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, July 26, 2012

Searching for the Real McCoy

       Forest Grove in the 1950s

My passion for authenticity began in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Mom ordered me to run down to Cooper’s Grocery to buy the maple syrup she’d forgotten.  I had to put down my new Amazing Tales comic and turn off Bobby Benson’s Saturday morning program from the B-Bar-B Ranch. 

“And hurry!” she said.  “I’m ready to put the pancake batter in the griddle.” 
I trudged the long block down to 21st Street, another block past the Congregational Church, and a half block down Main Street to Cooper’s.  All blocks are long when your eight-year-old legs aren’t very big. 

Mr. Cooper was a daunting figure behind his brushy mustache and white apron.  Silently, he’d leave the counter and fetch the item you wanted.  I returned home with a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, thinking it was pretty clever to make a bottle in the shape of a woman wearing floor-length dress.  This was beauty combined with utilitarian value. 

Mom stared at me.  “Why, this isn’t Log Cabin!”   

“It’s the same thing,” I said defensively.  “Anyway, I like the bottle.” 

“It’s not one hundred percent maple syrup!” she explained, as though I had introduced heresy to our church service.  “It’s not the real McCoy.  Go back and tell Mr. Cooper you want the real thing.”

I plodded back.  Red-faced with embarrassment, I said, “Mom wants Log Cabin maple syrup.  The real McCoy.”  He nodded wordlessly and went down one of the dark aisles to fetch the syrup in the metal can shaped like a log cabin.  They were good cans, worth saving to build a town of homogeneous houses, a tabletop version of a pioneer town, but I already had several.  

The real thing was important.  Dad told cautionary tales of people in Germany so desperate they put chicory — whatever that was — and other foreign matter in their coffee.  He said, “During the war, the Germans were so poor they would eat grass.” 

Authenticity was paramount.  Usually.  Butter was always butter, for example, until Mom brought home a strange invention.  “It’s margarine,” she explained. 

“But it’s white,” I whined.

“It’s Parkay, and it’s white so people don’t think it’s real butter.  It’s the law that you can’t fool people into thinking something is the real McCoy.”

The plastic bag resembled cheese curd from the creamery in our town, but with the addition of a little orange dot of dye.  Invariably, I was ordered to massage the bag for half an hour until it all turned yellow.  We knew it wasn’t real, but it was novel and cheaper, and so a trade-off was made.

Choosing between the real and the novel was a dilemma as the 1950s appeared.  A Safeway supermarket opened two doors away from Cooper’s, and an entirely new item appeared: TV dinner:  A TV dinner meant, by definition, eating in front of a television. 

“We don’t have a TV,” Mom explained.  “They’re much too expensive, and there’s only one station.”

“C’mon, Ma, buy some TV dinners,” I urged, although the only TV we knew about flickered in the window at Montgomery Ward’s.  Several times she relented.  Somehow, the thin slices of turkey didn’t taste like Mom’s cooking, and the mashed potatoes had so few lumps we wondered what they were made of. 

The whole reality question came crashing back when my kids were growing up.  My wife cooks scratch, and we’ve always had the smallest bag of tins and bottles to recycle.  Meat, stir-fried vegetables, rice, salad — preparation takes a while, but the cooking goes together in a few minutes.  Then I’d watch my kids' friends at the table.

“What’s that?” one would ask my son, and nudge him in the ribs.

“Beans.”  Or spinach or broccoli or cabbage, usually with pieces of chicken, beef, or bacon.

“It doesn’t look like it.”  Then, they’d settle for white bread and margarine.  Reality had to come in brightly colored packages.

About that time, I was shocked to see Log Cabin had reduced the maple syrup content to 8 percent.  Coffee with chicory from New Orleans is now a delicacy.  Instant food became the norm for people who have a parking meter in their brain measuring time.

It’s tough finding the real McCoy in a world that’s accelerating. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Waiting for God to Be Your Tour Guide

The Rose and Thorn Journal was kind enough recently to publish “Test of English as a Foreign Language” (at  It was a piece I felt strongly about, and it took the better part of five years to bring it to a publishable state.

Rose and Thorn has also asked — kindly, of course — what on earth I was thinking of.  The germ of the story has gnawed at me for many years — since 1979 when I returned to Taiwan on a business trip.  I met up then with my wife’s girlfriend who had married an American, lived several years in the States, and came back when her husband was reassigned to Taiwan.  It was awkward when I saw her treated in Taipei’s marketplace as an American hwa-chiao (foreigner on a homeland visit), but as a bargirl when she tried calling her husband stationed at a military post.  

She was no longer Taiwanese and not yet American.  Of the many stories I know about bi-national people, this one stood out.  And deserved to be shared.

I also wondered if perhaps we’re all expatriates of one sort of another as we swim through any murky pool filled with strangers.  I’ve always had a creepy feeling about being a tourist — buying a vacation, looking confused in a new city, acting gawky and “foreign.”  Perhaps it’s because I used to scorn the clots of vacationers clustered in midtown Manhattan, holding maps and looking at the skyscrapers as though God would be their Gray Lines tour guide.  While I was in a suit and tie rushing across town on some mission of capital importance, I’d have to stumble and detour around these Ausländers in their blousy sports shirts and khaki shorts. 
So add to the expatriate syndrome in “Test of English” the despair of a dead child and a divorced husband and you have the making of universal tension.  Key to writing the story was the characters’ realizing how hard it is to be accepted.  Rightly or wrongly, Shirley felt Americans were “predisposed to believe that American men only married bargirls.”  Orville, too, had difficulty with his environment, saying, “It was all getting to me.  The telephones and car horns.  Fire sirens, even chatter at parties.  It was all like a toothache. It was getting on my nerves.”

How can feeling like a stranger be otherwise when store clerks answer an expat’s question by turning to her spouse, when locals are perplexed by an unfamiliar accent, or when an in-law ingratiatingly says all children or women in [insert country name] are beautiful or intrinsically smart or better at sports?  These are the preconceptions — if not prejudices — that all Asians are good at math (and, by extension, at gambling), that immigrants must all have come from a certain class or occupation, and that some people have in-born diet preferences.

Let me make a case that there’s a universal feeling of discomfort among expatriates, beginning with Moses coming back to Egypt announcing, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”  I’ll grant you, it’s easier to be an expatriate in the U.S. than in, say, an insular nation like Japan.  America is a nation of immigrants.  A Hungarian engineer once told me, “I worked in Germany for several years, but to them I was always a Hungarian.  In the U.S., I’m called a ‘new American.’”

“Test of English as a Foreign Language” tries to approach this situation of apartness.  Writers feel compelled to connect with people, to cross cultural bridges, and to obliterate barriers.  Perhaps through writing and reading — passing our test of English as a foreign language — we can all become assimilated.  For aren’t we all “new Americans” in one way or another?