Monday, June 27, 2011

MY SON, THE POLITICIAN

My son Andrew was one of three young men selected by his school to participate in the 66th annual, "BOYS STATE," program.

The mission statement of the New Jersey chapter of the, "BOYS STATE PROGRAM," is: To develop good citizens in the USA by inspiring the youth of NJ to take a more active and intelligent interest in the operation of our state and nation and in the privileges and responsibility of citizenship and to understand the sacrifices made by our veterans to preserve our nation and way of life.

Sponsored by the AMERICAN LEGION, this "week that shapes the future," is present in every state. This year, here in New Jersey, approximately 900 male high school juniors, (there is also a mirror program for girls), were sent by bus from every corner of the state, to Rider University in Lawrenceville, (June 19th through June 24, 2011).

THE AMERICAN LEGION IS AN ORGANIZATION OF U. S. MILITARY VETERANS CREATED TO BENEFIT THOSE VETERANS WHO SERVED DURING WARTIME. FOUNDED IN 1919 AND HEADQUARTERED IN INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA, THE LEGION HAS NEARLY 3 MILLION MEMBERS, IN OVER 14,000 WORLDWIDE POSTS. WHILE MOST INDIVIDUALS ASSOCIATE THE LEGION FOR ORGANIZING LOCAL, COMMEMORATIVE EVENTS, THEIR PRIMARY OBJECTIVE IS LOBBYING ON BEHALF OF THE INTERESTS OF VETERANS, SPECIFICALLY IN THE AREAS OF PENSIONS AND MEDICAL ASSISTANCE.

Boys State is largely a group of seminars. On the most basic level, the delegates learn the meaning and reasoning behind the idea of political parties. Then the delegates are divided into two mock parties (Federalists and Nationalists) and into sixteen, fifty-six member cities. Within their cities, (named for US presidents), the parties nominate individuals to vie for office. On an advanced level, the delegates see how the bi-partisan political process works and how different platforms are promoted and maintained by rival parties.

The ultimate goal of this exercise, is to take today's vital issues and intertwine them into the fabric of these simulated communities. Then various officers, such as; county freeholders, city councilman, mayor, all the way up to governor, are elected. Even bigger than the political systems, the boys learn the depth and complexities of every day life, the realities of problem solving and the leadership skills necessary when they can't please everyone.


GET OUT YOUR MAGNIFYING GLASSES, ANDREW (HAND ON CHIN), IS DIRECTLY IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS PICTURE.

The essence of Boys State is not shared by everyone who is selected. Although a huge list of prominent people have graduated from this program such as; former President Bill Clinton, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, current New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and even musician Jon Bon Jovi, Boys State is not for everyone. For various reasons, the attrition rate this year was about 5%.


Part of the attrition rate is evident in Andrew's overwhelmingly negative texts during the first two days. He has already been away from home and had a positive experience, so this was not a case of home sickness. My guess is, he's more of the creative type so the heart of his anxiety was the dry subject matter. More over, the American Legion's influence dictated a pseudo-military environment. Many of the boys likened this aspect to boot camp or to the extreme, prison life.


Andrew's tidbits of despair made me think of Allan Sherman's most famous (1962), song parody, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH."


ALLAN SHERMAN (1924-1973) WAS A COMEDY WRITER, TV PRODUCER AND SONG PARODIST. HE WROTE AND PERFORMED 11 SONG PARODY RECORD ALBUMS AND TWO MORE WERE PRODUCED POSTHUMOUSLY. HIS BEST WORK WAS, "MY SON, THE FOLK SINGER." OTHERS ALBUMS INCLUDE: "MY SON, THE CELEBRITY," "MY SON, THE NUT," "MY SON, THE GREATEST," AND "MY SON, THE BOX."

The theme of, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH," is a kid writing a letter from camp (Granada) and spelling out how much he hates being there.

CLICK ON THIS LINK TO HEAR, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2Hx_X84LC0

The song, a parody of Amilcare Ponchielli's 1876 classic, "DANCE OF THE HOURS," was so popular that the single made the TOP-40 and made Allan Sherman a household name. Also, the record album it appeared on, "My Son, The Folk Singer," became the fastest seller up to that time.

IF YOU'RE TOO YOUNG TO REMEMBER ALLAN SHERMAN, "WEIRD AL," YANKOVIC IS TODAY'S SONG PARODY KING.


The similarities to Andrew's plight and Allan Sherman's depiction of life at Camp Granada are great. Many of the delegates that Andrew was exposed to didn't like the military regimentation. Andrew drew a comparison to the novel, "HOLES," and felt like he was doing "hard time." Plus, the host school, Rider University was a dump. The dormitory room he shared with one other delegate was a tiny, generic, prison cell-like compartment.


Another terrible part of the week was that Rider saved on energy costs by NOT providing air-conditioning. Therefore it was recommended that the delegates bring a fan. So unless you had inside information and brought an industrial strength sized one, your kid boiled every night. This discomfort led to Andrew's gross sleep deprivation.


