Daily Prompt: Home Sweet Homeless

home sweet home

My parents retired from their professional careers in 1994.  They took a year to fix up their suburban New York house, sell it and move to California.  This was the house in which I grew up.  We moved out of a fourth floor walkup in the Bronx and into this brand new home in Rockland County when I was six years old.  Except for four years in college and a stint in graduate school, I lived there until I was well past the age of thirty.  For all that time, the downstairs family room had my mother’s framed embroidery displayed proudly on the wall:  “To know how sweet a home may be, just lock the door but keep the key.”

By the mid-nineties, my sisters were both married and had moved west to Silicon Valley with their engineer husbands.  They started having babies and my parents decided they wanted to be a part of the lives of their grandchildren.

When they retired, I happened to be working in the composition room of a publisher of dozens of local real estate magazines.  You know, the ones with all the pictures of houses and the highly abbreviated captions:  4 BR, 2½ BA, EIK, FDR, motivated seller!

I felt a pang in my heart the day I saw a grainy black and white photo of my childhood home in one of our paper bound books that had just come hot off the press.

And that’s when I decided to quit my job and move to California, too.

I camped out on my sister’s couch for about four months until she kicked me out.  Then I moved in with my other sister.  Turned out Silicon Valley was not exactly the Promised Land for those of us without engineering degrees.

My parents had placed all their belongings in storage.  They were living in a hotel while they looked at houses all over the Central Valley.  Should they buy an existing house or have one custom built the way they did thirty years earlier?  “We’re homeless!” they told me.

I hadn’t thought about this story in years, but it came back to me a couple of months ago when I learned that I’d be laid off from my job and that we’d have to relocate.  One of my employees asked me whether my wife and I were going to “move back home.”

Like my parents twenty years ago, my first thought was “We’re homeless!”

But instead I carefully chose my words and said “there really isn’t any place that I could honestly call home.”

We moved to the desert from Fresno more than three years ago, but we certainly weren’t going back there.  In any event, we lived there for only four years, so I wouldn’t consider it home by any means.  Before that we were in Modesto, which is where my wife and I were married.  As a single guy, I moved all around New England and back and forth to New York.

My wife and I had an interesting discussion about this.  “I guess I would call California home,” she told me.  This makes sense, as she was born here in the Golden State and has never lived anywhere else.

Does this mean that I should call New York home? Michelle W’s Daily Prompt post asked “when you’re away from home, what person, thing or place do you miss the most?” Thus, to answer my own question, I would need to decide whether there is any person, thing or place that I miss in New York. I can honestly say that there is not.

I haven’t seen my childhood home in 18 years now, although I can mentally map every inch of it.  But I wouldn’t want to go back there.  A few years ago, I found a picture of it on Google Maps’ Street View.  I didn’t even recognize it.  It had been painted a different color and tall trees had been planted in front.  I had to check twice to make sure it was the same place I had lived in for three decades.

I have no desire to return to that locale, which is a good thing, because my memories no longer jibe with reality.  As they say, you can’t go home again.

Did I say home?  Maybe New York really is my home.  I have few relatives on the east coast and therefore have little incentive to visit.  It’s been so many years since I’ve been back there.  I keep telling myself that one day I will go back, if only to show the old stomping grounds to my wife.  And it is with dread in my heart that I know the day is likely to come when I will have to return for a funeral.

We have a family plot in that colossal cemetery that goes on for miles out by LaGuardia Airport in Queens.  Do those graves mean that this my real home?  I remember the Hebrew and English names carved so carefully into the granite and how we always left little pebbles atop the polished headstones, as if to say “we were here.”

So, at least for today, I would have to say, as my wife does, that California is my home.  It’s where I hang my hat.  It’s what my driver’s license says and where I get my mail.  But in a real sense, I am “in California” but not “of California.”  On the other hand, I hail from New York but have no longer have any current ties there.

I am reminded of the abandoned dog who shows up unwelcomed on a stranger’s front porch.  The owner steps out the front door and claps his hands to chase the dog away.  “Go home!”

And where exactly would that be?

 

The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part Two

Continued from yesterday:  An excerpt from my memoir work-in-progress, Walking to New Jersey.

“The Pop Tart Malfunction” is part 2 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

By the time I reached the middle of my sophomore year of high school, I realized that the flame of my old junior high babysitting dream still burned brightly and that the only way to consummate this desire was to get off my ass and go do something about it.  So on a cold Saturday afternoon in January, I pinched a handful of index cards that I knew my mother kept in the big hutch in the dining room and wrote my name and phone number on each, along with BABYSITTER in capital letters.  Then I pulled on my parka, woolen hat and mittens and told my parents I was going to take a walk down the street and back.

I stuck the cards in the pocket of my winter coat and zipped it up so that no one would suspect anything or know what I was up to.

I walked a block or so, passing Stella Drive and entering the “new development,” a place where most of the houses were occupied by families with young kids and where I wouldn’t be likely to run into anyone I knew.  I was more than a little embarrassed regarding what I was about to do and I certainly didn’t want anyone from Ramapo High going around blabbing to their friends about how I must really be a girl.

We hadn’t had snow in several weeks; the sky was clear and an icy breeze blew straight down the new sidewalk as if making an effort to follow me on my rounds.  My heart beat out of my chest each time I walked down a driveway, approached a door and rang the bell to pass out my handwritten card to some wanly smiling mother or father who would really rather have been left alone to the weekend chores.  They humored this fat kid bundled up against the wind, some admiring the spunk of a prospective entrepreneur, others just wishing I’d get lost.

