Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard when I was a college kid.  Some obvious vacationers looked at me with the same scorn and muttered, “Tourist!”  For God’s sake, I waited tables there the entire summer!

For these reasons, I prepped that year before landing at the Honolulu Airport.  I signed up for e-mail offers, I browsed the Web sites, I was inundated with brochures.  But then, one particular incident made this first-time visit to Oahu memorable.

My mother had spent three decades researching a history of the Oregon Territory, tracking the missionaries who came West to save the “benighted heathen.”  One pilgrim and his wife stood out in my memory as I worked recently to have her manuscript published.

I remembered that George Henry Atkinson passed around Cape Horn in 1847 and up through the Sandwich Islands – a.k.a Hawaii – on his way to Oregon’s Tualatin Valley.  Atkinson was a representative of the Congregational Home Missionary Society.  But he and his wife, Nancy Bates, missed the boat—literally—to Oregon.  My presumption was that he spent those three months waiting for passage at the Mission Houses in Honolulu.

I love a mystery – a clever cover for my discomfort at being a tourist – so I invited my wife to come with me to visit the Mission Houses Museum across the street from Honolulu’s Princess Iolani Palace (which, incidentally, is the only palace in United States).  What connection could I uncover by visiting the place where Atkinson presumably twiddled his thumbs for three months until the next ship came by?

The cluster of houses and church were cool and quiet in the morning hours.  Walking through the rooms brought me back to Connecticut and Vermont homes, where Atkinson and the other Congregationalists had hailed from.
After the tour, I buttonholed the guide and put my question to her: Did she think there were any records of the Atkinsons’ visit?  

Fifteen minutes later, I was introduced to Judith Kearney, librarian at the MHML.  After telling her my story of this wanderer who ended up a trustee of Pacific University, successor to the Indian orphans’ school, we went through her catalogue of correspondence.

She immediately confirmed that my presumption was true.  Atkinson may not have left any significant impact during his short, unplanned “vacation,” but she reported their archives contained three letters written back from “Portland” to Honolulu circa 1859.

Case closed!  My wife and I then had a wonderful time wandering the city where an international festival and parade was taking place, circumnavigating the island and learning sadly that 2007 was the last year pineapples would be grown commercially, sharing sadness at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, drinking fruity concoctions at the Sheraton Moana on Waikiki and watching the sun set.  What a wonderful place, and our friends insist it’s nothing compared to Maui, Kauai and the other islands

Final closure to the detective story, however, came a week later.  In Taiwan, our next stop, I borrowed a friend’s PC and sent an e-mail to Pacific University’s archivist.  “Alex,” I wrote, “the Mission Houses Museum and Library has letters that were written 150 years ago from your very own George Atkinson.  Get in touch with Judith Kearney there.”

Perhaps I don’t hate being a tourist as much as I let on, but the adventures are so much richer when you have an ulterior purpose for vacationing.  There simply must be some quest satisfied or insight gained in order for a vacation grow beyond the level of a Kodak moment.

Before leaving this episode, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass on this advice to future tourists: Back then, cigarettes were $5.50 a pack at the ubiquitous ABC convenience stores, but only $2.50 at the Duty Free Shop.  Conversely, the wise vacationer will note that Duty Free sells only high-priced booze and the good prices are on Kalakaua Street! 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Day the World Ended

Forest Grove, Oregon, back in the day when everything was larger.

My world had no endings when I was 13 in that Oregon farming and logging town.  Only beginnings.  Fields and groves were endlessly green, streams flowed forever and asphalt roads led to new sights.  Life was a page of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. 

Mornings began at 6:00 when I pedaled my Schwinn down to the Shell station for my pile of newspapers.  But first, I dropped quarters in the machines to extract a Milky Way and a Coke.  Now fortified, I gave each copy of the Portland Oregonian two practiced folds and dropped it in the canvas bag draped over the handlebars.  For the next hour I’d pedal miles to stuff them in paper boxes for my 50 customers.  I was getting rich, at $20 a month, in spite of having to hector customers who wouldn’t answer their doors when I went to collect.

Life was good, and eighth grade was a cinch with a really funny teacher who regaled us about his drinking episodes in the Navy and a strange food called pizza.

But one April morning a headline caught my eye as I folded papers.  My Dad’s name leaped from the Oregonian's front page.  It was a story about Pacific University that I couldn’t understand, a complicated story about the faculty in rebellion.  Accusations.  Hatred exposed.

Something had happened.  The faculty had given my Dad, the college president, a vote of no confidence.  He explained it to my two brothers and me over dinner as we sat in dumb silence.  Mom was trying to hold back her tears. “I’m resigning,” he told us.  “We’ll have to think about moving.

