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, 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.