When my index cards were gone and my cheeks and toes felt entirely numb, I hurried home and hoped for the best.  Maybe one of those nice couples would have an event to attend on a Saturday night and their regular babysitter would already have another gig and no grandma or aunt would be available to step into the breach.  I didn’t obsess about it; it was as if I had taken a test and now there was nothing I could do but wait for the grades to come back.  Besides, I wanted to remove myself somewhat from what I had just done.  Perhaps if I pretended that it never happened, no one would know.  Well, my parents and my sisters knew, but as far as I was concerned, no one else needed to know until I started getting calls for jobs.  Then everyone would be proud of me and maybe even a little jealous because I’d be making my own money.  Patience, I knew, was the key.  I figured the black wall phone in the kitchen would have to ring eventually.

Only it didn’t.  Not to be deterred, a few weekends later I made up some more index cards and tried again.  This time I went in the other direction, trudging halfway up Alexander Avenue and then up the big Harmony Road hill before I started ringing doorbells again.

I finally hit pay dirt.  A divorced woman on Trinity Place had two little boys and needed someone to be there when they got off the school bus every afternoon and to watch them until she arrived home from work a couple of hours later.  And she was willing to pay a dollar an hour, which I thought was a small fortune.  From eavesdropping on the girls at the bus stop, I   knew that the older ones were getting 75 cents per hour and the younger ones only 50 cents.  What I didn’t yet know was that I was going to earn every penny.  For the time being, however, I was overcome with joy.  I had done it!  Now I had to prove to the world that boys could be successful babysitters, too.  Why should girls have all the fun and make all the money?

I immediately reread my Baby-Sitter’s Guide — twice.  I had kept it stashed clandestinely under my bed for more than two years.  The author suggested bringing a special babysitter’s bag to each assignment.  The bag, she explained, should contain some toys and games to keep the kids amused in case they get bored or cranky and you start running out of ideas.

My first stop was the broom closet in the kitchen, the place where all the folded-up grocery bags lived beside the broom, the dustpan and the cleaning brushes.  But it wasn’t a paper bag from Waldbaum’s I was looking for this time.  I wanted something a little more classy for my first job.  I pulled all the bags out onto the kitchen floor tiles until I found just what I had been looking for.  Hiding in the back was a plastic shopping bag that my mother had brought back from Florida.  It was green and white with the logo of Britt’s department store emblazoned on both sides.  I raided my own closet as well as the big double closet in Becky and Ruth’s bedroom, harvesting a checker set, an old picture book and some coloring books and crayons.  Little did I know that, before long, the checkerboard would be torn down the middle, several checkers would go missing, the crayons would be broken in pieces and the coloring books would be scribbled on in purple and green.

And these were good kids already.  It’s just that Scott and Jason were four and six years old.  I was fifteen years old, and each of those boys independently had far more energy than I did.  Sharon Sherman’s book notwithstanding, I really had no idea what I was getting into.  I jumped in blindly and figured things out as I went along.

My boys were latchkey children from a very early age.  Jason carried his house key on an elastic cord around his neck, much as my sisters and I did.  After being cooped up in school all day, they tore off the bus at the corner, running as fast they could up the grassy slope of lawn (or the driveway in winter) to unlock the front door.

The first order of business was always a snack.  Scott and Jason were creatures of habit; each day, their mother left three Pop Tarts on the kitchen table, one for each of the boys and one for me.  We’d unwrap, toast and eat.  Dishes went in the sink and the boys were off to watch a half hour of cartoons, lying on the floor in Mom’s bedroom.  Once Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig had done their thing, the show belonged to me.  At least I thought it did.  It didn’t take too long before I learned that it was entirely their show and that I was little more than a pawn in this operation.

We’d do whatever the boys wanted to for the next hour or so.  This could involve crawling around on all fours to give piggyback rides up and down the hallway, wrestling and roughhousing on the carpet, or on the rare occasion when I was very lucky, playing a board game from their huge stash.

For a little while, my employer had a man named Vince living in her home.  I never figured out whether he was a boarder or a boyfriend.  He was always just — there.  He generally stayed downstairs and did not bother us.

One day, I nearly set the poor woman’s house on fire.  Let’s just say that we experienced a Pop Tart malfunction.  I don’t know whether it was an electrical problem or perhaps the toast crumbs hadn’t been cleaned out in a while.  All I can say is that the toaster became stuck.  And I mean really stuck.  And I couldn’t unstick it.  The Pop Tarts were burning black, smoke was starting to fill the kitchen, and I was unable to force those toaster handles up.  I pulled and yanked at the plug in a desperate attempt to separate it from the outlet before we all went up in flames.  By this time, both boys were yelling “Vince! Vince!” and, horrified, I joined in the chorus.

Just then, that dastardly plug popped out of the wall.  Fortunately, none of the houses in our neighborhood had smoke detectors back then.  Vince finally climbed halfway up the stairs to the landing and poked his head up.  I assured him that everything was okay, we had it under control.

From the time I stepped off my own school bus in the afternoon, I had about 40 minutes before I had to meet the boys up the hill at their house.  After a while, my initial feeling of responsibility waned.  With everything in my Britt’s bag destroyed, I didn’t bother to bring it anymore.  In fact, I didn’t bother arriving at the boys’ home on time after the first couple of months.  I knew they would let themselves in and would be munching their Pop Tarts or watching Bugs and the Road Runner whenever I sauntered in.  I knew I’d get my dollar regardless.

After about four months of babysitting every weekday afternoon, I decided I had had enough.  My excuse for quitting was that I had final exams to study for.  I had already stayed a month longer than I wanted to, but I kept putting off my departure for the sake of those boys.  At the end, I was dragging myself up the hill every day.  On my final day, I felt a little guilty about abdicating my responsibilities, but mostly I just felt liberated.  Free to relax when I got home from school every day!

The dollar bills had piled up.  I would throw them loose in the top drawer of my dresser until I had built up an impressive collection.  The funny thing was that money didn’t mean anything to me in real terms.  There was nothing in particular I was saving for, nothing I dreamed of buying.  I just wanted to have some money of my own in case.  That is, in case I had a hankering for something that my parents didn’t want to buy for me.  What never occurred to me was that:

  1. My parents weren’t going to allow me to purchase anything that they disagreed with, whether the money was mine or not.
  2. When I did ask my parents for something special, they would remind me that I could now buy it with my own money if I wanted it that badly.

