Monday, July 28, 2014

THE EVER-FRIENDLY, AGNES CARMICHAEL

To me, a “character” is an eccentric with a dynamic personality. These individuals are not just oddballs but something about their positive or negative personality makes them compelling enough that it's difficult to take your eyes off them. Sometimes my South Jersey casino friends are insulted when I say that Atlantic City, compared to Las Vegas, has no characters. But out west, these walking entertainment centers were everywhere.

Today’s character laden offering is an excerpt from my short story, “AGNES CARMICHAEL, OF THE CARMICHAEL CALIFORNIA, CARMICHAELS.” It is the story of a couple and how the old saying; there’s a lid for every pot…didn’t apply to these two losers.

More importantly, you will soon find why the title is such a mouthful when you meet Agnes Carmichael. As well as other characters like, Dick Paynlewski, Ciro the Hero, (before he became Ciro the Zero) and Simon “Coat-Rack” Rhett.

In 1981, Ciro the Hero and I both worked at downtown Las Vegas casinos. On many occasions, we met for a drink at 4:00AM, at Binions Horseshoe Casino. Ciro had “money on the street” so on one occasion, I reluctantly followed him to Hotel Fremont where he was going to encourage a former coworker to honor his debt.

Ciro’s client didn’t come to work that night. While we were there Ciro and I decided to play craps. Armed with about forty dollars each, we had the table all to our self. Ciro shot the dice first. He got off to a great start and made me plenty of chump change. But Ciro left all his winnings in play and had over a hundred in play when a tipsy, giggly woman around thirty (four years older than us) appeared at the other end of the table.

On closer examination this slightly plump woman’s pale face was dotted wet-looking, purple berry-like zits. She wasn’t wearing make-up and a thick white band bunched her frizzy brown hair, unattractively straight up.

During a brief pause in the action, she took a badly crinkled dollar bill out of a small black clutch, tossed it on the table and said, “Dollar eleven.” The dealer bleated, “Buck yo.” She then called across the table to Ciro, “C’mon big boy, throw me an eleven.” Ciro was toying with the dice as he muttered for only me to hear, “I’ll give you eleven, eleven inches.” I was fighting off a laugh when Ciro called back to her, “Honey, forget about the fuckin' eleven, I shootin’ for an eight.”

Ciro threw an eleven. The woman jumped up and down as if winning those fifteen dollars was like hitting the lottery. She pulled out another single from her purse, threw it on the table and said with a big grin, “Press my eleven.” When her broad smile revealed a small chip in an upper front tooth Ciro whispered, “Marrone, what a train wreck...but she has big tits.”

She called to Ciro, “I know you’re talking about me. Just concentrate on throwing me another eleven and I give you a big kiss.” Ciro rolled his eyes, “Maybe I should reduce my bets?” I said, “Don’t get superstitious. I’m not changing anything...you’re on fire.” Ciro was still waffling until he threw the dice and said, “What the fuck.” He seven-out and we both lost.

Ciro sneered under is breath, “That goofy looking, ugly wench distracted me.” To our surprise, she approached. I focused on her frilly U-neck blouse and her stretch mark ravaged breasts as she arched her back to emphasize her trophy-like bust. She said, “Nice roll handsome, we all made money.” Ciro was disinterested, gently brushed past her and said, “Yeah, yeah whatever, we gotta go.” She ran ahead of us and playful blocked Ciro’s path. She was oscillating her torso to display her chest and said, “What’s the rush?” Ciro blasted, “Get your fat tits and fat ass out of my face!” She grabbed Ciro’s arm as he passed and squawked, “My father can make trouble for you. He’s a big man in Carmichael and everyone in Sacramento knows him.” Ciro said, “Well Dorothy, you ain’t in Kansas no more.” She said, “Father is a big man here too. He has a $40,000.00 credit line at the Landmark alone…everyone in Vegas knows the name Cyrus Carmichael.” Ciro was pretending to yawn as she continued, “When I finish BJ school, he’s going to ‘juice’ me in anywhere I want.”

Ciro was not impressed and was annoyed that she followed us to the cashier. Ciro sighed, “Look doll, I didn’t mean to insult you…” She interrupted, “That’s okay, I just like to be friendly. Let’s go for a drink and get better acquainted.” He said, “No can do, I got a jealous girlfriend. Besides, I gotta get this lightweight home before he turns into a pumpkin.”

Coincidentally, Ciro’s girlfriend (Shirley Birnbaum) was the assistant cage manager at the Maxim Casino, (Shirley was married with three kids. She and Ciro had Thursday afternoon delight for about a year).

Shirley had access to confidential records and thought nothing of sharing that information with Ciro. A few days later, he called me to say that Cyrus Carmichael was a real estate lawyer and indeed, a heavy-duty baccarat player, all over town.

At that time, I was a craps dealer at a crumby dive called the Vegas Club. I had lost my great job at the Stardust and now I was eking out a living until something better came along. One of my supervisors was an ignorant ass-hole named Ralph Winters. He thought he was a big man in a small place so like a tyrant, he stepped all over the inexperienced dealers. He and I clashed many times but when I exposed him as being incompetent and powerless, he clammed up around me.

Winters was horrible amongst his peers too. One of the blackjack supervisors, Edmund Khalifa, came into the pit to ask everyone to chip-in for a surprise birthday party for a terminally ill shift boss. The dealers all agreed to give three dollars. The supervisors were asked to give five. Winters was aware that Khalifa was of Turkish-Syrian decent, born in Dearborn Michigan and was as much a Catholic as he was. Yet he refused to donate and called the pleasant Khalifa, “A fuckin’ pushy camel-jockey.”

Winters was gloating about bullying Khalifa when he suddenly switched topics and bragged, “There’s new keno writer who loves to give head.” He rattled off five of his coworker cronies and said, “Last night, she took care of all of us on the roof of the Horseshoe. She calls it, being friendly.”

On my next break, I was surprised to see Ciro's train wreck from the Fremont sitting in the employee lounge. She wasn’t in a uniform and had a temporary nametag that read: CARMICHAEL. She didn’t recognize me, (maybe because she was sober). I pointed at her badge and asked, “Is that your real name?” She said, “No it’s Agnes. I hate it…so I get everyone to call me Carmichael. I’m Agnes Carmichael and I’m from Carmichael California. Get it, I’m Carmichael from Carmichael.”

I was being rather neutral when she started twirling her. Then she stood up and plopped next to me and said, “I’d like to get friendly with you.” That’s when I realized that this was the girl that idiot Ralph Winters and his posse “got friendly” with on the roof of the Horseshoe.

To be on the safe side, I asked, “What department are you in?” She said, “I just started as a keno writer. It’s a shit job, $4.15 an hour but as soon as I finish BJ school, I’m going to deal at the Landmark.” I said, “Wow, you’re lucky. It’s hard to get in there.” She was gliding her fingernail on my bicep and cooed, “I like you. You have manners. You seeing anyone?” I lied, “Yeah.” Carmichael said, “Shit! The good ones are always taken. The guys here are animals…and their language…ugh!”

Three months later, Carmichael was still at the Vegas Club. Her father bought a new car and a tiny condo for Carmichael and her daughter Harlene.  But his promise to use his casino influence on her behalf never happened. To make matters worse, despite daddy's many gambling sprees in town, he never dropped by, phoned or even acknowledged his granddaughter’s twelfth birthday. Carmichael was forced to survive on her own and soon sucked her way to the top of the dung heap, as a blackjack dealer at the lowly Vegas Club.

One night I saw an old friend Dick Paynlewski walking through the casino with a local hustler Simon “Coat-Rack” Rhett. Coat-Rack, in his late seventies sold table game systems to naïve gamblers, was a past-poster, short change artist and rail thief. He was also a walking pawn shop. He bought items from the down-and-out and resold what wasn't reclaimed. He was nicknamed “Coat-Rack” because he wore the same green polyester leisure suit every day. On hot days, he hooked a collapsible hangar through a shirt button hole, to hang the sports jacket. Regardless of how ridiculous he looked with that dangling jacket bobbing up and down, his dignified head remained held high.

Dick Paynlewski (42) was one of my boxman at the Holiday Inn in 1979. He was my mentor and a casual friend. Dick was famous for poor decision making. That trait was made worse by a drinking and gambling problem. So he wasn’t much of a catch. Therefore, the only thing he hated more that being reminded that he never had a serious girlfriend in his life was being the brunt of Polish jokes.

Later, I saw Rhett leaving and soon spotted Dick playing blackjack at Carmichael’s table. When I went in my break, I saw Dick at the snack bar eating a hot dog. He was sloppy drunk, slurring his words and holding the counter to keep his balance. I was about to tell him there was a dollop of mustard on his oxford shoe but he said, “Did you know I legally changed my name?” He had been fantasizing about doing it for as long as I knew so I was surprised that he saved enough money and actually went through with it. I said, “You really changed your name?” He was nodding as I added, “To what, Joe Paynlewski?” Dick said, “No ass-hole, you’re now talking with Richard Thomas Payne.” I said, “But everyone calls you Dick, that means your name is Dick-Pain.” He said, “You’re fuckin’ nuts. Only you think that way.”

Dick suddenly whined about Asian blackjack dealers being robots. He was getting too loud so I tried to shush to him. I said, “Hey, I work here.” But the moron ranted louder, “They shouldn’t let scum like that into our country. Hell, they ain’t even Christians!” I said, “I’m not Christian.” He pinched me cheek and laughed, “Don’t worry, you’re okay.”

I changed the subject by asking, “What did you hock with Coat-Rack.” “No, I bought a bunch of eight-track tapes off him for fifteen bucks.” I scoffed, “You got an eight-track player?"  He said, "Yeah in my car.  What do think, I'm an idiot?"  I said, "Use them well.” Dick said, “I heard he lives in a shack but it’s packed wall-to-wall with stuff, like a friggin’ department store. But I don’t wanna talk about him. What’s the story with that BJ dealer Carmichael?” I played dumb and said, “I dunno. She’s new.” Dick said, “You know what she said to me?” I had a pretty good idea as I shook my head. “She said she likes to be friendly.” I said, “That’s nice.” Dick said, “No there’s more. She also said; there’s going to be a party in my mouth…wanna come? " I shrugged.  Dick continued, "I musta made a funny face so she says; don’t worry about my chipped tooth, I know what I’m doing.” Dick wasn’t sharp enough to make that up...and I was still shocked. Then he said, “I’m tapped, can you spot me a twenty?” I said, "I'm broke too." Later on, he apparently managed to get some money because Carmichael and Dick became an exclusive couple.