Moving?  But I was at the point of telling Judy Bristow I loved her.  Soon, I’d find the courage to kiss my 11-year-old girlfriend.  Moving meant I’d never again see my pal, Frank Dunham, who double-dated at the movies with his girlfriend and had actually kissed (he said).

Our house was emptied that summer as boxes and furniture went into the Allied Moving Van.  Accumulations of papers and magazines were thrown from the attic window to the driveway.  Dad’s library and Mom’s manuscript of Oregon history were carefully boxed.  But my Red Ryder BB gun, Schwinn Black Phantom and Erector Set disappeared. 

Too soon our family and the cat were piled into our used ’48 Cadillac sedan and we headed south.  Too soon to properly say goodbye to Judy and Frank or copy their addresses with promises to write.
*  *  *
Finding myself in South Pasadena was a shock.  I was a year behind academically.  There were curious classmates — Mexican-Americans — who wore pegged pants and called themselves Pachucos.  And the girls in our church youth group were all blonde and unapproachably sophisticated.

My two new friends were geeks who read L. Ron Hubbard and J.R.R. Tolkien and wore clothes from J.C. Penney.  My only achievement was writing my autobiography by hand, pasting in Kodaks, then binding the single copy.  I got an A from my 9th grade teacher.

My brothers and I, Mom and the cat, crowded into our rented bungalow and took each day as it came.  For some aberrant reason, I ate only lunchtime sandwiches of Wonderbread and Kraft Sandwich Spread.  But I didn’t die.  Dad soon found work as a fund-raiser with the Volunteers of America before landing a position with the headquarters of the Congregational Church in New York City.

I didn’t write except for that handwritten autobiography.  I read.  Science fiction, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the Hardy Boys and other mysteries.  But two things became clear.  One, I was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Like Valentine Michael Smith, newly sent to Earth after being raised on  Mars.  Among different people for the first time, I struggled to understand the social practices and prejudices of human nature that often still seem alien.

Second, an internal universe of words appeared.  Writing, absorbing new vocabulary and explaining things articulately were easy.  Numbers came harder.  This default writing ability made me an English-Journalism major at Grinnell College in Iowa.  A career epiphany occurred the summer of my junior year.  I was invited to be a staff reporter for a Chicago suburban weekly.  I covered fires, the police blotter, sports, rewrites, even weddings, taking my own photos with a Speed Graphic.  At last, it seemed there was an escape into the real world.
*  *  *
My first job after graduation was writing copy for new Mobil Travel Guides.  Sure, it was a humdrum task — until I got an unsolicited letter from a woman who said she was home-bound.  She read the Guides to escape into a world that was out of her reach.  At last I had an audience, and every piece I wrote was directed to my secret spectator. 

Then Uncle Sam called. Three years of serving as an Army Security Agency analyst took me to Korea and Taiwan.  Taiwan brought me a wife and some great source material I filed away for 30 years.

For the next three decades I soldiered on in corporate communications, creating, writing and editing employee publications; writing press releases; managing exhibits; crafting senior management’s speeches.  I embraced it all.  Each day at The Dun & Bradstreet Corp. was different.  No one knew my job description, which allowed me to define my position and interact with everyone from the CEO to the clerk or bench worker.  They were my audience that I worked to reach on some level of understanding. 

Upon early retirement I ruminated on why I was drawn to write two anthologies, short stories and articles.  It was simple:  Somewhere there was a person who would read my words and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.  I’ve felt the same way but wasn’t able to put it into words.”  I could help that person leave his or her couch or bed and enter another world. 

In the process, I would discover meaning in the world that had turned me upside down.  That’s why I write.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Who Took the Man Out of the Mannequin?

The only thing left in his bureau was bluejeans, cuffs falling into a tangle of loose threads, patches on both knees – one red and the other pink – from mill ends my wife Judy used to make a quilt.  Finished off with yellow work boots, it was a utilitarian outfit for a six-year-old to go conquer the world.  His school wasn’t like my schools were.
Some five decades ago, my six-year-old son Billy howled that his pants scratched.  It was 8:24 a.m. and we had to be out of our apartment on the Lower East Side and on New York’s Avenue B bus in ten minutes.  No point in arguing.  Had to change the pants and get to school on time.  His Montessori school was crazier about punctuality than scholarship.    