Andrew also complained about the food other than breakfast. To augment the poor eats, the wide variety of vending machines became a moot point because nearly everyone brought "useless" ten and twenty dollar bills. Even worse for my boy, the bulk of the sparse, free time was dominated by competitive sports...which my scion doesn't cotton to.


His complaints were similar to lyrics of, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDAH." And the punchline of the song was that it rained the whole first day. But once the sun came out and everyone started doing fun things, the song ends with, "Kindly disregard this letter."


Slowly, the Boys State strict regulations slackened and Andrew's negativity subsided after a couple of days. Then by persevering through that suffering, he found his niche in the work and discovered a higher purpose, (he was elected Councilman).


On the last day, "BOYS STATE," holds a family barbecue and graduation ceremony. My wife Sue and I drove up. We were all re-united at 11:00AM. My first question to Andrew was, "On a one to ten scale, how would you rate your total experience?" He said, "I'd give it a seven but I would absolutely recommend it to other people."


He also added that one of the highlights was a visit from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who gave a rousing, "Rah-Rah," speech. I told Andrew even though I voted for Christie, I felt mislead by his campaign promises and think he isn't serving the common worker. But I added that it's a testimony how special the Boys State program is that the governor would find time in his schedule to address you.


A little later, I saw the militaristic presence in action. Also I saw the run down condition of Rider University, specifically his room, (that's one less college we have to consider sending him to). As we were moving his belongings to the car, I congratulated Andrew on his character. I told him that when I was seventeen that I couldn't have handled the concept of honor, responsibility and discipline rammed down my throat. I told him that I wasn't proud of it but I would have been part the attrition statistic and hitchhiked home after two hours.


The barbecue took place in the quadrangle. We got lucky because it was a humid but cloudy, 84 degree day. When the sun poked out from the overcast, it was uncomfortably warm. We were done eating before one. The three-hour graduation ceremony was going to take place in the gymnasium. Thirty minutes early, more out of boredom, we gravitated over there.


We found an abundance of seats. At first, it was quite warm in there but as the bleachers filled to capacity, it became stifling. In the interim, a band comprised of delegates performed everything from Sousa marches to Lady Ga Ga material. After some announcements regarding the American Legion were made as well as emotional citations to each branch of the military, an honor guard led by two bag-pipers opened the event. Through much pomp and circumstance each of the pretend cities and its volunteer counseling staff were introduced. The next three hours was a montage of music, speeches and awards.


The guest speaker was Boys State alum, Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The best part of his speech was that he never dreamed that he could go from such a humble upbringing to become one of a hundred U.S. Senators. And while his long shot of success is rare, the point he made so well was that every Boys State delegate can't imagine the countless possibilities of what he can and will accomplish if they know the issues and get involved.


The best service award acceptance speech was the retired military officer who barked like a drill sergeant only two words to the adulation of the delegates and appreciation of the audience, "BOYS STATE!"


For the most part, the rest of the long festivities were dull and we thought we were going to sweat to death. Even when there were moments of humor, the inside jokes went over the parent's heads. We took solace in that we could see Andrew in the crowd. That's when Sue got the idea to send Andrew sarcastic texts. It was fun to watch his response.


At about 3:30, we were teased into thinking that it was over when a mass of sixty flag bearers entered the rear of the gym. Then a gentleman in uniform proceeded to describe in detail, thirty flags used by the original colonists, during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.


This sequence which included a procession of these flags together with the contemporary stars and stripes came to a beautiful, patriotic and inspiring conclusion. I may not be a joiner by nature and I would never dictate to others what to do but the sentiment was clear, that all those volunteers want to perpetuate the appreciation for our fallen soldiers and the sacrifices of their families. Not just on holidays like, Veterans Day, Independence Day and Memorial Day...but every day. Because the harsh reality of today is, what might be abstract risk to most, are the real lives of American sons and daughters in far off places like Iraq and Afghanistan.


Afterwards, the warm, fresh air outside the gym revitalized me. While Andrew ran off to receive his diploma, I took the time to thank the American Legion hierarchy. In the distance, a tremendous black rain cloud dominated the western sky as Sue excused herself to wait on the line for the lady's room. During this time, I realized that it was remote that Andrew would ever become a statesman. But I marveled at the idea that he had an enriching experience and strengthened his confidence. More than ever, I felt he could become anything he put his mind to. I also pondered that we live in the greatest country on earth and thank goodness our freedom and way of life has been preserved, maintained and improved for 235 years.


When Sue came back out, she called Andrew to see what was taking so long. I took the opportunity to go to the restroom. Andrew hadn't returned but the giant black cloud was almost over head when I came out.


For a solid five minutes, you could count the individual raindrops. Then a drizzle began to intensify. The skies opened up when lallygagging Andrew appeared on the horizon. We ran about two city blocks to the car. Some moron with Rhode Island license plates almost hit Sue as the torrents caused drivers to use the hyper-speed windshield wipers.