On paper they were a perfect couple. Dick was the supportive father figure she never had and Carmichael provided affection and a fun-loving environment. But Carmichael’s presence couldn’t always override Dick’s depression that was constantly triggered by his combination of stupidity, gambling and drinking. And the emotional stability that Dick offered Carmichael was frequently derailed by the simple fact that she didn’t consider “being friendly” as sex…therefore she wasn’t cheating on him.

I worked the Vegas Club from February to August 1981. During that time my many attempts to improve myself were always thwarted. One night, a terribly inexperienced coworker told me he had just gotten hired as a craps dealer at the Horseshoe. On my next break, I snuck out of the building, ran through alleys two blocks and asked for an audition. I was denied!

On my way back, near the Vegas Club’s rear employee entrance, I heard violent shouting and crying. I peered around a stinking dumpster and saw Dick screaming into Carmichael’s face, “You’re a whore!” She cried, “You’re the only man I slept with since I hit town.” He said, “Admit it, I heard you sucked seven guy’s cocks yesterday!” “No,” she whimpered, “you’re fucked in the head, ‘cause that ain’t sex.” I thought Dick was going to punch her. Instead like palming a basketball he put his hand over her face and shoved her down onto the damp, filthy pavement. She shouted out, “I was just being friendly…” Dick quietly said, “If someone loves you, blowing one other guy makes you a piece of shit…” He stormed off down the alley and she slithered back into the Vegas Club. A minute later, I followed.

Ciro and Dick both worked at the Holiday Inn. A bunch of people from there decided to meet at an Indian reservation resort, sixty miles north, near the Utah state line. I went with Ciro. It was cloudy, windy and cool so few people were there. But we did bump into Dick and Carmichael and they were of course, arguing.

Dick was wearing slacks, a buttoned shirt and leather loafers. Carmichael was in a one-piece crimson bathing suit. She didn’t recognize Ciro and introduced herself. Then she said, “And this is Dick-Pain…and he’s a pain in my ass too.” Dick knew Ciro from work and floundered for a snappy comeback by saying, “This is Agg…it’s short for aggravating.” No one laughed.

Ciro and I spent an hour in the natural mineral pool. Later, in the pavilion that housed a lunch counter and a bar in an adjoining room, we saw Dick passed-out on his bar stool with a double scotch and a hamburger in front of him. The bartender brought Ciro and me two beers as Dick jumped up from his perch and bolted out. We were on our way out when Dick reappeared. In a drunken blush he confided in us, “You can’t trust a fart after forty.”

Outside, the place looked deserted.  A few people were still in the hot mineral spa and everyone else seemed to be heading to the parking lot.  On the far side of the empty tomahawk-shaped kiddie pool, there were benches and rows of lockers in front of the men’s and ladies changing rooms. In the far corner, we saw Carmichael. She motioned us over and said how great the resort was. Then she unzipped her bathing suit and without exposing herself, pulled down one of the straps. Ciro said, “A lady would undress inside.” She exposed one of her saggy breasts and said, “A gentleman would look the other way.” When Ciro advanced toward her, he took down the other strap. I walked away.

I was having a beer, facing Dick on the other side of the bar.  Soon, Ciro came in and ordered a shot of Jack Daniels.  Later, Carmichael in street clothes came in and stood between us. She said to Ciro, “If you buy me a beer, I’ll be your best friend.” A few seconds after chugging half the bottle down, she began fondling both our crotches at the same time. The bar blocked Dick’s view as he comprehended what was going on. Then he croaked, “You better not be giving Ciro a hand job.” Carmichael cracked, “How dare you make such an insinuation…I’m giving Ciro AND Steve a hand job.”

Ciro spent the hour ride back to Vegas ranting and raving about Carmichael. He said, "If giving head was an Olympic event, she’d definitely win the gold medal.  She's got talent from gobs of experience.  Plus, she puts Pop Rocks candies in her mouth and the little explosions feel great."

Later he said that Carmichael was fed up with Dick and was breaking up with him, that night. Then he said, “Remember when Dick said; you can’t trust a fart after forty. Well check this out, she said he farts during sex and once shit in the bed."

The next night, Carmichael was free of Dick. At work, she found out that weeks earlier, Ralph Winters gave away the surprise of the dying shift boss’s party by complaining about Edmund Khalifa’s strong arm tactics. She cut-off Winters and his buddies from her friendship and sympathized with the self-proclaimed family man, Khalifa. During the shift, she and the good-looking Khalifa exchanged some "friendly" sexual banter.

Carmichael was waiting in line to punch out when Khalifa came up behind her and gave her posterior an amorous squeeze. When she didn’t protest he whispered, “I want to make love to you.” In front of several coworkers she kissed him hard on the lips.

The next morning’s sun was reaching the horizon as Carmichael and Khalifa stood on the second floor landing of his brother’s unoccupied rental unit. Edmund wanted to get home before his wife woke up. He impatiently stared at the end of the street hoping to see the taxi he called that would take Carmichael back downtown. Carmichael was annoyed that he wasn’t driving her back but she was in the warm afterglow of having her world rocked like it’s never been rocked before, she didn’t complain.

Carmichael nibbled Khalifa’s ear and neck as she massaged his penis through his suit pants. She took down his zipper when he got hard. She recalled an hour earlier when he said, “I could spend the rest of my life with a girl like you.” She said, “Eddie, let’s go back inside…put it in my butt again.” Khalifa smiled, “See, you did like it.” She took down his pants and got on her knees. Half-heartily he said, “Stop,” as her head went back and forth. A minute later, the cab came into view and he said, “You’re crazy…I told you to stop…what will the neighbors think?” When the taxi stopped, she gave him a deep kiss, refused his offer of carfare and said, “You’re wonderful.”

The digital clock above the Mint Casino read 7:37 as Carmichael pulled her car out of the Horseshoe parking lot. She was happy because she had time to spare, to cook her daughter Harlene breakfast and drive her to school.

Halfway home, a wry smile came to Carmichael’s lips as she uneasily squirmed from the strange sensation in her rectum. She was heading south on Paradise Road with the car radio blasting.  She was making all the lights as she sang along with the Gilbert O’Sullivan song, “ALONE AGAIN, NATURALLY.” At the Charleston Boulevard intersection she innocently proceeded when a speeding drunk ran the red light.

Carmichael needed several surgeries. She was placed in ICU and with the help of a respirator clung to life for seventy-two hours. Harlene phoned her powerful grandfather but only left a series of messages. A representative of Cyrus Carmichael contacted the hospital and took responsibility for all the finest medical treatments. However, he never returned Harlene’s calls or flew into town. Instead, three over-sized bouquets (one for each day) adorned her room.

On the third day, Harlene got in touch with Dick. Despite binge drinking since their break-up, this lost soul pulled himself together and was at the nurses station in twenty minutes.

The bickering started when Dick wasn’t allowed in to see the patient. He wasn’t family and even when Harlene insisted that it was okay, they were told; rules are rules. Luckily during a shift change, the next nurse grudgingly let him in.

Dick openly sobbed as he stared at the feeder tube coming from her abdomen while a doctor informed him of the seriousness of her condition. In addition to head trauma, she already had her spleen and one kidney removed. The list of other injuries included a broken hip, internal bleeding and the news that she could never get pregnant again.

Dick nestled close to Carmichael’s ear. He dedicated himself to a valiant vigil of whispered encouragement. Hours later, she began breathing independently but remained in a coma.

He constantly rubbed her back or stroked her face. Dick also emptied and washed out her bedpan as he silently rehearsed a marriage proposal. He was contorting his body to clean her bottom as she stirred. Dick gave her one last wipe as she painfully moaned. He was scrambling to press the nurse signal as Carmichael murmured, “Eddie, put it in my butt…” Dick couldn’t believe his ears. He waited an eternity-like thirty seconds and cooed on her ear, “This is Eddie. I am here. What do you want?” There was a prolonged, agonizing pause before Carmichael gurgled, “You were right Eddie. I did like it. Put it in my butt again.”

Dick rose up and punched the wall. He feverishly paced a few seconds before lunging at Carmichael. He grabbed her throat and was choking her when his stomach seized-up on him. To avoid the ultimate embarrassment, he ran to the toilet. Luckily while doing his business, he cooled off. On his way out of the room, he smashed one of Mr. Carmichael’s bouquets to the floor.

Dick had a hunch that Eddie was Carmichael’s coworker. Like a madman, he sped downtown, darted through traffic and abandoned his car on Ogden Street. He jogged to the Vegas Club's entrance and plowed into the casino looking for vengeance.

Dick hid his agenda and asked random casino personnel, “Is Eddie working tonight?” He approached ten people until a roulette dealer said, “We don’t have any Eddie’s on this shift, unless you mean Edmund? He’s that floorman at the last blackjack table.” When this man fingered the boss, Dick drifted towards his prey.

Edmund Khalifa was an American but his heritage left him with a pronounced Arabic look. Dick stewed as he imagined his pure angel being defiled by a reprehensible heathen.

Nobody noticed Dick standing there staring with evil intentions, at the man he assumed was his rival. In frustration, locked by decision, he cursed himself because he couldn’t figure out how to address his anger. Suddenly he got an idea and stormed out.

Dick began searching every casino near Fremont Street. The depth of his mission was only outdone by his vigil at Carmichael’s side. Fruitless hours passed. He was exhausted as he staggered through the Golden Gate Casino for the third time. Dick saw a hustler friend of Simon Rhett and asked, “You see Coat-Rack?” The flea said, “No, he’s probably home…he only comes out at night.” “Night?” Dick wondered. “What time is it?” The low-life pulled out an antique silver pocket watch and said, “Funny, I bought this off Simon five years ago.” Dick said, “Yeah, yeah whatever.” The hustler said, “Hold your horses.” He donned a pair of eyeglasses with one frame missing and added, “It’s coming up on noon.”

Dick demanded, “Where’s he live?” The cockroach rubbed the stubble on his chin, silently extended his right hand and said, “Let me see…” Dick slapped a five dollar bill in his palm and snapped, “Scumbag.”