This wasn’t working out the way I had planned.  Not at all.

 

The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York – Part One

Fellow bloggers,

I have been working for some time on a book-length memoir of my New York childhood.  Now that I am getting closer to completion of the manuscript, I’d like to offer a two-part sample of Walking to New Jersey for your perusal.  Today: “My Secret Desire,” part 1 of a chapter titled The First Boy Babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.  I hope you enjoy it!  All comments and suggestions welcomed.

Author’s Note:  All names have been changed.

With the Baby Boomers hitting junior high school age, many of our eighth grade classes were quite large.  Mr. Pettigrew’s English class in Room 109 was no exception.  Although this gang wasn’t quite as rowdy as what Miss Donnelly had to contend with the previous year, there were times when it seemed that more socializing than learning was going on.

As for Miss Donnelly, I wondered what had happened to her.  As I was half in love with her, I was disappointed that I didn’t see her around the school.  Room 116, in the alcove across from Mr. Pettigrew’s class, was where Miss Donnelly taught last year.  This year, however, the only teacher I saw going in and out of that classroom was Miss Rosenbaum.  I didn’t know anything about her, but I wanted to be in her class.  You see, she was young and beautiful, with palpitatingly gorgeous flaming red hair that hung straight down past her ass like a horse’s tail.  I would inwardly sigh as her tresses went swish, swish as she walked by.  Not only was I a sucker for redheads at a young age, I thought she could be a model for a modern-day Rapunzel, or just a model, period.

Girls were an enigma to me.  For the most part, I ignored them, treated them as part of the wallpaper.  They were just there, and the less I had to deal with them, the better.  There were female teachers, there was my mother, and of course, I had sisters.  No big deal.  But then, there was the other thing.  It was hard to ignore a pretty face, the Miss Rosenbaums of this world who knocked your eye out with floor-length orangey locks.

To most of my agemates, women were about one thing only, and no two ways about it.  Girls were a deep, dark, tantalizing mystery, an encoded message they were just dying to crack.  In my case, however, my wonder and curiosity were tainted with a heavy dose of Orthodox Jewish guilt.  What saved me from the grip of obsession, to which many of my classmates had given themselves over heart and soul, was the fact that I was inordinately late to develop physically.  Although I appreciated a kind word and long, red hair, I didn’t yet have the benefit of raging hormones to drive me off the deep end.

As much as I enjoyed reading a good book, most of what we covered in Mr. Pettigrew’s class didn’t interest me very much.  We studied Greek and Roman mythology and I put on an extremely lame skit with two of my classmates for which we cut a lightning bolt out of cardboard and played the role of Zeus hurling it.  We read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and I memorized a stanza of “The Highwayman.”  I found memorization to be quite challenging, so I was flabbergasted when I learned that my father could recite the whole darned poem by heart!

As ho-hum as Mr. Pettigrew’s English class was to me, it wasn’t too far into the school year when I discovered with delight that, however unlikely it might seem, this class was going to help me progress toward my Secret Desire.

I wanted to be a babysitter.

My Secret Desire was not something to which I would readily admit for the simple reason that this activity was securely ensconced in the clubhouse labeled GIRLS ONLY (all others keep out).  For a boy to express an interest in such a thing was simply Not Done.  It would be akin to expressing an interest in makeup or Shaun Cassidy.  I would be laughed right out of junior high.  And, of course, more than anything else I wanted to be taken seriously as an upstanding officer of the Student Council.  So I kept my Secret Desire under wraps, at least for now.

We were a few weeks into the fall term when Mr. Pettigrew passed around book sale order forms.  Students were encouraged to look through the brochure of offerings from Scholastic, pick out some books for leisure reading and bring money from home to pay for them.  Perusing the selection, I didn’t find much to interest me, certainly nothing that captured my attention sufficiently to warrant cajoling my parents for money.  Then I saw it, and it stopped me cold.  Baby-Sitter’s Guide by Sharon Sherman, featuring Tizzy Teen cartoons by Kate Osann.  It was as if someone had read my mind.

Ohhhh, I get it.  Of course!  This wasn’t meant for me; it was for junior high girls who were considering following their older sisters into the entrepreneurial world of suburbia.  Teenage babysitters were an essential commodity in our little corner of the world.  Without girls willing to work on the cheap, how would harried parents ever get a Saturday night out on the town?  So it made perfect sense that there would be a manual that explained to girls exactly the thing that I wanted to know how to do.

I knew what I had to do:  I asked my father for three dollars to order a book through my English class.  I hoped he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions, and he didn’t.  He opened up his wallet and handed me the money.  It was fate, destiny, bashert!

When the books that my classmates had ordered arrived a few weeks later, I snatched mine as quickly as possible, hoping no one would notice the title.  I hid it inside the cover of another book and stashed it in my bookbag.

The timing could not have been more perfect.  It was the day before the school holiday for Yom Kippur, and I smiled thinking of the treasure I had scored.  I had to hold myself back from taking a peek before I got the contraband to the safety of my bedroom.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a very solemn holiday, and always a trial for kids.  The adults were fasting and irritable, and we had to go sit in boring old synagogue with them for hours on end.  When we’d finally get home, the adults wouldn’t be paying much attention to us and we’d have to amuse ourselves.

But this year was special for me, for two reasons.  For one thing, this was the last Yom Kippur before my bar mitzvah.  This meant that this was the last Yom Kippur for the rest of my days on this earth that I would not be obligated to abstain from eating and drinking for 27 hours or so. With my bar mitzvah a mere four months away, however, I was eager to show that I was ready for my new adult responsibilities.  When I refused to eat any breakfast just like the adults, my mother humored me.  We walked to shul, where we spent about five hours while the hazan chanted and droned his way through the Morning and Additional Services.  Then my mother walked the mile or so home with the three of us.  I can’t remember any year when we returned for the Afternoon Service.  However, my mother expected my father to walk back to synagogue for Ne’ilah, the Concluding Service and then to walk home again after hearing the blowing of the Shofar that announced that we could break our fast.  By this time, however, my father had started refusing to go.  As a nonbeliever, he simply had no interest and was tired of going just because my mother wanted him to.