We looked like drowned rats when we got in the car. But the situation did NOT improve. Hundreds of cars were leaving at the same time. I drove onto one of the six lines of cars headed to the one exit. The bottleneck effect of the traffic, in this storm of biblical proportion was so bad that we didn't move an inch for thirty minutes. When we started crawling foot by foot, I was shocked that there were only two security guards actually "directing" traffic.


We still had fifteen minutes of waiting after the rain stopped. And just like Allan Sherman's Camp Granada incident, we were happy to out of hated Rider College and on our sunshine-filled two-hour ride home.

Monday, June 20, 2011

FROM THE RIDICULOUS TO THE SUBLIME: VEGAS vs. YOSEMITE

My tribute to the casino supervisor position, the boxman, continues with kudos to Billy Sherman...a.k.a., "Little Big Man."

Billy Sherman was a likable, roly-poly boxman when I dealt craps at the Las Vegas Golden Nugget (September 1982 until January 1984). Specifically on November 15, 1982, in the middle of the Nugget's metamorphosis from a grinding, saw dust joint into an international destination, he and I were still on a nodding basis. Until we crossed paths on a break and the giggly five-footer said, "Wanna see something funny?" Amid the omnipresence of dust clouds and to the unsynchronized beat of hammering, drilling and sawing, I followed him through the labyrinth of plastic protective sheathing that cascaded from the ceiling between the gambling tables.

At an obscure men's room near the hotel lobby he said, "It's in here." I had some doubts going in but my trepidation soared when he motioned me into a stall. If there weren't other people around, I would never have stepped further. Billy then pointed to the graffiti above the toilet paper dispenser. The gist of the message was a joke, in poor taste, regarding prize-fighter Duk-Koo Kim who was at that moment clinging to life in a local hospital. Unfortunately, two days later, Mr. Kim died from the results of injuries sustained in a boxing match at Caesar's Palace. But this joke at his expense, established my friendship with, "Little Big Man."

Little Big Man loved to travel. Over the next few months, he told me of his many adventures on a limited time and money budget. After I told him where I had been, he calculated Yosemite National Park as the number-one place I never saw...that was in driving distance. In August 1983, for the price of a 49c Golden Gate Casino breakfast, he met my future wife Sue and I and mapped out our trip.

In late September, Sue and I headed north at dawn through the Nevada desert, on Highway-95. On the long ride through the wilderness, during a lull in our conversation, I got lost in my thoughts. The New Yorker in me was digging the wide open spaces of the American west. Then I thought of the bigger picture. Out there, when you go long periods without seeing anything man-made, it's humbling to think that you're looking at something that hadn't changed in tens of thousands of years.

Just north of Scotty's Junction and below the town of Goldfield, we connected with Highway-266 west. Through the rough and barren terrain of Esmeralda County, we crossed into California's equally desolate, Inyo County. We had lunch in a speck of civilization called Bishop before continuing to the winter ski resort, Mammoth Lakes.

Lush and beautiful, Mammoth Lakes was a stark change from the empty landscape we considered fascinating. We got a motel room and hiked that afternoon in the nearby mountains. At dusk, we wanted to window shop through the quaint town to the restaurant we selected. But we didn't get far before Sue went back to the room for a jacket. Her move proved to be smart because after dinner, the temperature dropped twenty degrees. We froze all the way back to the motel and cranked up the heater.

In the magnificent morning, we got to the east gate of Yosemite before 10:00AM. From the moment you pay the entrance fee, you are magically transported upward, into ever-improving levels of beauty. Up, up, up, higher and higher each rock formation on the twisty two-lane roadway is more inspiring. But when we got stuck behind an RV, semi or any other slow vehicle, the marvelous ride became bogged down and tedious. Even on a stretch of road that didn't have hairpin turns, the stupidest person in the world would never consider passing anyone. Luckily on the right, there were occasional extra-wide shoulders for the slow-pokes to pull into.

Inside the park, this unique and splendid seventy-mile trek came to an awing exclamation point when we took the last turn and entered the Yosemite Valley. From our first peek at the "Tunnel View," we knew we were looking at heaven on earth.
IT'S TOO BAD I'M RUINING THIS SHOT. THE PROMINENT GRANITE CLIFF (left) IS "EL CAPITAN." ON MY RIGHT, THAT'S ONE OF THE PARK'S MANY WATERFALLS. FOR PROFESSIONAL PHOTOS, GOOGLE "YOSEMITE IMAGES."








Hidden in the park's grandeur, is the visitor center. Way ahead of its time, they had a computer room for all the hotels in Yosemite. Our bubble was burst when we were told that they were sold-out. And that it is suggested that accommodations get booked a year in advance. The representative added, "However, you can rent an unheated tent." Sue said, "No way!" Her memory of freezing the night before in Mammoth Lakes was still fresh...plus, we just drove seventy miles higher up. The rep also said, "There are no other options in the park. But I can get you read-out of lodging outside the park." When I whined, "We just drove seventy miles from the gate just to get here." She said, "Well, the west gate is only six miles away." The first of the eight places on her list was the El Portal Motel. When I called, they said they just had their second cancellation of the entire season. It was kismet! We were saved. (PLEASE NOTE - ALL THREE NIGHTS UP THERE WERE UNCOMFORTABLY WARM...GO FIGURE).