Dick took the information and hurried to his car.  He ripped the parking ticket off his windshield and raced to number thirty-five Cincinnati Street. He found Coat-Rack sitting in the shade, on a stump and drinking from an apricot brandy pint bottle. Instead of shaking his hand, he grabbed the old man’s elbow and got him on his feet. They brushed past the suit jacket dangling from the tree as Dick guided Coat-Rack, to the dilapidated garage he lived in.

Like a hoarder’s rat's nest, the floor was littered with mountains of merchandise. Dick didn’t notice the narrow, jagged path between the mess as he spewed, “You gotta gun for sale?” The old-timer said, “Whoa big fella. First, why do you look like such shit? Second, If I had such an item…and I ain’t sayin’ I do…what might you be needed it for.” “Lookit Simon, you know I’m okay.” Coat-Rack stared him down, “Well…” Dick wasn’t prepared for the third degree. He hemmed and hawed until he whined, “It’s kinda personal.” Rhett with the sobriety of a judge said, “Boy, y’all think I just fell off a goddamned turnip truck?” Dick was still flustered as he said, “Um, er…it’s for protection.”

Coat-Rack led him through his faux department store. In the corner that served as a makeshift bedroom Rhett stared into Dick’s reddened brown eyes and said, “Swear you ain’t lookin’ to kill nobody…” Dick shook his head as the old man pulled a .25 from a bureau drawer and preached, “Make sure my good name stays out of any police reports. If the shit hits the fan, remember you found it in an ash can.” Dick nodded and snatched at the pistol. Coat-Rack pulled it away and said, “Furthermore, they’ll throw the book at you if you fuck up. This piece might be hot, you got no license and you ain’t gettin’ no paperwork. Jesus H. Christ, I don’t even know if you know how to use it.” He swigged his brandy and groaned, “You got sixty cash?”

Dick turned to hurry away.  Coat-Rack said, "Wait one second.  You do realize it ain't loaded, right?  And I got no ammo for it."  Dick found out what he needed, where to get it and sped off.

Dick stopped on the way home and bought a box of shells. In his apartment he loaded three bullets, (for Carmichael, Khalifa and himself). In his bathroom, he childishly looked at his image in the mirror and practiced drawing his tiny six-shooter like a cowboy. Then he concealed the “Saturday Night Special” in his pocket and drove to the hospital.

Like a zombie, Dick trudged up the dimly lit corridor towards Carmichael’s room. At the nurse’s station, he was greeted like a rock star. He was mobbed by the ladies who claimed that it was his TLC that miraculously pulled Carmichael out of her coma.

In the shadowy room there was a fourth gigantic bouquet, a grinning Harlene, her friend and a lucid Carmichael. In her immobilized state, she sipped cranberry juice through a glass straw as she smiled at Dick. Dick asked the two adolescents for some privacy. They whispered and giggled on their way out.

Inside his pocket, Dick confidently gripped the gun and wrapped his index finger around the trigger. Carmichael gasped, “I’m so, so sorry.” Nervously, Dick withdrew his hand from his pocket…without the .25. Bountiful tears streamed down Carmichael’s cheeks as she coughed, “I strayed. I-I-I did it with another man.” Tears rolled down Dick’s face as she clearly stated, “I know what you did for me. They said I almost died and you never left my side.” Gingerly, he bent over and kissed her. She yawned and weakly kneaded his crotch. Carmichael was feeling faint as her pinkie slid along the shaft of the gun barrel. She stammered, “W-w-wow, you are happy to see me.”

A nurse barged into the room and announced, “Visiting hours are now over.” She looked into Dick’s eyes and said, “This one needs rest too…go home!” Carmichael called Dick near and moaned, “My own fuckin’ father never showed up or even called. None of my ‘friends’ did either…I’m never going to be ‘friendly’ again. I love you.”

Dick’s heart was pounding but before he could put together a marriage proposal, the nurse pulled the curtain around the bed shut, pointed at the door and ordered him out.

An hour later in Dick’s dark bedroom, he desperately tried to stay awake. He was consumed by revenge but needed to wait until Khalifa was on duty before blowing away that “sodomizing Arab bastard.”

To combat his fatigue, Dick splashed cold water on his face and stood out on his tiny terrace. The limp breeze and some stretching helped. Soon Dick needed to repeat the process. He felt a twinge of dizziness as he staggered back to the bathroom. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and said, “Ed, this town ain’t big enough or the two of us.” He drew the gun, fumbled it and discharged a round.

The reverberation in the small enclosure was deafening. But soon, his own painful wailing took over when he realized he had shot himself in the foot.

In minutes, most of the black and white hexagon tiles he could see were covered in blood. He was slipping in and out of consciousness as shock set in. He heard the sound of distant sirens getting near. Soon he was startled by the thunderous footsteps that vibrated the cheap, exterior stairway that led to his apartment. The last thing Dick remembered was pounding on his front door and someone shouting, “This is Metro police! Open up.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

CAMP ZIMBO

It has been said; Nobody has ever out-exercised a poor diet.

My wife Sue and I celebrated the second leg of our vacation at J and G Zimbo’s summer retreat, in Carolina Beach, North Carolina. Despite living less than ninety minutes apart, (in New Jersey), we probably have averaged less than a visit a year since 1984. So the allure of accepting their many invitations was always there.  But due to scheduling conflicts, our long overdue visit down south, (six years) finally came to be, (this week).

JZimbo and I know each other since we were about ten. Three years later, we were Bar Mitzvah-ed together (May 31, 1968).  But our long and current friendship didn't blossom until our late teens. Coincidentally, independent of us, Sue and GZimbo, became BFF’s in Brooklyn College.
1974 KISSIMMEE, FLORIDA.  WHEN THE EVER-SVELTE RBOY (SECOND FROM LEFT) AND I WORKED FOR DISNEYWORLD, FOUR FRIENDS CAME TO VISIT INCLUDING JZIMBO (FAR LEFT).  AND NO, WE WEREN'T ALWAYS ZOFTIG, (THAT MEANS HE AND I WEREN'T HOLDING OUR STOMACHS IN FOR THIS SHOT).

In our young adult lives, JZimbo and I always enjoyed eating...too much. Our struggles to maintain sexy beach bodies combined regular dietary adventures with rare success. To his credit, the big difference between us is JZimbo works hard and plays hard. I do neither. That means with a more conservative approach, I don’t live the dolce vida or kill myself trying. The positive spin on excessive behavior is, high risk, high rewards. So looking back, one could say I’ve maintained a less impressive, middle weight range, while JZimbo has looked spectacular and at other times…well…not so much.

For this year's vacation, Sue and I drove two hours from the Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Airport to the Zimbo house. Their four-bedroom, three-story house is a block from the beach. This beautiful home is perfect for visitors and parties. Our three night stay over-lapped with other friends, (the M’s), in the beginning and the A’s at the end. Even if we all stayed at the same time…even with a fourth couple for the last bedroom…we all would have had plenty of spacious privacy.

The first thing Sue and I did in town was hit the supermarket. We bought fruit, wine, water and other essentials. When we arrived, GZimbo greeted us while JZimbo and the M’s were at the beach. In my quick scan of the kitchen, I was beamed-back to the memories of our college days. All along the counter, I saw JZimbo’s influence, (an industrial-sized jar of Animal Crackers, a huge box of knock-off Nilla Wafers, super market brand chocolate chip cookies and several bags of cashews, walnuts, pecans and sunflower seeds).

Our reunion on the beach began with catching up, (good, bad and indifferent gossip that morphed into a laugh marathon). The M’s were flying home that night from nearby Wilmington (N. C.) airport. So we headed out in two cars, for an early dinner, at Elijah's, on the historic river walk, in the old town section of Wilmington.
GZIMBO MADE A PERFECT RESTAURANT CHOICE. ELIJAH'S OFFERED GREAT FOOD, GREAT SERVICE AND A BEAUTIFUL VIEW OF ANN STREET AND THE CAPE FEAR RIVER.

Luckily the M’s are no strangers to food either because our communal effort (led by JZimbo) flooded our table with salads, soups and appetizers before the equaling satisfying entrées arrived.

While JZimbo drove the M’s to the airport, GZimbo gave Sue and I, a walking tour of old Wilmington.
LED BY SAMMY THE SEAHAWK, (above), WILMINGTON IS A COLLEGE TOWN.  DESPITE THE SCHOOL (UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT WILMINGTON), BEING IN THE MONKEY JUNCTION SECTION OF THE CITY, THE STUDENTS (AND TOURISTS) FLOCK TO OLD TOWN AND ITS COOL BARS, RESTAURANTS AND SPECIALTY BOUTIQUES. 

I never knew anything about Wilmington but its architecture, cobblestone streets, antique shops and history was a nice surprise. The contemporary vibe combined with southern charm made me want to spend more time there, (I also felt that although my son Andrew is thriving in college life, he would love this city because his university town of Ewing is nothing by comparison).

GZimbo took us to a vintage ice cream shop. In the perfect marriage of relaxation and eating crap, we sat on a bench shaded by magnolia trees. We watched the passengers get on and off the horse-drawn trolley and people watched.
SUE AND I WITH THE HORSE-DRAWN TROLLEY TEAM OF RUFUS AND HOBART, (FAR LEFT WAS CAMERA SHY).

JZimbo came back from the airport and got us off our duffs. So true to his character, he marched us several blocks away to his favorite, (different) ice cream parlor. The ever-friendly JZimbo chatted up the proprietor and suggested ways of improving the man’s business. Later, he handsomely tipped a street saxophonist while letting him know that the river walk (a couple of blocks away was a better location).

By accident, we found a bar that showed cult movies in a small, adjoining theater. The night before they showed the, “ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.” But that night’s headliner was, “DOLOMITE.” JZimbo was certain this movie was a riot, (everyone else was indifferent). Then the bartender poked her head out of the door and said, “Y’all’s in luck, tonight’s feature film just started.”

We shuffled through the one hundred percent empty bar and into the darkened fifty seat theater, (with fifteen or so customers). Within seconds we found ourselves embarrassed by this "blacksploitation" film from 1975…despite some humor derived from the shoestring budget, we walked out after twenty minutes.

At the bar, JZimbo again proved his excessive behavior by proclaiming, “I can’t go anywhere without buying something.” While he alone enjoyed the fruits of his motto, M and M’s and a can of Pepsi, he started a pleasant conversation with the bartender...who through an endearing local accent told us of her a connection with Flatbush, (the neighborhood in Brooklyn where GZimbo grew up, next to Canarsie).