My mother usually prepared food in advance for the three of us so that we could eat lunch and she could lie down and continue her fast until the sun dipped below the horizon and three stars were visible.  My father would usually be sitting on the porch when we got home, and he’d go take a nap with my mother.  This year, I refused to eat anything.  My mother became mildly upset and urged me to eat several times.  When I staunchly refused, however, she didn’t push the issue.  I, too, went off to bed, but not to sleep.

And this was the other reason that this Yom Kippur was important to me:  I pulled my secret out of my bookbag, crawled under the covers and began to read.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to read anything but the holy books on Yom Kippur, and perhaps indulging myself in this pleasure was proof that I had a way to go before reaching adulthood, but this was an opportunity I was not about to forgo.  I knew that no one was going to bother me to go anywhere or do anything for at least four hours and my agenda was set. I read through the entire book and stashed it under my bed for further reference, as if it were a girlie magazine I was trying to hide from prying eyes.

I haven’t seen this book in more than forty years, yet I still remember the author’s advice on dealing with fights between children:  Avoid descending to their level.  Don’t yield to the temptation to throw a few punches of your own!  I read Sharon Sherman’s book cover to cover many times and to this day remember the ending.  If you ever catch yourself chanting “rain, rain, go away, come back another day,” perhaps you have not yet lost the magic carpet of childhood from under your feet.  I was mesmerized by that statement.  Yes, yes!  She was talking about me!  Here I was on the cusp, still a child of twelve but about to be bar mitzvahed and assume the mantle of religious adulthood.  I had one leg planted on either side of the border and I was ready to spring forward into the unknown.  I knew I had what it takes to bust out, to break the mold.

I would be the first boy babysitter in Spring Valley, New York.

 

Tomorrow:  Part Two – The Pop Tart Malfunction

 

Stupid Signs Seen in Retail Establishments

Listen up, business owners!  Today’s topic is:  Stupid signs in retail establishments that annoy the crap out of me.

These are signs that are not cute, are not funny and generally bespeak the fact that the owner and/or manager is a cretin with the IQ of a cockroach.  The fact that the establishment believes that its customers will enjoy such signs is indicative of its belief that the patrons are as soft in the head as the management.

So without further ado, I present to you the top four items on my list of infamy:

in God we trust

In God we trust, all others pay cash.

These days, most stores do not accept checks for obvious reasons:  Too often, they are worthless.  Cash is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government (although the bank will send a counterfeit bill directly back to the merchant, but that is another issue entirely) and credit card payments (with proper I.D.) are guaranteed.  I cannot fault businesses for wanting to be paid.  If this means not accepting personal checks, I am fine with that.  I occasionally run across a business that does not take credit cards due to the fees involved, and I can accept that as well.  But please do not insult my intelligence.  Prominently display a sign describing what forms of payment you accept.  Please do not bring God into it.  Not only is this blasphemous, but it gives you away as a hick that is not worthy of my patronage.

you break it

Lovely to look at and lovely to hold, but if you break it consider it sold.

Aww, what a cute rhyme.  This informative sign immediately tells me three things:

  1. Children not welcome here.  I definitely would not bring my little grandniece into such an establishment.  Everyone knows that children like to touch things; in the case of my grandniece, she has to put them in her mouth and taste them.  Yes, parents are responsible for controlling their children in public.  However, there is a limit to what a parent can do.  Children will be children and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Even if you are holding your little one tightly in your arms, there is no guarantee that he or she will not suddenly thrust out an arm and unintentionally knock over one of your precious pieces of inventory.  And guess what?  My grandniece doesn’t have any money.  But I do.  And you’re not getting any of it, sucker.
  2. Customers with disabilities not welcome here.  I am probably lucky if I can get a wheelchair through the door of your shop.  Having surmounted that hurdle, however, I now have to deal with maneuvering tight little corners and narrow aisles so that you can get the maximum amount of stock into the postage stamp that you consider a store.  If, in the process, a wheel should happen to hit the edge of one of your displays and jar loose an item that a previous customer has replaced too close to the edge, I will have the pleasure of arguing with you (and probably the local constabulary) about why I am not paying for your overpriced schlock.  The same goes for those of us who, while still able to stand on their own two feet, have balance issues and might end up breaking something when quickly grabbing onto a shelf to avoid falling.  But really it’s not a problem, as it is obvious that you don’t need our money or our business.
  3. You are an ass who does not understand costs of doing business.  Your sign is forcing me to assume that you are an uneducated peddler who failed to graduate from high school and does not have even the most rudimentary understanding of economics.  So allow me to educate you.  Breakage/spoilage is a cost of doing business.  (Ask your accountant how to deduct this from your income taxes.)  If you are unprepared to assume this risk, or your paper thin profit margin does not allow for this, get out of business.  The fact that you wrongheadedly attempt to pass these costs onto your customers will not bother most patrons who walk through your door… until they break something.  If your merchandise is really that valuable, make sure it is enclosed in a locked case the way jewelry stores do.

Note:  Just because a retailer posts such a sign does not necessarily impose liability upon a customer who accidentally breaks an item.  How much a hapless customer must pay (if anything) largely depends on the law of negligence in your state or country.

helen waite

Our credit manager is Helen Waite.  If you need credit, go to Helen Waite.

