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.

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.