On the way back to Carolina Beach, JZimbo gassed up and bought tons of junk food, (Sue and I got sodas). At the house, the arm of JZimbo’s reading glasses fell off. In an attempt to make the repair, he was entertaining as he struggled to properly line the tiny screw into place. I’m guessing that GZimbo was less enthralled than me. She said, “Let me see what I can do.” To show how excessive behavior grows on people, she threw the glasses on the floor, stomped the last bit of life out of them and said, "Tomorrow, you can pick your self up a new pair.”

In the morning, in lieu of breakfast at the highly touted Grandma’s, JZimbo led us, in the broiling humidity on a walk that zigzagged the back streets. The girls paired-up and I walked with JZimbo. Our fulfilling conversation’s wide a breadth spanned the ridiculous and the sublime. The chat was so peaceful that the hunger, drudgery and mysterious objective became secondary.  Along the way, he got a phone call from the M's reporting that they were safely home despite a slight problem leaving Newark (NJ) Airport.
UBER TAXI, IS A NEW (CONTROVERSIAL) PRIVATE CAR OR RIDESHARE SERVICE.  IT IS OBJECTED TO BY ESTABLISHED MEDALLION CABS, BECAUSE OF CUT-RATES, SAFETY ISSUES AND LICENSING LOOPHOLES.

The M's phone call included that the police stopped them before they got into the Uber Taxi and the driver was issued a thousand dollars in fines and was arrested, (so they had to find a ride in a conventional cab for $12 instead of $10).

Our million-mile march was starting to get stale when JZimbo mentioned that Port City Java was our destination. I assumed our morning meal would be there…I was wrong. I was also wrong because our four-mile walk didn't earn us the privilege of a real meal. Consistent with his excessive mentality, we had coffee and cake then JZimbo said, “The baked goods here aren’t very good.”

I was still wondering about JZimbo's decision to take us to the that coffee shop as we approached the Snow’s Cut Bridge.  Rather than lead us back to civilization, JZimbo took us across, out of town. Over the man-made waterway that connects the Cape Fear River with the Atlantic Ocean, we continued to a park on the opposite shore.
THE ZIMBO'S THOUGHT IT WAS NOTHING BUT WALKING OVER THAT BRIDGE WAS CRAZY.  BUT IT WAS PLEASANT IN THE RIVERSIDE PARK ON THE OTHER SIDE.  IF WE HAD A CAR, I COULD HAVE STAYED THERE ALL DAY.

The hike going back was direct along Carolina Beach’s main drag. JZimbo needed to replace his stomped reading glasses, at the “Dollar and Up” store. He with Sue’s help took a half hour to find exactly the right ones.

Our next stop was at Walgreen’s. We were still three miles from home but JZimbo bought nuts, candy and six colossal cans of Arnold Palmer brand lemonade. Like two pack mules, he and I each carried a heavy sack each and trudged through the town’s business district.

At the municipal building, GZimbo needed to clarify her water bill's balance, (she had received a duplicate invoice). Outside the water bill payment window, a local TV reporter, a cameraman and an intern greeted her. Their station had a publicity stunt and were paying random people’s water bill. GZimbo turned to the municipal representative to plead her case. She was then assured that she had a zero balance...and thusly didn't qualify to have her bill paid. Seconds later, a man came up and they indeed paid his bill, ($124.61).

A mile from the house, we came upon a man-made lake with a jogging path, playground etc. In the distance, GZimbo spotted heavy storms clouds rapidly coming our way. She was saying we needed to move quickly when stout lightning cut through the sky accompanied by a tremendous, crackling, thunder clap. She pointed at a nearby bar and insisted we wait out the possible natural fireworks. JZimbo was in full agreement but Sue and I snapped, “We can make it home.”
GZIMBO DIDN'T APPRECIATE WHEN I SHRUGGED, "WE'LL BE OKAY, I HAVEN'T BEEN KILLED BY LIGHTNING YET."

Poor GZimbo.  She didn't like that we didn't join, in her over-reaction.  So in a near panic trot, she admonished us while encouraging us to scurry along. The potential catastrophe was bearing down on us as I lagged behind, in what Sue calls my “mall-walking speed.” Strangers recognized the imminent disaster and two different alarmists volunteered to drive us…I was so confident, I turned down both offers.

We were safely back twenty minutes and all hell broke out. For five hours, thunder and lightning highlighted nature’s fury. The lights flickered, the streets flooded and the Zimbo’s were glad they listened to reason.  Otherwise their over-protectiveness might have caused us to be stranded, (drunk and fed at the bar) the whole time.

Later, we got dressed for dinner. Huge puddles eliminated many parking spots but we enjoyed at elegant meal at the Dockside. Afterwards, we drove to the next town (Kure Beach) for dessert at the Arctic Circle (soft ice cream stand). I had my mother’s favorite, a hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream and wet walnuts, (my first one in twenty years, it's tough to imagine anything better).

Wednesday morning was hot and cloudy. The girls declared it a "no beach day" and shopped in Wilmington. JZimbo and I walked, (with our beach stuff) around the corner to Grandma’s. Apparently the previous day’s storm knocked out their electricity, we continued to the beach. We threw around a Frisbee. I hadn’t done that in decades. JZimbo was sweating through his shirt after forty minutes. Later he admitted trying to out last me but that's one activity that I can be excessive at.

We sat in chairs and stared into the ocean while chatting. He pointed out that the omnipresent pelicans continually do strafing runs, inches above the water. When they spot their prey, they skim the water with their big lower jaw and scoop up food. Their other feeding method has far less finesse. From a high vantage point, they do kamikaze face-first dives into the sea for a meal.
(stock photo) PELICANS ARE BIG, UGLY BIRDS. I HAD NEVER SEEN ONE, SO I LOVED WATCHING THEM.


I followed JZimbo into the surf. He dove in while wimpy me was getting my second toe wet. The ocean was choppy from the storm and another seemed to be brewing. JZimbo's head was a distant bobbing dot in the briny deep before the first big wave knocked me over. It took time to stand upright.  I was shaken-up enough that I retreated to my chair.

If I had joined JZimbo, I would have merely waded in chest deep water but JZimbo actually swam. From the safety of shore, I watched him cut through the current, parallel to the shoreline with ease. I was impressed. I was thinking that he reminded me of the pelicans. The flock I saw glided so gracefully or perpetually splattered themselves into the water.

At around eleven, JZimbo led me to an indoor/outdoor café on a nearby pier. I had psyched myself up for breakfast at Grandma’s so the limited gourmet lunch items were not appealing, (they didn't serve breakfast). So I was surprised that we went back to his house...unfed. While I foraged for food, (cookies, nuts and fruit), he went into his backyard in pants and a sweatshirt to spray insecticide on tree worms. He was out there a long time so when I made a burger run, I was shocked that he turned down my offer.

The girls called and said they bought the fixings for a barbeque. Another north Jersey couple (the A’s) was coming to Camp Zimbo after visiting family in Florida. Consistent with his character, JZimbo, like a man possessed suddenly declared he needed more insecticide and a garden hose.

Through a downpour of biblical proportions, he took me to Wal-Mart, in the Monkey Junction section of Wilmington. We went through the self check with his garden needs and four lollipops. Maybe he was doing it purposely but there’s the possibility he doesn’t know how entertaining it was to watch him struggle to scan the tiny, individual UPC labels on those pops.

In his car, while I’m imagining the need to build an ark because of the volume of rain, his excessiveness was made funnier when he made a series of insane turns to get to a Philly cheese steak joint. I didn’t want to spoil my dinner and didn’t get anything. But it was hilarious that he went through so much hardship to see if the place was any good only to order a can of tuna mixed into a bowl with lettuce, tomato and onion.

Later, the A’s arrived exactly on time. Sue and I were well acquainted with them but this was our first chance to really socialize. In no time, we had new friends. After eating we talked and laughed for hours.

On our last morning, (Thursday), like a camp counselor, JZimbo organized us for another walk. I asked our fearless leader if he was dragging us and the A’s on another ten-miler. JZimbo assured me that this jaunt, through the affluent section of Carolina Beach, (to the North Pier), was much shorter. Three miles later, I controlled my sarcasm by NOT whistling theme song to, “BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.” It took an eternity to reach our goal but because the conversation flowed, I never complained.
1957's "THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI," FEATURED THE SONG, "COLONEL BOGEY'S MARCH." THE OPENING SCENE DEPICTS THE ALLIED PRISONERS WHISTLING THIS TUNE AFTER SURVIVING THE "DEATH MARCH" TO THE PRISON CAMP...ONLY TO BE BEATEN, TORTURED AND STARVED.


We followed JZimbo up the North Pier’s stairs. I was expecting a cute little café but it was little more than a bait shop with toilets, (while the others took advantage of the facilities, JZimbo's zest for trickle down economics resulted in him buying a Chunky chocolate bar and playing pinball). The rest of us were interested in real food so we indulged in neither the candy counter fare or the protein-rich selection of chilled worms under glass.

I was starving as we had a photo shoot on the pier.
THE A's ARE A GREAT COUPLE.  I HOPE WE GET TO SPEND MORE TIME WITH THEM SOON.

During a lull in the photography session, I watched a trio of pelicans play a form of musical chairs as two alternated hunting for food while a third rested atop a random mooring post set out in the ocean, (as hungry as the bird on the pole might have been, he didn’t give up his few moments of rest easily for the next tired pelican trying to take a breather).
THE ZIMBO's, ON THE NORTH PIER.

JZimbo was either blind to our needs or he wanted us to burn enough calories to earn our meal. So he took the scenic route back. This round-about way took us to the town’s miniature boardwalk. At its famous doughnut shop, he made three points; early each morning a line stretches out the door, they only sell one flavor doughnut and that one type of doughnut, isn’t good.

By this time, the natives were restless and demanded food. JZimbo wanted to complete our eight-mile journey at Grandma’s but in a landslide vote, the apparently reliable eatery was ousted, in favor of the arbitrary place across the street, Kate’s. Speaking strictly for my self, if Kate’s specialty was shit on a shingle, I would have ate it and loved it. As for the actual southern-styled cuisine, Kate received twenty-four enthusiastic thumbs up, (all six of us used both hands and feet to accentuate our joy).

At the Zimbo compound, JZimbo, like a man possessed, in the stifling heat and humidity decided on another round of bug spraying. The others went to the beach…I took a nap.