Ooh, now we’re getting back into religious territory again.  No matter, I need to make an appointment with Ms. Waite, please.  I need to meet with her to discuss my excellent credit rating, my superb purchasing power and why your sorry business will not be the beneficiary of any of my disposable income.  In my magnanimity, however, I have added your establishment to my Christmas list.  Your gift this year will be a recording of “I Gave Her the Ring, She Gave Me the Finger.”

free beer

Ye Old Announcement:  FREE BEER!  December 32nd

I actually saw this one today when the family was having lunch at Shakey’s Ye Old Public House (otherwise known as pizza parlor) in Oroville.  This type of sign is the progeny of the old-fashioned candy store notice in which the proprietor announced “Free Candy Tomorrow” — and never took the sign down.

I so wanted to take a bit of white paint and a brush and very carefully change the “3” to a “2.”  I wonder if anyone would notice, not to mention how the management would react to the lines outside the door a few days before Christmas.  My guess is that the sign would mysteriously disappear without delay.  Which is a step that the management should take immediately.

Idiots.

 

Christmas Comes Early in America

menorah tree

When my niece and her friend walked in the door a couple of nights ago, I could tell these young ladies were all giggly about something.  Turns out the friend had spontaneously started singing a Christmas carol, which got them all exuberant about the upcoming holiday season.  I expressed approval of such positive thoughts, but what stuck in my mind is:  We still have a couple of weeks to go until Halloween; isn’t it a bit early to be thinking about Christmas?

Apparently not.

cornucopia

Traditionally, the holiday season in the United States kicks off the day after Thanksgiving (known to retailers as Black Friday), the biggest shopping day of the year.  Just after midnight, the “door buster” sales begin, the success of which determines whether many businesses make it or break it for the entire year.  I never cease to be amused at the lines of people extending out from the doors of the big box stores, (im)patiently waiting all night (and sometimes comically consuming their Thanksgiving dinners) in their lawn chairs and sleeping bags.

As the years go by, however, it seems that the holiday season begins earlier and earlier, the rotten economy notwithstanding.  After all, the survival of retail sales is at stake, so every store will be sure to do its utmost to let the public know that Christmas is just around the corner, by golly.  Let’s get the children in a parent-annoying frenzy as early as possible.  All you kids out there, get off the freakin’ PlayStation and write your wanna-wanna and gotta-have lists for Santa immediately.  This will give you plenty of time to add to and lengthen your lists so that your parents and assorted relatives will have no choice but to buy, buy, buy and thereby save the American economy from going to wrack and ruin.

To me, the holiday season begins whenever I hear the first Christmas song while out in public.  Some years this happens over my car radio when some zealous DJ is suddenly overcome with a burst of holiday feeling.  One year it happened right after we sat down to eat at Outback Steakhouse, when the grating rock music they tend to play suddenly switched over to Madonna performing her version of “Santa Baby.”  Another year it happened while I was taking a dump in a Burger King men’s room and what should I hear over the public address system but the opening notes of “Silent Night” being crooned by Bing Crosby.

You never know where it will happen, but one thing is constant:  It always takes me by surprise.  And my first thought is always the same:  No, no, not yet!  It’s only October!  Can’t you people at least wait until November
1?  You know, the day after Halloween?

jack

And so, two days after my niece and her friend brought the issue to my attention, it happened.  The 2013 holiday season officially began on October 16 as I pushed a shopping cart through Wal-Mart.  This had nothing to do with the store’s choice of music-to-buy-by, either.  No, my wife and I were in the baby aisles looking for diapers for my grandniece when I had the bad luck to hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” blaring out of a Fisher-Price display.  Tag, I’m it!

Sigh.

You know what they say:  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

And so, conceding to the inevitable, I have Michael Bublé singing a jaunty version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” through my late night headphones.

Luckily for me, music closer to the holiday traditions of my own faith are more readily available now than ever.  And so I am thrilled and delighted to have discovered Matisyahu (the singing Chasid from Brooklyn) performing “Happy Hanukkah (I Wanna Give a Gift to You)” in his wonderful reggae style.  Thanks, Spotify (and YouTube).

And to you, all my readers, I say merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah and, uh, trick or treat!  And to all a good night.

 

Postcard from Another Life

postcard

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough post to write.  ‘Tis a bitter pill, my bloggy friends.

Many of you know that I was laid off from my job at the end of September.  The end of a job is a little like a death in the family.  Our work is a large part of our identities, and when we lose it, we lose a part of ourselves.  In this case, the “family member” (employer) had been mortally ill (broke) for some time.  We all had a pretty good idea that the layoffs were a-comin’, although we tried not to talk about it while we hoped in our hearts that some miracle would make its appearance to save us.  Half of my staff took the axe in mid-August and I had my turn at the guillotine about six weeks later.

Like any death, knowing that it is just a matter of time does not make it any easier once the day finally arrives.  The period of mourning always begins with shock and disbelief, eventually sliding through the phases of acceptance and moving on.

And then there are the family and friends who seek to console you.  They are so well-meaning, and in the name of consolation, the platitudes fly like snowflakes in January.  The appropriate response is to smile wanly and express your appreciation while you wonder what the hell you’re going to do now.

It is easy to criticize this attitude as being entirely too dramatic.  Losing a job is more like a bad breakup than a death, you say.  Perhaps this is so.  Family members can never be replaced, but you can always find another job.  Except that most of my employees have been unable to do so.  When you live in this economy in a remote town in the middle of the desert with the nearest small city being a hundred miles away, there is not much work close at hand.  Working likely means commuting three hours per day or else relocating, i.e., selling your house (good luck), uprooting your children and moving away from the place where you grew up and the family who serve as your support network.  Unemployment, here we come.  And when that runs out, God only knows.  Maybe you can get a part-time job at minimum wage at the K-Mart or at Del Taco or the new dollar store that just opened at the west end of town.

We were among the lucky ones.  We had nothing holding us in the desert and we were able to kick over the traces and move in with family 600 miles away.

So you try to put it behind you.  You try to forget about the people and the places.  You can’t help looking back on the good times you had, but you try not to dwell on it.  Time to lick your wounds and check out the other fish in the sea.