Armed with a map of Yosemite, we learned that most major attractions were a short drive.WHEN SUE TAKES A PICTURE WITH AN INSTA-MATIC YOU GET THIS, (THE FAMOUS "HALF DOME," IS DIRECTLY BEHIND MY RIGHT SHOULDER).


BUT WHEN A PRO PHOTOGRAPHS THE SAME THING AT SUNSET...FROM THE PROPER ANGLE...YOU GET THIS.


We mixed in plenty of hiking and brought our bikes too. We didn't see any bears but we did see deer, elk and mule deer. I showed Sue an odd-looking squirrel and a stranger informed me that it was a marmot. At night, we heard the howl of distant wolves, but we thought that was cool, (from inside our room).


THE ONLY THING BETTER THAN TAKING PICTURES OF THIS TREASURE, IS SEEING IT FOR YOURSELF.


The giant Sequoia trees in the Mariposa Groves section of the park were my favorite. One of the forest rangers pointed out a tree named, "THE GENERAL." He said that it was not only 2,700+ years old but that it was the oldest living thing on the planet, (it is my understanding that since 1983, the General has died).
IN THE LATE 1800's, IT WAS FASHIONABLE FOR THE WEALTHY, TO TAKE A SIGHTSEEING STAGECOACH TO YOSEMITE FROM SAN FRANCISCO. THE HIGHLIGHT OF THE EXCURSION WAS BEING DRIVEN THROUGH A TREE.


When I picked up an acorn, (see my right hand), a ranger reminded me that the balance of nature would be upset if too many such souvenirs were taken out of the park. In case I didn't understand, he also mentioned that violators will be arrested. That's when I dropped the acorn.


IT'S HARD TO CONCEIVE JUST HOW BIG SOME OF THESE BABIES ARE.


The General was too far off to get a decent picture.


THIS TREE IS NOT THE GENERAL. BUT IF YOU SQUINT, YOU CAN SEE THE PEOPLE AT THE BOTTOM AND GAIN SOME PROSPECTIVE OF EXACTLY HOW ENORMOUS THE SEQUOIAS CAN BE.


Our stay ended too fast. We milked the last day and had an early dinner in the park. Yosemite is right up there as the most beautiful place I ever visited. I recommend it highly but in a small way, I left disappointed because I didn't experience the high adventure that Little Big Man described. But, there was still time.


The sun was setting quickly as we saluted El Capitan, took our last look at the Tunnel View and left Yosemite Valley. I projected that the seventy-mile ride to the east gate would go faster, downhill.


Similar to the way up, the trip down was a continuous series of incredible sights. On the left was the dull wall of the mountain. On the other side, every now and then, through a rusted, barbed wire retaining fence, you caught sight of a chasm that gave a straight-down view of the far off desert floor. On one occasion, I was so taken by this spectacular that I unwittingly swerved into oncoming traffic. I came so close to side-swiping a convertible that I heard the driver curse as he avoided the collision by scooting into a well-placed, extra-wide shoulder.


Luckily, the ultimate lesson wasn't taught the hard way. After that wake-up call, I coasted as much as I could and kept my foot lightly on the brake. This plan worked well until the constant friction caused my brakes to smoke...and stink.


I thought I found a happy speed median until I once again became enthralled with the sheer drop and the vista below. This time Sue warned me before I crossed into the other lane. But a new problem cropped up as the vastly shaded road gave way to pockets of blinding glare from the low sun.


The whole nerve racking drive down came to an intense pinnacle shortly after the sun was no longer a factor. That's when a coyote, in an apparent suicide attempt, sauntered out into the road and defiantly stopped in my path. I crushed down on the brake, grasped the steering wheel with all my strength and skidded towards the moronic beast. In retrospect, I should have gone straight at him. Instead, in an attempt to spare his life, I endangered ours.


At my split-second moment of decision, I wasn't going to test fate a third time by veering into the oncoming lane. I aimed to his right. I never lost control but we didn't need the up close and personal view of the cliff's edge. To make matters worse, for some reason, Wyle E. Coyote...the super genius, had a last second change of heart and decided to happily scamper away...presumably to retry one of his Acme devices, to snare the Roadrunner.

FOR THE REST OF THE RIDE DOWN, MY MIND FIXATED ON OLD "B" MOVIES FEATURING CARS PLOWING THROUGH GUARD RAILS AND TAKING A PLUNGE INTO A CANYON. I COULDN'T GET PAST THE IDEA OF OUR CRASH, EXPLOSION AND FIERY PYRE BEING THE ONLY MAN-MADE OBJECT FOR MILES AROUND.


If you thought my brakes were burnt-out from this little episode, you should have seen me. By the time we passed the east gate and returned to flat ground, I was a wreck. I pulled over and with my heart racing, I told Sue, she had to drive. She didn't wanted to. I said we only have to make one turn in about a mile. Then its a straight drive, on the open road to Tonopah, where we connect with Highway-95. She was an inexperienced driver and made some awful excuses, like not wanting to drive in the dark.