We said our thank you and good-byes and loved every cherished memory of our stay at Camp Zimbo. The M’s were fun to be with the first day, Sue and I had the Zimbo’s to our self in the middle and we finished by making stronger friends with the A’s.

On the drive back to Myrtle Beach Airport, Sue lamented that the four of them were going to rent bikes the next morning. I figured a wheeling JZimbo would have taken them to Beale Street in Memphis via Miami…so me and my buns certainly didn’t feel like we were missing anything.

Later, on our hour-long flight back to Jersey,  I reflected on how JZimbo maintains his incredibly excessive, work-hard, play-hard lifestyle.  Then I realized there are many ways to get the job done right.

Our rough landing at Atlantic City Airport temporarily made me think about my mortality.
THE PILOT LUCKILY RIGHTED THE JET. SECONDS AFTER OUR BOUNCY, SCREECHING LANDING, WE RE-ENACTED OUR VIRTUAL PANIC IN A SELFIE.

My son Andrew picked us up at the airport.  On the way home, despite side-stepping a plane crash and an untimely death, I was pre-occupied.  I realized that I'm generally happy to sit on the sidelines instead of living a pattern of constant energy-burning supported by power-eating.  So, I guess, I’ll never make it as a pelican...wait, when do they have time to make baby pelicans?

Ironically, the JZimbo system must have merit because I lost three pounds at his house…that means…thanks to the Camp Zimbo method, despite over-eating great food…daily ice cream and continuous in-take of other sweets, (washed down with beer), I out-exercised my poor diet.

Monday, July 14, 2014

ROCK-n-ROLL HALL OF FAME: THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING.

Ever get punched in the face? It doesn’t feel too good. So you can only imagine what getting punched repeatedly must feel like. NOW! Imagine those continuous punches, except they are a bombardment of positive emotional jolts. That’s how I felt, (earlier this week), when my wife Sue and I took a three-day mini-vacation to Ohio.

My plan was simple, to right the wrong of not taking Sue to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, (I took my son Andrew there when our family vacation was scrapped because Sue had just started a new job).

This trip’s positive karma started with a nearly flawless 8+ hour jaunt to Northeast Ohio, (the only drawback was that Sue’s two-hour tour of duty driving was marred by an hour of torrential...trudging through a car wash-like rain).

At a rest stop in Ohio, I picked up a motel coupon booklet from an extremely pleasant man at the, ‘Welcome to Ohio Center,” (I always told Sue how uncanny it was that EVERYONE in Ohio is so nice…and this gentleman was the first to prove my point).

To shorten the trip, I wanted to find a motel along the Interstate, between Cleveland and our other stop, the pro Football Hall-of Fame, in Canton. The planets must have been perfectly aligned because our feather-in-the-wind destiny landed us almost exactly between the two cities, (a Microtel, in the town of Streetsboro).
ESTABLISHED IN 1989, MICROTEL IS A SUBSIDIARY OF WYNDHAM WORLDWIDE.  IT IS LISTED, BY J. D. POWER AND ASSOCIATES AS HIGHEST IN GUEST SATISFACTION AMONG ECONOMY HOTELS FOR TEN STRAIGHT YEARS AS OF 2011.

Sue and I were burnt out from the road as we approached the front desk. We were greeted, (overwhelmed with positive energy), by a couple, (co-managers Ole and Diana). Like being with old friends, the check-in procedure probably was three times longer than usual because of the warmth, talking and joking. They accepted our coupon, reminded us about the closing time of their indoor pool and suggested a nearby restaurant.

At the Brown Derby Steakhouse the perky hostess asked, “Table or booth?” I said, “Booth.” She said, “I have tables now, but a booth might take a few minutes.” Everything was going our way so I said, “We’ll wait for a booth.” A half minute later she said, “Your booth is ready.”

We entered Nirvana and found that the place expertly combined atmosphere, service and great food.  By the time we walked out, Sue and I were ready to do a free testimonial. I even tracked down the manager, (never did this in my life) and complimented Ashley the waitress and thanked him and the rest of the staff.
THE BROWN DERBY HAS SEVERAL LOCATIONS THROUGHOUT OHIO.  IT'S A BIG STEP UP FROM THE OUTBACK...AND I LIKE THE OUTBACK, A LOT.

On the way back to the motel, I spotted a hardware store billboard, in the town of Kent Ohio. Talk about a feather-in-the-wind destiny, prior to seeing the sign, I had no idea where in Ohio, Kent State University was.

Later, after a refreshing dip in the pool, I asked Ole, if Kent State University was indeed in Kent. It was the only time this upbeat man was ever somber around me when he said, “Yeah, next town over. The campus is eight miles from here.”

In the morning, I did my power-walk through town. Later, we ate the Microtel’s complimentary continental breakfast. Then we stopped at Wal-Mart for some travel essentials. While wandering around the store, I got the idea of seeing if they sold Kent State University tee-shirts, (in case going there didn’t fit in our plans).
MY ANDREW ATTENDS TCNJ.  LAST YEAR, IN AN ATTEMPT TO CIRCUMVENT THE HIGH STUDENT BOOKSTORE PRICES, I WENT TO THE NEARBY LAWRENCEVILLE NJ WAL-MART TO BUY TCNJ MERCHANDISE...THEY HAD NONE!  SO MY HOPES OF NETTING AN AFFORDABLE KENT STATE SHIRT WEREN'T TOO HIGH.

I asked Rex, a ready-to-please high school exchange student from Liberia. He didn’t know if they had Kent State shirts but added, “Let me find the lady who knows it all.” I followed him through the racks of the women’s wear department until he found Dixie.

I would have thought it was impossible but Dixie was nicer than Rex. On the way, she apologized because there was only one style Kent State shirt. But there it was, in a choice of navy, gray or yellow…exactly what I was looking for…I bought the dark blue.

Cleveland was a simple thirty-minute drive on Interstates through towns like Twinsburg, Macedonia and Akron. While going through Akron, I mentioned how I believe in the power of coincidence as opposed to our fate being pre-destined…so I added, “It would be cool if LeBron James re-signed with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers while we were here.”
IT IS MY OPINION THAT LeBRON JAMES (29), A NATIVE OF AKRON AND A FORMER CAVALIER, IS THE GREATEST BASKETBALL PLAYER ON THE PLANET, (WITH THE NEXT BEST BEING EONS OF TALENT BEHIND HIM). HIS RETURN TO CLEVELAND WOULD BE POETIC JUSTICE AND INSTANTLY RESURRECT THIS SPORTS STARVED CITY, (THEY HAVEN'T BOASTED A WORLD CHAMPION OF SINCE THE NFL's BROWNS, IN 1964).

We got to the Rock-n-Roll Hall-of-Fame at 10:15AM. We soon experienced the gift that kept on giving. The next eight hours, (we NEVER stopped for lunch) was a shear love-driven rollercoaster…with the switch permanently set on “UP”…because every exhibit took us higher and higher.
SPRINGSTEEN, McCARTNEY AND JOEL...THROW ME IN AND YOU'D HAVE SUE'S MOUNT RUSHMORE.

I am not outwardly motivated by music. Yes, I have appreciation for it but I would never say it defines me or is an important part of my life. But it is. This importance might not be a part of my conscious being but at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, a continual flood of dormant (happy) emotions were gushed forward by so many artists, song titles and lyrics that activated wonderful historic memories of my life.
COULD YOU "IMAGINE" SUE MISSING A PHOTO-OP WITH JOHN LENNON?

A feast for the ears, eyes, brain and heart, you’d think a guy like me would run out of internal shivers and quivers and external tears of joy…but NO! I’m proud to have been so touched. It’s great to feel alive. WOW!
WHETHER IT WAS MICHAEL JACKSON'S GLOVE (above) OR SEEING A LITTLE RICHARD VIDEO OR READING THE LYRIC'S TO WOODY GUTHRIE'S, "THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND," THE CHILLS KEPT COMING.  MANY TIMES I BECAME MISTY AND JUST WHEN I THOUGHT, I HAD NO MORE EMOTION TO GIVE, THE NEXT EXHIBIT WOULD START ME ALL OVER AGAIN.

What a special day…and remember, I already experienced the same positive punch in the face feeling eight years ago. But it wasn’t enough, I needed more to accomplish my goal…and I got my reward when I heard Sue say, "This place is awesome!"
I'M NOT AN ELVIS DEVOTEE BUT I GOT CHILLS AS IF I WAS MEETING HIM N PERSON.

While Sue capped our stay at the gift shop, I asked an employee to suggest a restaurant, (please understand that I’m aware that the nice people I encountered in Ohio are all in the hospitality industry but it seemed to me, everyone…on both of my visits to the Buckeye State went above and beyond the call of duty).

This employee stopped what she was doing and found a file of maps. Her detailed explanation included her opinion that it’s better to drive because the Warehouse District, (an area with a series of hipster bar/restaurants), has free parking after six.

Free parking yes, finding a spot..well that's another story. But when you're, "in the zone" everything goes your way. I didn’t even have to pray to the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces, (Joe Vanilla), as someone pulled out and created the only spot on the whole street. We read the outdoor menus and landed at Bar Louie’s, at the corner of West 6th and St. Clair.
THE YOUNG CLIENTELE MADE US FEEL LIKE FOSSILS.

Bar Louie's under-thirty customers all looked like business people or kids in Cleveland sports team apparel. Gathered around the big screen TV tuned to a live Indians game, they carried the hope of Cleveland's future sports identity in their Johnny “Johnny Football” Manziel jerseys and old Lebron James shirts. I said to Sue, “If the network interrupts the game to announce that LeBron James signed with Cavaliers, they'll blow the roof off this place.”
IT'S BEEN 50 YEARS SINCE THAT BROWNS CHAMPIONSHIP.  EVEN WORSE, SINCE 1894 THE INDIANS HAVE ONLY BEEN CHAMPS TWICE, (1920 and 1948).  THE CAVALIERS HAVE NEVER WON IT ALL AND THE NHL'S CLEVELAND BARONS STAYED ONLY TWO SEASONS (1976-1978).  THEY SUCKED SO BAD THAT THE TEAM DIDN'T MOVE, THEY DISBANDED.

At Louie's, Sue and I were still in the warm after-glow of the Hall-of-Fame. We discussed the highlights of our eight-hour, musical love affair over burgers and a flat bread pizza appetizer. The surprisingly good quality of the food supported our vibe.