We start the healing process by removing the numbers from our smart phones:  The lady who sells tortillas down by the freeway, the place that services your car, your doctor, your dentist, your landlord, the supermarket, the guy who fixes your air conditioning when it breaks down in July, the people who mow your lawn and the ones who deliver water.  You’ve moved to another part of the state and this is your chance to start over.  You never have to think about these people again.

Then it happens.  You get a post card in the mail.  And it’s like a message in a bottle, a reminder of the life you’ve left behind, a bad dream.

In this case, the post card was from my former boss.  One side featured a lovely photo of a sunset bearing the label “San Diego.”  Since we just came off of a holiday weekend, I suppose that the boss had a three or four day mini-vacation at the beach.

So thank you for thinking of me, boss.  You say you hope that we are relatively settled in up north.  You say you hope that we keep in touch.

Sigh.

How should I respond to this?  Should I ignore the gesture?  Should I write back, and if so, what should I say?  If I were to respond, I suppose my own post card would go something like this:

Dear Boss,

 I know this whole thing wasn’t your fault.  I know the layoff was a money-saving measure dictated by upper management and that you had no control over it.  But I also know that we made a 1,200+ mile round trip the week after my layoff because I was invited to interview for another management position at a different location.  And that you were one of the three on the interview panel.  And that you pretended that I was Joe Schmoe who you’d never met before even though I worked my butt off for you for the past three years.  And that the only reaction I could get from you was the barest hint of a nod when I stared directly into your eyes.  I know that you were only doing your job, doing what is expected of you.  After all, you have your own job to protect.  But I guess you and your cronies decided that you’d be better off getting rid of me for good.  I know this because I received a computer-generated form email informing me that I was not selected for the position.  Cold, really cold.  And now you send me a card to say that you hope we are settled in the place to which we were forced to move.  Not to be rude or anything, but I think you have a hell of a nerve.

Were you motivated by guilt?  Do you feel bad about what happened to me and to my employees?  Do you want us to like you anyway and say “hey, forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones?”  What’s that? I’m being unnecessarily cruel?  You’re just trying to be kind? I am sorry, but I think it’s a little late for that.  We have already removed all those numbers from our phones, including yours.  We have moved on, just as I know you would want us to.  So please do not contact us further.  We have a new life now and you are just a bad reminder of the harrowing escapades that you have put us through.  Oh, and by the way, we honestly wish you best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Sincerely,

Your former employee

 

My American Idol

mike

Let me tell you a little about my nephew (exercising uncle’s bragging rights today).  This country boy, a good-looking single guy in his early twenties, shares a small house with a roommate and a menagerie of dogs and cats.  Lately, he has been doing things such as:

  • Helping to dig trenches and lay pipe at his grandmother’s house
  • Babysitting his little niece all week so his sister can attend her college classes
  • Running errands and making deliveries for his mother

I am very proud of his dedication to his extended family, and it should come as no surprise that he has had some good things come into his life recently:

  • Following an extended period of unemployment, he was just hired for an excellent job.
  • He has advanced through the first two rounds of the Tri-Counties Talent Search and will be a contestant in the sing-off finale for a $1000 prize on November 2.
  • One of his dogs recently blessed him with a litter of 7 puppies.

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t such a great thing.  Particularly since one of his other dogs summarily killed two of the puppies in a fit of canine jealousy.  And also since he returned home today to find that mama had pooped everywhere and that the five puppies were covered in it.  When I last left him, he was searching for something gentle enough to be used for shampoo on two-week old puppy fur.

I am particularly impressed by my nephew’s talents as a country singer.  In the first round of the competition, he performed Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday.”  The three judges loved his voice but quibbled about his outfit.  The crotchety one, reminiscent of Simon Cowell, griped that my nephew “sounded like Sunday but looked like Monday.”  Apparently, he wasn’t supposed to look like a country boy singing a country song.  I suppose he should have worn a suit to show that it was Sunday and he was going to church.  (Who wears a suit to church anymore anyway?)

I wish I had been there to serve up a good ol’ Bronx cheer to that judge.  For the second round of the competition, however, I was there.  There were about 30 singers, some as young as twelve years old, performing in front of the judges.  This shindig took place in the gymnasium of a local church school, with the audience paying a dollar for the privilege of sitting in the bleachers or on hard plastic chairs for four hours or so.

My nephew sat down next to me while I went to the snack stand to get a hot dog for him and popcorn for me.  Several of his friends from high school were there competing; some took photos with him and others just clapped him on the back, shook his hand and wished him good luck.  All of them know how talented Steven is.

He wore a number, just like the contestants on all the TV talent shows.  We had barely settled in when his number was called, the second act of the day.  He had brought a backing track with him, purchased online and burned onto a CD.  As he confidently walked to the stage, I could tell he was a pro.  This dude was ready.

After soliciting suggestions from everyone he knows, my nephew decided on performing Blake Shelton’s “The More I Drink.”  He knocked it out of the park.  It’s hard to remain objective about the talent of a family member, but I tell you, friends, he was good.

The judges agreed with my assessment.  Mr. Simon-Cowell-wannabe had to find something to complain about, and we already know that a singer’s outfit is particularly important to this guy for some perverted reason.  So he faulted my nephew for not wearing a Stetson.

Oh, please.  I suppose he should have laid out the dough for a pair of leather shit-kicking boots, too.  Or perhaps a full equestrian outfit would have better suited this judge’s taste?

The important thing is that my nephew made it through to the finals.  Now he has the task of choosing a song and learning it.  And, apparently, of choosing a wardrobe that will please this yahoo of a judge.

First, he told me that he will wear what he wants and doesn’t give a hoot about what the judges think of his outfit.  Then he said that he didn’t have a cowboy hat in any event.  Finally, he conceded that he could borrow one from a friend.