I was a shell of my former self and was still shaking and breathing heavy. But I gently shamed her into taking the wheel. The poor kid was sobbing even before we made the one turn onto Highway-6. I took on the role of coach and soothingly guided her along. She was doing fine. The roadway was vacant and like the "yellow brick road," the reflective, painted lines helped her see what was ahead for miles. I had enough confidence in her that I allowed myself the luxury to look into the void of the moonless night and appreciate the wide open spaces of the American west, again.


We had just passed a sign that read; Nevada State-Line - 5, when we caught up to a moving van with an extra wide load. He was creeping along so I told Sue to pass him. She would not. I explained that it was safe because you could see that there weren't any oncoming headlights for miles. Still she refused. I tried every bit of encouragement I could muster but we toddled along at 35MPH when we should have been doing eighty.


To mask my frustration, I turned my attention on the truck driver. I wondered why he didn't pull onto the shoulder. This bit of courtesy was so common in Yosemite and doing it, couldn't have inconvenienced him much.


We were seconds from Nevada when I told Sue to hit the horn. She wouldn't do it. Then in the middle of nowhere, at the precise moment that we passed a sign for Lida Junction, I saw one building coming up on the right. It resembled a beat-up motel and had some gaudy neon signage. Then one inch into Nevada, miraculously, the moving van's directional cut-on and he pulled-off towards this unimpressive hovel. When I read the sign and saw the huge, well-manicured, empty parking lot, I immediately figured out the mystery. It wasn't a gas station, country store or even a weigh station...it was a legal whorehouse, the now-defunct Cottontail Ranch.


If I'm any judge of speed, if we would have stayed behind that truck all the way to Las Vegas, I would have been late for my first day back at work. Ironically, Little Big Man did mention that he visited a brothel on his way back from Yosemite too. So indirectly, I shared in that aspect of his adventure after all.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Before I ever used my glasses to read the back of the current California commemorative quarter, I thought the man pictured was a random, gold-mining, forty-niner. I was wrong! It is in fact a very specific person, John Muir. THE FIRST BIG-TIME TREE-HUGGER, JOHN MUIR (1838-1914), WAS QUOTING SHAKESPEARE WHEN HE SAID, "ONE TOUCH OF NATURE...MAKES ALL THE WORLD KIN."

It was Muir and to a lesser extent Theodore Roosevelt as well as several others, who led the movement that eventually preserved and protected Yosemite and other parks under federal jurisdiction, until they were declared National Parks. Please help me by thanking them. Visit the parks and support their upkeep.

Monday, June 13, 2011

WE SLICE 'EM, YOU EDAM...

THEDONALD is amazed by all the part-time jobs I had in my youth. Well Donnie-Boy, did I ever tell you about the time I was groomed to be a counterman at an appetizing store?

An appetizing store...if they still exist...was a delicatessen-like convenience store that specialized in Jewish delicacies, (lox, sable, white fish etc.), as well as international cheeses and cold cuts. In January 1974, SRUB33 juiced me into the one where he worked, BAYVIEW APPETIZING.

The store was six blocks from home, in a strip mall. My shift was three days a week from 7:AM until noon. Stupidly, I never asked what the rate of pay was so it was an unpleasant surprise at the end of the first week, to discover that I was getting $1.75/hour, (fifty cents under minimum wage). Even "off-the-books," $26.25 added-up to an unacceptable embarrassment. The primary reason I didn't squawk to the owner brothers, (Ernie and Bert) was that those unique hours fit perfectly into that semester's college schedule. Still, I never got over the fact that I was working for peanuts.

The narrow, long store had grocery items on the left wall, an extended deli counter on the right and refrigerated items like beer, soda, juice and dairy products in the rear. At first, I was restricted to stock-boy duties.

SRUB33's hours and mine never matched. So, I worked exclusively with stoic (and cheap) Ernie and Bert, as well as, full-timers Lenny and George. George, a former mailman was around sixty. He was a grandfather-like figure easing into retirement, (also working off the books). This short, gray-haired nurturing teacher, with a big, black, brush mustache was pleasant, supportive and pragmatic. Which meant he was boring. He was so out-of-it that even though he knew I was in college, he thought I should cherish this job, in case, I needed a secondary career to fall back on.

To reduce the boredom, I gravitated to forty-year old Lenny. Lenny was the prototype of an unambitious loser. He was twice divorced, always broke and made it seem like this was the best job he ever had. In an attempt to come off as cool or to try to relate to me, he bragged about "broads," gambling, smoking pot and drinking. More than anything, Lenny was lazy.

When big shipments that required lifting came in, he abandoned me and George. He'd drift out back and gravitate to a secluded spot behind the dumpster where he enjoyed many illicit cigarette breaks. Then when both brothers were out of the store, he was famous for sneaking into the adjacent pharmacy to call his bookie. His other big destination was the beauty salon, to hit-on his sometimes on, sometimes off girlfriend Frances, the gum cracking manicurist.