In the morning, during my power-walk, I got the idea to suggest breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. We both have heard great things about it but never tried it. Sue googled it and lucky us, there was a location in North Canton, minutes from the Football Hall of Fame. I then said, “As long as we aren’t in a hurry…and it’s so early, let’s try to find Kent State on the way.”

Ole’s directions were quick and easy. The school’s significance coincidentally ties in to Rock-n-Rock music, hippies and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960’s and into the 70’s.

I had no idea what to expect but the tasteful, artistic monument to one of the worse moments in American history (May 4, 1970), left me numb. I thought I had purged my system of tears the day before, but the senselessness of the four student’s deaths (and other gunfire injuries) shuddered my wife and I, on so many levels. But we’re so glad we took the time to see it, better understand and share the experience.

Click on the link below for the Crosby, Stills and Nash, "OHIO."
http://search.mywebsearch.com/mywebsearch/redirect.jhtml?action=pick&qs=&pr=GG&searchfor=tin+soldiers+crosby+stills+nash+youtube&cb=CD&pg=GGmain&p2=%5ECD%5Exdm003%5ES04317%5Eus&n=77fc41c7&qid=f77524ba93f74361b53496f616be3c3f&pn=1&ss=sub&st=bar&ptb=D6B92608-79BD-4909-92A0-160CFD832118&tpr=sbt&si=CKuH4unForUCFQPd4AodLCEADg&redirect=mPWsrdz9heamc8iHEhldEcgdjfjqpMajKYmz288FhTJFwKwXkWukp8ilDEDcUfLAxjvcZ23xDihFIH6JKsGodA%3D%3D&ord=2&ct=AR&

Thirty minutes later we were wowed at the Cracker Barrel. Trust me, pancakes aren’t just pancakes.
CRACKER BARREL ORIGINATED IN 1969.  THIS RESTAURANT/COUNTRY STORE COMBINES TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN CUISINE WITH A QUAINT DECOR.  ALTHOUGH THERE AREN'T ANY LOCATIONS NEAR MY HOUSE, THEY HAVE 630 FRANCHISES IN 42 STATES.

Everything continued going my way..even the gas prices were $3.25 in Canton, (no lower than $3.60 everywhere else).

The Football Hall of Fame would dredge up so many great memories.
THE ENTRANCE TO THE PARKING LOT.

Football has always been a major part of my life, (I played high school football too), so I expected some sort of emotional response. But no, it was just good, clean interactive fun.
EVEN THOUGH I GAVE SUE 8 HOURS AT THE ROCK-n-ROLL HALL, UNDER WALTER PEYTON'S WATCHFUL EYE, SHE PUTS ME ON THE CLOCK FOR TWO HOURS.
Sue pointed out that all the women we met were bored stiff.  Sue had the idea of heightening the woman's prospective by showing how the players decorated their homes or a display on how their wives dress.
BEFORE WE WENT IN, SUE SPOTTED ANOTHER DISINTERESTED FEMALE.  SUE OFFERED TO TAKE A PICTURE OF THAT LADY'S FAMILY AND SHE RESPONDED BY TAKING OURS, (above).  THAT WOMAN WAS VERY NICE AND SHE WASN'T EVEN FROM OHIO.  IF I DIDN'T BREAK-UP SUE AND HER NEW BFF, MY MUSEUM TIME WOULD HAVE BEEN SEVERELY CUT. 

The Hall offered many hands-on exhibits.
FORGET THE SILLY POSE, THIS HELMET DEMONSTRATES HOW THE COACH COMMUNICATES WITH PLAYERS WITH BUILT-IN SOUND SYSTEMS.  I ALSO LIKED THE BOOTH WHERE YOU GET TO DECIDE IF A REFEREE'S CALL WAS RIGHT.  THEY EVEN HAD A MOLD OF THE NFL's LARGEST HAND, (WILLIE McGINEST).  IT WAS DOUBLE MY SIZE AND RESEMBLED A JAI ALAI CESTA.
The most popular room has a bronze bust of each member's head, (organized by the year of induction).
I HAVE SO MANY FAVORITES TO CHOOSE FROM BUT THE CHUCK BEDNARIK (above) IS THE ONLY ONE THAT I LOOK CUTE IN.
The Hall's memorabilia can be measured only in tons. Among my favorites was the evolution of equipment, team jerseys, cleats, super bowl rings and the Super Bowl trophy.
SUE DOING A FINE IMITATION OF JERRY RICE CATCHING THE SUPER BOWL TROPHY.

It's funny, at the ticket booth, they ask for your zip code...and favorite team.  I told them my zip and then muffled my mouth as I grunted Jets, (they have caused me intense psychological damage since 1963). 

Even the other guests are fascinated by everyone else's team affiliation.  One Southern Californian in a Detroit Lions jersey told me, I should be proud and roar that they are my favorite team.  But other than Joe Namath and Don Maynard anyone else associated with the Jets in the Hall, achieved their greatness with other teams.
I GOT JOE NAMATH'S AND DON MAYNARD'S AUTOGRAPH IN AUGUST 1966, AT JETS TRAINING CAMP (PEEKSKILL NEW YORK).  IN JANUARY 1984, SUE AND I UNWITTINGLY ATE IN DON MAYNARD'S RESTAURANT OUTSIDE EL PASO TEXAS (IN NEW MEXICO).  OTHER THAN THE JETS ONE VICTORIOUS TRIP TO THE SUPER BOWL, MY JETS HGHLIGHT REEL PRETTY MUCH ENDS WITH THIS PARAGRAPH.

To honor the New York Jets and the other upstart Americn Football League (AFL) teams, the Hall has a separate room dedicated to them. 
THIS ORIGINAL 1960 BUFFALO BILLS BANNER HANGS FROM THE RAFTERS OF THIS AFL ROOM.  I CHOSE THE PHOTO FOR CHARLIEOPERA, (THE ONLY BILLS FAN OUTSIDE BUFFALO). FOR "SUPER" RESULTS, MAYBE I SHOULD HAVE STOOD FARTHER TO THE LEFT, TO AVOID BEING, "WIDE RIGHT."

I found myself very interested in the AFL exhibits.   While reading, I lived up to my "Instant Recall Edelbum" nickname (bestowed on me by RBOY) and discovered, not one but two typos, (a player's name misspelled and a wrong year).  I should have reported it, maybe they would have hired me as a proof reader.

My two+ hours at the Hall were over.  Our great time completed a near perfect mini-vacation. On the way to the Interstate, I asked Sue what her favorite part of the Football Hall-of-Fame was...she punched-up a candid photo she took.
I WAS EXPECTING A SHOT OF THE BIGGER-THAN-LIFE STATUE OF JIM THORPE OR THE COMPARISION OF RICHARD SLIGH TO JACK SHAPIRO, (THE NFL's TALLEST AND SHORTEST PLAYERS...SEVEN FOOT AND FIVE FOOT).  BUT INSTEAD, SUE WITH TONGUE-IN-CHEEK SHOWED ME THIS PICTURE OF THE EXIT SIGN.

We were driving through Akron on the way home.  I said how weird it was to fall into Kent State.  Then I added, "If all our positive energy of this trip really amounted to anything, LeBron would sign with the Cavaliers while we are here." 

Well, that didn't happen but he DID sign the next day!  So Sue and I can still say...our karma and presence throughout Northeast Ohio influenced LeBron's return.  And with any luck, he will be the springboard to end the Cleveland sports teams forever drought.  Plus, those teams and their fans can stop getting repeatedly punched in the face while witnessing the revitalization of this depressed region...with a gift that keeps on giving...in the name of economic relief.  Years from now when all this goodness comes true, don't thank LeBron...thank me!

Monday, July 7, 2014

STAR SPANGLED ROXY...MAYBE NEXT YEAR...

“The bombs bursting in air,” is a phrase from our National Anthem. It’s the lead-in to, “but our flag was still there.” The point being made was during the war of 1812, the USA were underdogs, the night the invading British bombarded Baltimore. But in the morning, the American flag still waved over Fort McHenry.
ON SEPTEMBER 12, 1814, DURING THE WAR OF 1812, (I GUESS THERE WAS A TWO-YEAR OVERTIME PERIOD), FRANCIS SCOTT KEY WITNESSED THIS ENGLISH, 25-HOUR ATTACK.  IN THE MORNING WHEN HE REALIZED THAT THE AMERICANS HAD HELD THIS STRATEGIC MILITARY CITY, HE WAS INSPIRED TO WRITE THE POEM, "THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER," WHICH LATER BECAME OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM.

Our national pride for surviving that onslaught has been traditionally and symbolically relived with Independence Day fireworks. Even though I prefer the quiet, once a year, on or about the Fourth of July, I have a great appreciation for the safe, carefully orchestrated and professionally prepared fireworks shows. My problem is the illegal fireworks that are smuggled into New Jersey, (detonated mostly on the 4th of July and New Years Eve…as well as sporadically the rest of the year).

I’m certain every neighborhood has amateurs (of all ages) who, in the name of patriotism, risk injury and getting fined by the police, solely to come-off as a big-shot. While I don’t see the thrill of firecrackers, bottle rockets, Roman candles, M-80’s, cherry bombs or blockbusters, I was always grudgingly accepting of it…until I got a dog.

My Roxy is a mutt. She is scared to death by loud noises, (primarily thunder and fireworks).
ROXY STRONGLY DESIRES QUIET SO MUCH THAT AT HER BIRTHDAY PARTY, SHE SPECIAL REQUESTED NO NOISE MAKERS DURING THE CELEBRATION...AND THAT HER YAPPY BFF MADDIE, WEAR A MUZZLE. 

It is unknown why some dogs are so acutely affected. But her case is so severe that the noise triggers persistent, excessive and irrational behavior. Those sounds mess with her so badly that she wants to escape. Nothing can stop her from trying to tunnel out of the house, (she digs like a machine on the material of our sofa, expensive comforters and computer wires). If Roxy was in a speeding car, I’m certain she’d be so desperate that she’s jump out the window.

Studies have shown that working and sporting dogs are more susceptible to a loud noise phobia. Experts aren’t certain why this is true but my Roxy, despite her lack of pedigree falls into that category, (she has beagle and Jack Russell blood coursing through her veins with a dab of Dalmatian and a jumbled Heinz-57 mixture to complete her lineage).