Now that’s the guy that I know and love.  I’m sure there’s a life lesson in this somewhere.  Maybe it’s that you sometimes have to give a little on the stupid small stuff to get what you really want?  Perhaps it’s that there are times when we have to suffer fools?

Be that as it may, I am proud of my nephew’s accomplishments and I know he will be a force to be reckoned with at the finale.  I look forward to watching him kick some butt.

The only question remaining is where he should go from here.  Personally, I think he has at least three good opportunities to choose from:  The X-Factor, America’s Got Talent or American Idol.

Coming soon to a TV near you.

 

Daily Prompt: New England Dreamin’

apples pumpkins'

Yesterday, the WordPress Daily Prompt encouraged bloggers to describe the strangest place they have ever found themselves posting to their blogs.

As a creature of habit, I prefer writing my blog posts from the comfort of the living room sofa, laptop dangling precariously off the TV tray on which it is balanced.  However, due to our travels up and down the state of California, I have composed numerous posts from our laptops in motel rooms.

What I find particularly challenging is writing blog posts on my iPhone.  I have done so on several occasions, late at night at Motel 6 in Buttonwillow, Kern County.  Now, Motel 6 generally (but not always) charges for wi-fi, so we typically skip the laptop and make due with our phones.  My fat fingers dance across the tiny keyboard display, stopping every third or fourth word to correct an error.  The backspace key is my best friend.  Even so, when I get back to a computer I usually notice more than one typo that makes me want to scream.  And I won’t dwell on the times I have mysteriously lost an iPhone post in progress, nor will I refer to some of the words that have come out of my mouth on such occasions.

Far more interesting than the mundane locales from which I have blogged are the places from which I would like to blog someday.  I am not engaging in fantasies about exotic destinations here.  In fact, I am reminiscing about places that I enjoyed on the other side of the country in the days before the Internet.

It’s October, and inevitably my thoughts return to the riotous red and yellow leaves that set the trees afire in New England and upstate New York.  I am just learning to use Twitter, and if I did not have time for a complete blog post, I imagine I would tweet something like this:

JUMPING IN A PILE OF LEAVES INSTEAD OF RAKING.  WHEEEE!!   #foliage

It is apple season, and right now I am munching on a Gala, one of California’s finest.  And while I enjoy the wonderful Fujis, Pink Ladies and Galas out here, it’s not the same as picking out a bushel of Macintosh, Delicious, Cortland or Rome Beauty apples from Dressel Farms on Route 208 in New Paltz, New York.  If I were there, I’d blog about the giant pumpkins out front, the Indian corn grown on site and, if the cider press is operating, the season’s first sweet taste of liquid heaven.  After I got home, I’d be sure to mention the wonderful scent throughout the house when Mom was stirring a pot of applesauce on the stove and had a pie in the oven.

DRESSEL FARMS IN OCT IS THE APPLE OF MY EYE.  YUMMY!!  #hudsonvalleyautumn

I’d ooh and aah at the bucks, does and fawns that walk out of the thickets and stand wide-eyed along the grassy edges of the Palisades Interstate Parkway.  Then I’d blog my outrage when every other car heading south from Bear Mountain Circle has a dead deer tied to its roof.

CARS BEARING CARCASSES MAKE ME WANNA BARF   #huntersgohome

Along with everyone else, I’d gripe about the leaf-peeping tourists slowing down traffic with their gawking.  Of course I’d forget to mention all the money that they are pumping into the local economy and how many businesses couldn’t survive without them.

TOO MANY TOURISTS!  BLASTED LEAF PEEPERS   #lookyloos

I’d definitely blog from Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, describing the candle dippers, the blacksmiths, the printers and the butter-churning maids.  My post would probably make fun of the 18th century costumes and the little kids running amok with ice cream sticky hands.  And I’d be sure to post a photo of the cows and turkeys.

STURBRIDGE IS THE ESSENCE OF NEW ENGLAND BUT THEY HAD TO WORK TOO HARD BACK THEN AND THEY HAD NO WIFI   #touristtrap

I would do my best to blog from the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Fitzwilly’s restaurant in Northampton, the covered bridge over the Ashuelot River in Swanzey, New Hampshire and the shops in downtown Brattleboro, Vermont.  And just for old time’s sake, I’d have to finish up my time travels by writing a funny post about a round of Glowgolf at Holyoke Mall.

THE DAYS ARE COOL, THE NIGHTS ARE COLD, I NEED TO VISIT NEW ENGLAND IN AUTUMN AGAIN BEFORE I GET TOO OLD.    #nostalgia

 

Follow me on Twitter:  @unclearon

 

Why I Don’t Want to Live in New York City

NYC

If you have ever been curious about what it’s like to live in New York City, you might enjoy reading the post 101 Reasons Why You Have Not Truly Lived Until You’ve Lived in NYC on Wonder Sonder.

I mention this because, having lived in New York City, I am impressed by how the author’s points express so well why I never wish to live there again.  Despite the plethora of cultural advantages of the Big Apple, I’ll take California, thank you.  I prefer the whistle of a freight train late at night to the insistent screech and rumble of the subway.  I prefer listening to wind on a rainy night to the constant honking of cars and blaring of sirens in the city that never sleeps.  I prefer a frog surprising me from around the corner or the chirping of crickets to a rat surprising me in the lobby and roaches slumming in my bathroom.  I think you get the picture.

For the sake of brevity (as if I know the meaning of the word), as well as because I am unfamiliar with many of the specific bars, restaurants and clubs listed, I will cover only thirteen of the author’s points here.

1. NYC will make you resilient to loss and pain.  And this is a good thing?  Since when?  To be effective as a writer (or just as a decent human being), it is necessary to feel deeply, to drink of the draught not only of your own pain, but also to empathize and console the loss of others.  So if you’re attracted by the prospect of living in a zombieland where everyone looks straight ahead and takes no heed of the suffering all about them, I would say NYC is for you.