Lenny wore rose-tinted aviator glasses, to hide his tell-tale eyes. Through those darkened lenses, (to the delight of the senior citizen women customers), he had a steady flow of risque jokes and made bawdy suggestions as if he was trying to pick-up the old biddies. However, he showed the limitations of his humor by saying the same few catchphrases ad nauseam. Like every time someone ordered Edam cheese, he'd announce; NO! We slice 'em, you Edam.

Frances came into the store like clockwork at 9:00AM. That's when Ernie was doing the banking and Bert buried himself downstairs in paperwork. Despite acting in a professional manner, the sexual tension between Lenny and Frances was obvious when he (only) waited on her. Then whatever she bought, Lenny rang it up for sixty-nine cents, at the infrequently used, front cash register.

I caught on to Frances' special treatment right away but it took a while for me to realize that other times, Lenny used me, to distract George when the bosses weren't around. While Lenny sent me to stall the old man with nonsense questions about the ingredients in their chicken salad or how to operate the retractable awning, Lenny would vanish out back, presumably for a smoke.

My cigarette theory was proven wrong one time when the three of us were alone. George tucked the newspaper under his arm and announced he was going downstairs to the bathroom. He wasn't gone five seconds when Lenny told me to start at the front and dust the can goods.

Lenny disappeared into the walk-in refrigerator behind the dairy case. When I got the feather duster, I realized that I had cleaned the cans the day before. At the same time, I heard the familiar click of the refrigerator reopen and close again. The store was empty, so I figured I'd tell Lenny so he could assign me something else. He wasn't in the rear storeroom so I poked my head out back. I found him leaning over the dumpster and said, "Len..." Suddenly there was a loud bang from the heavy object he dropped into the big garbage can.
IN FEBRUARY 1960, THE DELIVERY ALLEY BEHIND THE APPETIZING STORE WAS IN PRISTINE CONDITION. (THE BACK DOOR IS NEAR THE FIRST OF THE THREE CARS ON THE LEFT).  BY 1974, THE WHOLE AREA WAS COVERED WITH DUMPSTERS, LITTER, FILTH AND VARMINTS THAT SCAVENGER THROUGH SUCH MESSES.  

Lenny thought I was spying on him. Angrily, he took me by the crook of the arm, led me back inside and scolded me about leaving the store unattended.

My shift was over at noon. Bound by curiosity, instead of getting in my car and heading to Brooklyn College, I circled the shopping center on foot. I wandered to the store's dumpster. These were pre-recycling days so I saw nothing but flattened corrugated boxes, metal cans, bottles, loose newspapers, tons of rotten lettuce, leaves, fish skeletons, empty egg cartons and other innocent garbage.

On the ground, I found a thick branch and used it to brush aside some of the trash. To my surprise, tucked in the corner where I saw Lenny leaning in was an entire six-pound salami and next to it, brown wrapping paper loosely covering a boxy item. I jumped up a little, set my belly on the edge of the dumpster and reached down. I tore the paper just enough to see that a case of Lowenbrau Beer was underneath.

A SIX-POUND HEBREW NATIONAL SALAMI "STICK" WAS LONGER THAN MY ARM.
When I was leaving the scene of the crime, I assumed that Lenny was coming back after closing, under the cloak of darkness, to retrieve these stolen items. That's when I heard the appetizing store's rear door creak open. I turned back from two doors down. Lenny was taking an L and M from behind his ear when we caught some awkward eye-contact, but I continued on my way.

My next shift was on a day I didn't have classes. In the first few minutes on duty, I avoided Lenny. He was telling a seventy-year old woman, "After I drain ALL the liquid from your quarter pound of coleslaw...wait, maybe I shouldn't finish that joke until you're eighteen." While the woman giggled, I told George that my car's starter was on the fritz. I said, "I'm dreading taking the city bus to the Brooklyn College Book Store to buy one little item for my tomorrow's assignment." Lenny overheard. He came over, smiled, jiggled his car keys and said, "Maybe I can help. Right, friends help friends."

When George left to wait on the next customer Lenny took off his glasses, leered at me and whispered, "You keep my little enterprise quiet and I'll let you use my car." I had no idea how big his "little" enterprise was but I was certain that I didn't like Ernie and Bert. I shrugged, "Okay." Lenny then added, "Just one thing, while you're out, I need you to fill up my car with gas."

These were the days of the 1973-1974 oil crisis. Due to political unrest in the Mid-East and through the genius of President Richard Nixon, some states experienced an artificial gasoline shortage. Long lines to the pumps were typical, stations ran out of fuel and odd and even rationing days were implemented for about six months.

At noon, Lenny finished wrapping up three kippers for a lady and gave me ten dollars for gas. He walked me to the door, handed me his keys and said, "You gotta warm my baby up for at least five minutes. And remember, she only starts in neutral." I said, "Okay." He added, "Also, this is important, I'm done at three but I'd feel better if you had my car back by two."

Lenny's eleven-year old clunker was a 1963 Ford Galaxie. It had a bashed in side panel with duct tape holding down a sharp, rusty edge. Inside reeked of marijuana, cigarettes and pickled herring and the floor was littered with Lowenbrau empties and Whopper wrappers from Burger King. I settled into the cracked vinyl seat and started the car. I let it warm-up for a few seconds. I was impatient and figured that it was nearly forty degrees so I took off.