Noise phobia in dogs is linked to bad experiences as a puppy. However, it’s impossible to guess the specific problem. A good way for owners to address the situation is with Benadryl or some other mild, calming agent.
DOGGIE DOWNERS LIKE BENADRYL REALLY HELP.  CHECK WITH YOUR VET TO SEE IF SUCH A PRODUCT (AND PROPER DOSAGE), IS RIGHT FOR YOUR POOCH.

There also is sweater-like item called a Thunder Shirt which secures the dog with a soothing, swaddling caress.  I’ve heard mixed reviews that favor that they don’t work.

Unfortunately, dogs don’t outgrow this fear. You’d think that they’d realize that nothing terrible really happens…but I guess because it’s an emotional response, they don’t. The studies I read conclude that the problem gets more severe with each experience…and in Roxy’s case, I’d say that’s true.

Even the experts can’t agree on whether excessive petting and coddling is a good idea. While some say it helps, others claim that you are negatively reinforcing that there is indeed something for them to worry about.

What seems crazy is that Roxy can hear a distant, single firecracker pop and freak out. It might take an hour before she calms down. Then another gets exploded. Many times, my wife Sue and I can’t even hear it. So we are puzzled by doggie’s inconsolable panting, shivering and drooling, (in the case of storms, Roxy can perceive changes in barometric pressure, electrostatic disturbances and even smells).

Speaking of barometric pressure going haywire, three days ago, the professional Fourth of July firework shows sponsored by nearby casinos was postponed due to the threat of Hurricane Arthur, (I called it Hurricane Chip). The big event was rescheduled for last night. Sue’s friends Rose and Tom invited us to their house to watch the show from across the bay. Even though the explosions were barely discernable pops, the musical simulcast on the radio made the experience far better.

We had a great time and the company was terrific too. Until afterwards, Tom started blasting his own bottle rockets. I imagined some poor dog on their street ready to slash his wrists because of OUR noise. I felt like such a hypocrite but as a first time guest, I didn’t get on my soapbox and complain. Luckily, the stiff breeze was blowing inland, so rather than risk setting a neighbor’s house on fire, Tom stopped immediately on his own.

So please bear in mind when you shoot-off illegal fireworks, it’s likely that you are freaking out a dog. And the collateral damage is, nice people like my wife and I who work odd hours, lose sleep trying to calm our panic-stricken pups while protecting our furniture and other possessions.

This morning to prove how pissed-off Roxy still was, she refused to pose with the wooden pole of an American flag in her mouth or with a bigger flag draped over her back.
ROXY LOVES PLAYING DRESS-UP AND POSING FOR THE PAPARAZZI. SO PLEASE UNDERSTAND HOW ACUTELY ANXIOUS SHE HAD TO BE, TO MISS AN OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW HER LOVE FOR OUR COUNTRY.

So don’t label her unpatriotic...what she is, is scared.  If we dope her up a little more next year, maybe she won't be so terrified and she'll dress up as Dolly Mutt-ison.

Monday, June 30, 2014

NICK TUCKER: A PUZZLE THAT WOULD BAFFLE BOTH CHURCHILL AND FREUD

This story is based on excerpts from my short story, “NO HELPS HALL,” and a blog from January 27, 2014 called, “THE COCKAMAMIE KID.”

Winston Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Much the same can be said of Nick Tucker. His life was so shrouded by mystery that I can not be certain if I was his friend, an acquaintance or an insignificant background person.

This piece was made possible because Nick’s former roommate John Crotty confided a good deal of the information to me. For the first four years I knew Crotty, we had no relationship. During that time, the only intelligent thing I ever heard him say was, “The first thing they should teach a Las Vegas craps dealer is the old adage; don’t shit where you eat.”

That’s why it was such a surprise that Crotty in 1982, went out of his way to speak to me. A year later, we had our only other conversation. During that second chance meeting, the in depth details he shared, helped me understand the inner workings of the bizarre, Nick Tucker.

In the fall of 1978, I met Nick Tucker at the New York School of Gambling. While there, we never connected as friends.  Our common ground was studying to be casino dealers and moving to Las Vegas.  But we were in opposing social groups within the school. So his jet-setting elitists and my easy-going, “good-people” never hung-out outside the classroom, (the other group were the misfit nerds, we called them “kruds.”)

On a Friday in mid-October, we had our first one-on-one meeting. Our craps dealing class had been dismissed but I decided to practice my latest skill after everyone left. At the casino-like classroom’s entrance, Phyllis one of the receptionists seemed to be guarding the door. When I went past her, she stopped cracking her gum long enough to call out, “Hey Nicky, I gotta run.”

Nick Tucker had a guilty look on his face as he stood next to the wide open seventh floor window. His hands were hidden from my view by a podium as I said, “That's dangerous, you could push a piano out that window.” He was annoyed as he shushed me and waved me closer. At his feet, there were five stacks of mismatched, red practice chips and two burlap bank bags. I saw one bag was full as he took out a giant Baggie stuffed with Styrofoam packing peanuts and crumpled newspaper. He dumped in all the chips and said, “Go lay chickie for me.” I said, “Heh?”

He was binding his bundle with thick rubber bands as he said, “Go to the door and let me know if someone is coming.” I wasn’t smart enough to realize that I was witnessing the craziest, stupidest , most unnecessary theft ever!  I was paralyzed by indecision until Nick snapped, “You gonna help or stand there like you’re posing for Animal Crackers?”
"ANIMAL CRACKERS" ARE SMALL, PLAIN-FLAVORED COOKIES DESIGNED FOR YOUNG CHILDREN.  IN THE 1890's, THEY WERE IMPORTED FROM ENGLAND AND SOLD IN GIANT CRACKER BARRELS.  IN 1902, STAUFFER'S BECAME THE FIRST USA COMPANY TO MAKE THEIR OWN VERSIONS AND MARKET THEM AS A SINGLE PORTION ITEM, (A NICKEL A BOX).  TODAY NABISCO IS THE LEADING PRODUCER.  FIFTY-FOUR DIFFERENT ANIMALS HAVE BEEN USED.  THE LAST ADDITION (2002) WAS A KOALA.  THE SLIGHTLY DERISIVE EXPRESSION, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, POSING FOR ANIMAL CRACKERS," SUGGESTS THAT YOU AREN'T PAYING ATTENTION TO THE TASK AT HAND.

My curiosity got the better of me so I retreated to the door. From that short distance, I saw Nick take out a plastic supermarket sack and drop the Baggie of chips in. He added more Styrofoam and newspaper before securing the whole thing with rubber bands. He finished the preparation by putting the whole mess into the empty burlap bank bag. Seconds later, there were two identical bank bags tied at the top by a slender plastic strap with a locking mechanism.

Nick stuck his head out of the window and signaled to someone at street level. I was confused. Ten seconds later, he leaned out again, made a military salute and dropped the two, bag-in-a-bag-in-a-bag packages out the window.
OUCH ! THOSE BAGS HAD TO WEIGH OVER A POUND EACH.  AND I CAN'T IMAGINE THE HUGE UNDERTAKING CROWD CONTROL WOULD BE WITH THE CONSTANT FLOW OF INNOCENT PEOPLE COMING INTO THE TARGET AREA FROM ALL ANGLES.

Nick was all smiles and said to me, “Mission accomplished, I owe you.” I said, “Owe me for what…what just happened?” He said, “John Crotty and Artie Cisco are downstairs holding everyone back and will retreive the bags.”
AT MIDDAY, WEST 32nd STREET OFF BROADWAY (THAT'S WHERE THE SCHOOL WAS LOCATED) WAS MUCH BUSIER THAN THE PHOTO ABOVE.  EVEN IF CROTTY AND CISCO USED YELLOW EMERGENCY TAPE TO CORDON OFF THE DROP ZONE, I CAN'T CONCEIVE HOW THIS IDIOTIC IDEA (REPEATED SEVERAL TIMES) DIDN'T GET THEM ARRESTED.

Nick brandished a switchblade.  If he intended on intimidating me from ratting him out, he succeeded.  He saw the blank expression on my face and used the knife to clean under his fingernails as he bragged, “John built a craps table for us to practice on…and we’re almost done filling up the bank with chips.” I said, “But these chips are worthless…you can buy’em for a dime.” Nick sighed, “Yeah genius, but we need a thousand of them…you do the math.” I said, “Aren’t you afraid the school will notice this many missing?” He said, “Hell no! Sif (Phyllis, the whore receptionist was nicknamed Sif-Phyllis) wants to get in Artie’s pants, so he gets her to steal them out of a storage closet.  These bastards never use 'em and won’t know they’re gone for years.” I said, “Those bags are like missiles, you might kill someone down there. Besides, wouldn’t it be safer and easier to just stuff the chips in your pockets…and walk out with them?” Nick shook his head, “Who are you, a front man for the friggin' Pope? Besides, but what fun would easier be?”

John Crotty was never civil me even when he knew I helped their operation. In the next few weeks, Nick frequently invited me to come to Crotty’s garage in Hoboken to practice dealing to John’s family and friends. But I wasn’t in Crotty’s social strata so he always rolled his eyes or made some gesture that made be feel unwelcome.

Nick remained cordial to me. Occasionally, he invited me to breakfast…but I never went because he, John and Artie Cisco drank their morning meals at the Ireland’s Eye Bar.

Nick and John moved to Vegas together in early November. I graduated a couple of days into 1979 and flew out there on January 7th. By New York standards, Las Vegas was a small town but even with tons of mutual, relocated school mates, it was surprising that I didn’t bump into Nick and John until the following September, at a knockoff San Gennaro feast.
THE LAS VEGAS ITALIAN-AMERICAN FEAST MIGHT HAVE HAD FOOD THAT LOOKED AUTHENTIC BUT IF YOU KNOW YOUR SCUNGILLI FROM A HOLE IN THE WALL, IT'S JUST NOT THE SAME.

At the fake San Gennaro feast, like ships passing in the night, Nick and I exchanged silent nods…I got no acknowledgement from John Crotty. However, later that night I overheard Crotty say, “The first thing they should teach Las Vegas craps dealers is the old adage; don’t shit where you eat.”

In 1982, I got hired at the Golden Nugget. What a great coincidence, Nick Tucker was already dealing craps there on my shift. He took me under his wing, introduced me to coworkers and made me feel at home. Nick was quick to mention that the Nugget didn’t have a help’s hall. That meant two things, the casino didn’t provide a meal and it encouraged the staff to leave the building, (most casinos would penalize anyone who went outside during their shift).