Back in rural Oregon, my mother forbade me to wear bluejeans to school.  No, they weren’t “denims” or “dungarees.”  They were bluejeans.  One word, unhyphenated.  And the middle class ethic dictated against wearing “play clothes” to school.  Mom insisted, “If we don’t set an example for the rest of the town, who will?”
At 8:24 that morning I was wearing a button down Oxford-cloth shirt, a rep tie and a blue wool suit.  My pants scratched too. 
“Wear the jeans,” I told Billy.  That made him happy.  And I envied him.
And I envied the people who passed by my Midtown office on Third Avenue.  Back then, their Levi jackets were an artist’s canvas of embroidery, probably sewn lovingly by barefoot hipsters on Bleecker Street.  Their clothes didn’t scratch.
The U.S. Army had taught me, painfully, that you salute the uniform, not the officer wearing it.  The nagging question that stayed with me during those years was: Were they defensive about producing better uniforms than officers?  At the Bell System’s Western Electric Co., people wore a company uniform, just as I’d worn a uniform at school.  One respected the uniform, not the student.  Not the employee.  Not the officer.  Not the person concealed in those clothes.
I went home that night of the scratchy pants incident, and I hung up my Macy’s suit on a varnished wooden hanger.  Then I pulled on my bluejeans and a blue T-shirt.  I stuck my feet into a pair of engineer boots that had cost me a buck in the summer of 1960 – hand-me-downs from a fellow landscaper.  I was eminently comfortable.
Somewhere in Westchester County at that very moment there was a business acquaintance who’d also changed.  He was the treasurer of a large, century-old corporation.  When he came home, he changed out of his five hundred dollar suit and into cowboy clothes.  A real costume, not just bluejeans.  Then, I suppose he sat down to read his mail.
Perhaps his pants also scratched at work.
I mentioned this to my wife Judy, and she said we were both looking for lost innocence.  Maybe, but I’d say the cowboy executive had psychological issues I don’t share.  At least people can’t say they don’t recognize him when he’s in the front yard looking like Roy Rogers. 
When I’m in jeans the jeans are me, a blueprint of my character, a silhouette portrait of all my faults and perfections.  No pretense.  I wear them and the psyche doesn’t itch.

You Speak My Language?

A little language can get you to strange places.  I know, because using language to get things done worked better for me than hitting a baseball or finding girls who worshipped me.  Words came easy in school, and being curious (and lazy) I signed up for foreign languages when I was a kid.

It started with Spanish in the 9th grade in Southern California.  It seemed easiest and a large percentage of the kids were Latino — except they called themselves Pachucos, wore pegged pants, and made believe they were Mexican hoodlums.  Spanish class was a piece of cake with an easy A on my report card. 

But our family moved to Jersey the next year and I signed up for a second, then a third year of Spanish.  Playing to the grade point I also enrolled in a first and then a second year of French.  The words were all pretty similar; only the accent was different.

I managed to graduate and my dad introduced me to a summer job at a church-related work camp in Yuquiyu, Puerto Rico.  I bought my own machete for about two dollars and was ready to turn second-growth jungle into future farm land.  It was great meeting Puertoriqueños — and Yankees — my age.  But when I’d ask a simple question, like “How far is the beach from here?” they were mystified.  And I realized my Castilian pronunciation (with Jersey accent) was totally alien in Puerto Rico.

I let the languages go in college, except for a disastrous year wrapping my tongue around German.  I had no genetic advantage being half German.  Confronted four years later with military conscription, I beat the system by enlisting; I traded an extra  year of service to avoid going to Vietnam.  Along the way, I was given a language test.  That turned out to be nothing more than Esperanto, an artificial language created as an international medium of communication based on European languages.  Not a problem, except that period had a high cutoff score so the Army sent me in a different direction.

Well, I thought, getting off the plane in Korea, maybe I could learn something.  I did.  The little kids shouted at our platoon, “[expletive] you, G.I.”  Meeting local ladies in a bar, “I’d ask, would you like to see a movie?”  A sweet lady named Pyongtaek Peggy, would answer, “Machts nichts, GI.”  Machts nichts?  “What are you saying?”  “Is your language, GI.  Not mine.” 

The military had created one world that spoke a hodgepodge of Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese. English and German.  After a year, I moved on to Taiwan, the Republic of China, because I couldn’t survive in America on my corporal’s pay.  I loved Taiwan and ended up marrying a woman who was raised speaking the Hakka dialect, grew up speaking Taiwanese, remembered a bit of Japanese from the wartime occupation, learned to speak Mandarin after 1949,  and finally English. 

On our first trip to Quebec, Canada, years later, she whispered, “How do you say ‘How are you?’ in French?”  For the rest of our vacation, she asked everyone she met, “Comment-allez vous?”  The Canadians loved her, and so did I.

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.