2. And build up a veneer of courage and compassion.  “Veneer” being the key word.  In NYC, everyone wears a mask.  It’s a great big game of “let’s pretend.”  It is so easy to be out for no one but yourself while maintaining the utterly false pretense of giving a damn about anyone else.  You don’t have to worry about loving your neighbor when you neither know nor care who lives across the hall from you.

3. When I say the subway is tight, I also mean it’s supercool and works 24 hours a day.  Didn’t your mama ever teach you that nothing good happens after midnight?  Go to bed!  (I don’t take my own advice on this one, but at least I stay home.)

4. Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building have some pretty spectacular views.  And indeed they do.  Hence, on my Los Angeles cousins’ most recent visit to NYC with the kids, they paid to be whisked to the top of the Empire State Building, arriving just in time to watch a young man climb over the barriers and commit suicide by jumping off.  At least it only cost $27 per adult ticket (trauma counseling not included).

5. Street fairs are epic.  County fairs are even more epic.

6. You will realize that there are worse things than rats on the subway.  Really? Name one.

7. Authentic fruits and vegetables from all over the world.  Could this be because the only thing home-grown in NYC is misery?  How about authentic fruits and vegetables, the best in the world, from right here in California?  Locavores carry no weight in Manhattan.

8. Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s and Saks and all the other stores you’ve grown up hearing about.  Been there, done that.  Overpriced, staffed by uncaring snoots, a pain in the butt to find anything and, overall, pretty boring.

9. Finding a food craving, like fresh Portobello mushrooms, in your local bodega at 5 a.m.  I can get them cheaply any day of the week at Smart ‘n Final.  Besides, who eats mushrooms for breakfast?  Oh, I see, you haven’t been to bed yet?  See #3.

10. Bars stay open until 4 a.m.  Haven’t you seen #3 yet??

11. Your heart swells with pride when you give complicated directions on the Lower East Side.  My heart swells with pride when I figure out how to get around the Highway 70 construction to drive to Yuba City.

12. Hot chocolate at the Plaza Hotel after a blizzard.  Iced tea on the porch when it’s 90 degrees.  Pass the lemon, please.  (And no snow shoveling!  Woohoo!)

13. You don’t need to tolerate idiots.  What was that saying about the pot and the kettle again?  Tolerance is not a big thing in NYC.  Everyone thinks he or she is the final arbiter on all things.  Disagree and you are an “idiot.”  (I expect to be called one now.)

I am tempted to go on, but I think that’s enough for now.  There are many lovely things about New York City, and visiting at least once is worthy of anyone’s bucket list.  Gawk to your heart’s content and be sure to take plenty of photos.

And when you’re tired of empty stares, empty souls and your empty wallet, c’mon home.

We’ll be waiting for you.

 

What I Learned This Week

TGIF!  Happy weekend to all those who worked all week and now have a chance to relax.  Now two weeks unemployed, every day is the weekend for me!  Not to rub it in or anything.

What I Learned This Week:

  • WinCo Foods may have decent prices, but they are not very community oriented.  They expect local residents to spend their money there, but they refuse to allow local churches to conduct a holiday canned food drive outside their store on Saturday mornings.  A manager told me that this is easier than choosing who to say yes to and who to turn down.  She also told me that their attorneys won’t allow it.  I wonder what would happen if the community were to turn WinCo down the way they turn down the community?  Lucky thing there are so many other supermarkets in the area.  Wonder if they all feel the same way?
  • We have a population of resident frogs on the property between the church and the parsonage.  And I don’t mean the little things that hop out of the bushes at night at my parents’ house.  No, these guys are big suckers.  The kind of grenouilles whose cuisses show up drenched in garlic butter at French restaurants.  The kind that end up pickled in formaldehyde and dissected in biology classrooms.  The kind of tz’fardeah that jumped out of the Nile en masse and took up residence in the mixing bowls of the Egyptians and in Pharaoh’s bed chamber and in his bed.  I don’t know what these guys are feeding on, but they are obviously happy amphibians.  Ribbit!
  • Tower Mart’s deli counter closes promptly at 7 pm.  So if you get a hankering for some potato wedges in the evening, forget it!
  • My niece has acquired a one-piece PJ outfit that is all red and white stripes with pictures of the Sock Monkey on the pocket and on the footies.  Adorable!
  • The way Highway 70 in Marysville is being chopped to pieces by construction crews, it is very difficult to get over to Yuba City, particularly if you are new to the area and haven’t a clue about where you’re going.
  • When you buy a book for a penny on eBay, do not be surprised if it has been written in, marked up and highlighted to within an inch of its life by a maniacal college student.
  • Marie Callender’s sells frozen pie crusts in the supermarket, and they are both vegetarian and kosher.  Big smiles!
  • If I clap my hands, my little grandniece will copy me and start clapping, too.  If only I could figure out who or what we are applauding.
  • If Starbucks messes up your drink, they will not only remake it for you, but will also give you a coupon for a free drink next time.  Woot!
  • My mother-in-law’s coconut crème pies are a huge hit with all of our family and friends.  Three cheers for Aunt Jackie pie!
  • Technology has always confuzzled me, but I am a bigger technodork than even I imagined.  I have just barely figured out how to use Spotify, but Twitter is making me frustrated!  Sign me “caught somewhere between the @ sign and the hash tag.”

Blogs I discovered and enjoyed this week:

  • Piglove – The adventures of Bacon, the pot-bellied pig!
  • Must Be This Tall to Ride – Dad shares custody of his five year old son while maintaining his sanity and his job as a writer.  Funny, funny stuff.  No typos, please!

Blog posts that most moved me this week:

twilight

Twilight outside our new digs.  In silhouette are my nephew and niece.  After spending hours digging a trench to try to fix the gas line to the social hall, my nephew had to drive back over here to help my niece when her car wouldn’t start.  If you listen very closely, you can hear my grandniece in her car seat screaming her fool head off — just because she can.