On a mutual break, Nick took me all over downtown Vegas and showed me the best places to eat, drink and get in trouble.

Once I got to know him, I considered Nick Tucker to be the nicest person I ever met in the gaming business. Frequently, I introduced him to my friends as, “One of the few gentlemen you’ll ever meet out here.” It took a while but eventually I found out how wrong I was.

Nick showed great compassion for people. He took a personal interest in a fellow Golden Nugget dealer with a gambling problem. He brought this kid literature about Gamblers Anonymous, helped him to enroll in the program and drove him to the first meeting. In appreciation, the kid offered to take Nick out for a steak dinner. Nick politely refused.

Lelani Campbell, a gorgeous Amer-Asian blackjack dealer was as dumb as a stump. But she was smart enough to know that she’d be better off back home in Hawaii than in a dead end job, dealing cards. To encourage her to follow through, Nick tutored her a few days each week for over a month. She passed her GED on the first try. To thank him, she made overt sexual advances…but he turned her down.

A pit boss’s personal life was spiraling out of control. Nick gave him a new direction by suggesting that he follow his passion.  Together they searched the classified ads until they found a small fixer-upper cabin cruiser, for fishing Lake Meade. In the stifling heat of Southern Nevada, Nick went to this man’s house, scraped, sanded, cleaned and polished that boat until it was seaworthy. When the boss's dream was realized, he offered Nick money, special scheduling consideration and an outing on the boat. Nick said no thanks, to every offer.

Nick also organized parties for our clique. On Labor Day, he put together a barbeque for us at a park on East Tropicana Avenue.

Later in September, he used up favors to get the Horseshoe Casino’s coffee shop to reserve its backroom (at 2:00AM) and provide free hot hors d’oeuvres (as long as we paid for our drinks), for a boxman’s retirement party.

He also convinced us all to wear Halloween costumes after our shift, at a bash he put together at Mickey’s Appetizer, (a bar).

A month later, Lelani decided to make an afternoon Thanksgiving for our group. On the Sunday before, Nick brought her some extra folding chairs. When he pulled up, she was outside barefoot, in a giant, white tee-shirt that she wore like a dress.

Nick had trouble untying the strap that secured his car's trunk. Rather than get frustrated, he whipped out his switchblade and sliced the cord. Lelani joked, “Besides knives, you got any other surprises in your pants?” Nick avoided the innuendo and changed the subject by saying, “Growing up, my neighborhood was so bad even the Monsignor was good with a knife…” Lelani said, “Wait, I thought you were an army brat?” Nick ignored her prying and brought in the chairs.

Inside Nick said, “I gotta go but I want to tell you something.” She climbed up a three-rung step ladder and said, “Okay. You can tell me as I put up these turkey day decorations.” Nick spotted for her in case she fell. He pretended to be pre-occupied as to protect her modesty, he looked away. At the same time, Lelani kept glancing down hoping that he would sneak a peek up her dress.

She was losing patience with Nick as she tried to figure out if he was a saint or if he liked girls at all. Lelani went up and down the ladder several times and each time she finished hanging a strand of crepe paper or attached a pilgrim placard to the wall she asked, “How does it look?” Nick always grunted, “It looks great.”

For the last decoration, (a HAPPY THANKSGIVING banner across the living room), Lelani uncharacteristically went up the step ladder backwards as to be face-to-face with Nick. While he looked away, she hiked-up her shirt and said, “How does it look?” When turned, her clean-shaven vagina was exposed, inches from his face.

Nick smiled with interest and said, "It looks great."  Then he stepped back and turned her down. He added, “Also, I wanted to tell you, I won’t be coming here Thursday.” A girl as good-looking as Lelani wasn’t used to having her sexual advances refused. She was hurt, embarrassed and confused as tears rolled down her face. Nick consoled her, lightly pecked her cheek and whispered, “Please believe me, I really like you but I can’t complicate my life right now…” She interrupted, “Yeah but…” He cut her off and reminded her that he never shows up for group functions.

Nick broke the brief awkward silence that followed and said, “I gotta go now but take this.” He handed her an airport locker key. Lelani stared at the innocuous key and read the number aloud in a murmured stammer, “N-n-number 2577.” Nick firmly held her upper arms, looked deeply into her misty eyes and said, “If you don’t hear from me in a week, everything inside is yours.” She cried, “I don’t want…” “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll be back for you…but…well…if not, we can say I helped you get back home.”  Lelani sobbed, "You should come back to Maui with me.  You're so smart, you made my GED easy.  I bet you can go to school and do whatever you have to do to be a real teacher."  Nick was nodding as he muttered, "Maybe...a man could lose himself out there..."

At work, Nick had requested the night before off, as well as that night. He also didn’t tell anyone that his vacation was starting the following day. I never saw or heard from Nick again.

A couple of days later, before anyone realized that Nick vanished, I ran into John Crotty. I tried to duck him but shockingly, he called out my name and hustled over to me. We exchanged our Vegas histories until I said I was dealing at the Nugget. He said, “Nick works there, you ever see him?” I said, “Yeah. All the time. What a great guy.” Crotty said, “Great guy, eh?” I shrugged, “Yeah, of course. Why?” “You his friend?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Where does your friend live?” I said, “Don’t know.” “What’s his phone number?” “Well, he leads a hermit’s life. You know, private…I can respect that...besides, no one at work knows.”

I knew John Crotty only as a narcissistic, unemotional, too cool for his own good, zero. So I was caught off-guard when his voice cracked, “I-I-I thought Nick would be the best friend I ever had. But somethin' ain't right about him. The first thing he did out here was dump Trish from school.  Remember her, you couldn’t get anything better than that. But Nick kept getting weirder...like every few days, he wouldn't come back to the apartment.  I asked him but never got a straight answer.  Geez, we weren’t out here more than a month and he disappeared the whole week of Thanksgiving.” I said, “That’s funny, a girl from work is throwing a big Thanksgiving party and she told me that Nick isn’t coming.”

John said, “See. I told you. I thought I knew him…” He sighed before continuing, “But once we left Jersey, he became a stranger…one hell of a nice guy but a lost soul…if you know what I mean.”

In the days that followed Nick’s vacation, John’s description of the lost soul came true. Nick was a no-call, no-show and was soon fired for job abandonment.

I ran into Crotty a year later. He filled me in on several details that he hadn’t felt right about telling me the first time. Primarily, after they went their separate ways, Nick owed him a small amount of money and an explanation about his peculiar behavior.

He saw Nick driving up Ogden Street and followed him to a crumby apartment in North Las Vegas. When Nick opened the door, John forced his way into the tiny efficiency. Crotty said, “It was so messed-up, every inch of the walls, cabinets and refrigerator were filled with bent-up, yellowed, faded candid pictures of his ex-wife.” I said, “I didn’t know Nick was ever married.” John said, “I didn’t know either. And a lot of the photos included guys...new boyfriends I guess...but they were cut out of the shot or had their faces blacked-out by magic marker.”

John then said in a serious tone, “A few months ago, I got one long letter from him.” I perked-up, "What happened?  Where is he?"  He said, "I dunno." “What did he say?” “Crotty said, “Nick said his real name is Lonny Orlando and that he had been a typing teacher at a vocational high school in Newark. Soon after his elderly parents both died in 1977, his wife demanded a divorce in the middle of Thanksgiving dessert. A few months later, he quit his job.”

John’s voice tailed off as he said, “Before starting dealer school, Nick said that he wanted to ‘harm’ his ex.” I said, “What?” Crotty said, “The wacko didn’t explain. But he did say, he went to the dealer under a false name and moved to Vegas under that new identity, to help get off the grid…” I said, “What’s off the grid?” “Hey, I thought it was screwy too. But our golden boy wanted to go ‘underground’ like the fuckin’ Unabomber, so his demented plans could be set in motion without looking over his shoulder."
TED "THE UNABOMBER" KACZYNSKI (1942-PRESENT) WAS A MATHEMATICIAN TURNED SERIAL KILLER.  AFTER HE PSYCHOLOGICALLY SNAPPED, HE WENT OFF THE GRID AND BECAME A RECLUSE IN A REMOTE CABIN NEAR LINCOLN MONTANA.  FROM THIS LAIR, HE SENT OUT SIXTEEN LETTER BOMBS BETWEEN 1978 AND 1995.  THREE PEOPLE WERE KILLED AND TWENTY-THREE OTHERS WERE INJURED.  KACZYNSKI IS CURRENTLY INCARSERATED WITH NO CHANCE OF PAROLE. 

John continued, "On the bright side, in Nick's case, enough time went by so he eased up on the extreme craziness. But every November, because he couldn’t get his ex out of his mind, he went back to New Jersey under another alias, Terry Something-or-other, to 'just' harass her. But this last time, the house he had grown up in had been bull-dozed and far worse; his ex-wife was remarried.”

“Nick said he stalked her the whole day before Thanksgiving and followed her back to her new house. Like a stake-out, he watched the place for hours until a Mercedes with “IDOC2” personalized plates drove up. The driver honked his horn and she came out. They were doing some heavy-duty necking in the car before they drove off. Nick followed them to Pathmark. While they were shopping, he punctured their tire with his switchblade. Then he drove back to the house and broke in. Nick proudly said he purposely walked through mud and dragged footprints all over before smashing fancy framed pictures from their wedding and then pissed on them.”

“The next morning he hid in the woods outside his ex-in-laws. When they left for church, he broke in. Nick bragged about crapping on the kitchen floor and vandalizing their place. Only that time, the cops were hiding in the basement, attic and closets.” I said, “That’s crazy.” John said, “Hell yeah it sounded crazy but even though I have no idea where that letter came from, I got the impression it was from a loony bin.” My mouth was gaping as he finished by saying, “Nick closed the letter by saying, remember when you told me, 'you should never shit where you eat,’ well get this, that’s exactly what the cop said to me after he cuffed me and led me out.”

Thirty-one years later, whether John Crotty was right about Nick being institutionalized or not, I'll never know.  But the possibility does add another variable to the incredible puzzle now known as, Nick Tucker.

Winston Churchill grasped that the Russians were a riddle, in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma.  But I'm not certain he could appreciate stolen dealer school chips, inside a Baggie, in a grocery store sack and stuffed in a bank bag.  And nobody on the face of the earth ...even Sigmund Freud...could ever understand why Lonny Orlando needed to be Nick Tucker, in order to be Terry Something-or-other.