At the first red light, the car began to shake. The sideways vibration was so intense that I thought the car would stall. Before I could shift into neutral and give it some gas...Lenny's lemon died. I was scared that I screwed something up but it started right back up.

Gas lines usually took an hour. Brooklyn College was twenty minutes in each direction and the actual purchase of my item would take a minute. I guessed that I had fifteen minutes to kill.

I drove to my friend Joe Vanilla's junkyard, (as you may recall, Joe Vanilla was proclaimed by my friends as the Patron Saint of Parking Spaces). He earned that honorarium at a time when we used to go to discos in Manhattan. Usually, we were forced to park so far away that a couple of times, we took a cab to the place...except when Joe Vanilla drove, (his hot pink El Dorado). With Mr. Cool at the wheel, it never failed, on the first pass, Joe always parked right out front.

I told Joe about my car's starter. He interrupted and offered me fifty bucks for Lenny's rattletrap. I said, "I borrowed it from a guy at work." Joe said, "Tell your friend that F.O.R.D. stands for: Fix Or Repair Daily or Found On Road Dead. He's leaking oil and driving on seriously bald tires." After some more laughs at Lenny's expense, Joe agreed to come by my house and see if he could fix my car. By the time we finished bullshitting, it was a quarter to one.


On Utica Avenue off Glenwood Road, I waited an hour at a Sinclair station for gas. There was no way I was going to make it back by two but at least I had the leeway of Lenny not needing his car till three.

I passed the Junction Bar on Flatbush Avenue at exactly 2:00PM. At the back of Brooklyn College's Gershwin Theater, I turned onto Campus Road. The narrow street, two blocks from my destination was gridlocked. It took five minutes just to get behind Boylan Hall where the (basement) book store was. Unfortunately I never took into account the school's reputation for parking difficulties and it was too late to pray to Joe Vanilla.
I TREATED BROOKLYN COLLEGE LIKE THIRTEENTH GRADE. ON THE QUADRANGLE (above) I HONED BY MY FRISBEE THROWING SKILLS TO MARKSMEN LEVEL. THE BUILDING HIDDEN BEHIND THE TREES (left) IS BOYLAN HALL, (WHERE THE BOOK STORE WAS). THE HIDDEN BUILDING (right) INGERSOLL HALL WAS WHERE MY SMELLY FRIEND MARY INTRODUCED ME TO MY WIFE SUE, (MARCH 1974).

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. So I got an epiphany in the form of creative parking. Just outside the book store, I left Lenny's car in an inclined spot, at a hydrant with the butt slightly blocking the delivery entrance. What could POSSIBLY go wrong in one minute.

I ran down the ramp, into the store, found the book, paid and ran out...no problem! When I got to Lenny's car, a delivery truck started up the ramp. I waved to the driver and stuck my index finger in the air to signify that I would be out of his way in a sec. I put the car in neutral and it started right up. I shifted the automatic transmission into reverse and tapped the accelerator. The car didn't move. I double-checked to see that I was indeed in reverse. Within seconds, frustration exploded through my body. I floored the gas petal. The revving engine roared but the car wouldn't move. Things got worse because I didn't make a precise parallel park and larger cars on Campus Road were struggling to pass.

Maybe it would happen to a lesser extent somewhere else, but in Brooklyn, I bet I set the Guinness World Record for being given the most middle fingers in ten minutes. Plus, I took the brunt of constant, angry horn honking. Luckily the windows were up, otherwise, I would have heard all the cursing too.


Lenny was going to kill me. I decided to tell him that I was late because I had to wait two-hours for gas. That's when I saw the pissed-off truck driver coming up from the bookstore turning as red as a beet. At the same time, I heard the shrill wail of a fire engine's screech alarm. I turned around and saw five vehicles back, a fireman jump off his super-pumper and squeeze through the traffic towards me. I was in a panic, I didn't know what else to do. In desperation, I turned the car off and restarted it...still nothing. Then I made sure all the doors were locked as the truck driver got out and strode to my door. Together with several other passersby, they were so close that their faces were almost touching the window while, MFing me.

I was relieved when the fireman cut through the crowd and took control. I could see his name tag read McKINLEY, as he calmly motioned me to roll down the window. When I did he said, "What seems to be the problem?" I was so nervous that I stammered, "W-w-we slice 'em, you Edam." He said, "Heh?" I then went into a whole story about borrowing the car, the gas shortage and ... He cut me off and said, "Buddy, what's wrong with your car?" I said, "It's not my car..." "Forget that," he snapped. "Is the transmission locked?" I demonstrated that the transmission was moving free and clear and said, "I put it in gear but it won't go." McKinley said, "You're kinda parked on a hill...did you use the emergency brake?" I scoffed, "No," as looked down. I'm not sure if I was happy or sad when I moaned, "Oops, it IS on."
I BET FIRE-FIGHTER McKINLEY NEVER EXPECTED TO SAVE A LIFE THAT WAY. EVEN WITHOUT A REAL EMERGENCY THOSE VIGILANTE KNUCKLEHEADS WERE READY TO HANG ME, BURN ME AT THE STAKE AND TURN ME INTO A NEWT.

Somehow despite losing 99% of my dignity and surviving the homicidal mob, I brought Lenny's car back at ten to three...no questions asked.

The odd thing was...if I would have taken the city bus, I would have escaped all the drama and would been home ninety minutes earlier.


Even stranger, at the end of that week, Bert fired me. He said that they were re-hiring a kid who worked there for two years because he was already a seasoned counter man. I guess Lenny thought I was going to turn him in so he put the kibosh on me first. I feel strongly about that assumption because SRUB33 told me that my replacement never worked there before.

The true irony in all this was...I NEVER opened that book.

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE LAST GUY I EVER THOUGHT THEY'D NAME A STREET AFTER.

In 1979 while living in Las Vegas, I flew up to Reno to visit a friend from the old neighborhood, (Canarsie). Up there, they called him the "Mad Russian," but to me he was, "The Incredible Mr. K."

It took a while before I caught on but Mr. K., despite having a great job, led a destitute life. He wanted to roll out the red carpet for me but because of financial shortcomings and his strange habits, he owned practically nothing, not even a car. So that first night, he took me by taxi, to the casinos in the neighboring town of Sparks.

In the dark of the back seat Mr. K whispered, "Be prepared to run." He showed me that he was going to hand the driver a ten dollar bill. The car fare was $3.55. Mr. K said, "Keep a dollar for yourself and give me $15.45 change." The driver accepted the "generous" tip and did exactly what Mr. K told him.

We visited five, tiny store front casinos. In each place, Mr. K bought twenty dollars in chips and took it to the one craps game. These sawdust joints used a full-sized craps table but to minimize expenses, they only used two dealers (instead of three) and no immediate supervisor, (boxman).

The first time around, I had no idea what Mr. K. had in mind. He quietly scoped out the staff and drifted to his prey's blind spot. Just before he was about to pounce on the weakest link he whispered, "Be prepared to run." Then at the proper moment, (when a seven rolled), he "past posted" the come, by placing his winning bet after the dice landed.

I never had to run. Mr. K. succeeded all four times he tried and treated me to Japanese food. But the bigger picture was that these micro-casinos factor in the loss of revenue due to a slower pace, theft, incompetence and honest mistakes and are more comfortable with the regularity of a guaranteed reduction in payroll, (no boxman). You might recall this concept was a central point in the 1991 movie, "CLASS ACTION." In this courtroom drama, the audience finds out that auto manufacturers use actuaries to figure out if it is cost-effective to pay millions of dollars to recall and repair tens of-thousands of cars or in the case of this film, pay out a smaller amount in wrongful death law suits.

Today's blog is dedicated to the indispensable boxmen in busy casinos. I want to commend their efforts, honor their service and canonize them because they may become as extinct as the dinosaur.

New Jersey casinos have seen other gaming venues discontinue the boxman position. However, their hands were tied until the state recently mandated deregulation which permits the casinos to minimize their supervisory staffs. So in the name of corporate profits, decision makers at some of Atlantic City's casinos are now experimenting with this idea...to see if they can rationalize "superficial" negative consequences, in the name of an improved bottom line.

The boxman, is the immediate supervisor on a craps table. They sit, facing the stickman between the other two dealers. Their job description focuses on; overseeing the general action, regulating an upbeat tempo, accounting for the cash buy-ins and settling minor disputes with players. However, the boxman does so much more.THE BOXMAN, TYPICALLY IN A BUSINESS SUIT, HAS THE BEST VANTAGE POINT TO REGULATE A CRAPS GAME.

An integral part of the casino landscape, the better boxmen take on additional duties, especially in cultivating inexperienced dealers or helping the weak ones. Their job is difficult because they must find a middle ground that includes; relating to the needs of the dealers and serving the public while maintaining the best interests of the casino.

I can look back to my break-in days as a fledgling in Las Vegas and pinpoint the lessons taught specifically by boxmen...that influenced my rate of progress and eventual success. I can't possibly list each individual or circumstance that has impacted me for nearly 33-years but I would like to share some memories that highlight their necessity as well as their dedication, knowledge, patience and entertainment value.

Like a drill sergeant, boxmen teach newcomers the difficult realities of the job as well as short cuts, diplomacy and inner strength. They take on the role of a psychiatrist when things aren't going well, as well as acting like cheerleaders, mentors, friends, protectors, teammates and confessors.

Who are boxmen? The sarcastic casino adage; those who can't deal (craps), sit box, was for the most part true, in Vegas. Therefore many people who didn't want to work on the feet or weren't mentally or physically talented enough to deal, became boxmen. Other diluted folks thought that the job would put them on the fast track into the rarefied air of upper management. But mostly, a boxman was an old man job.

At the Slots-A-Fun Casino, my first boxman, an aspiring casino manager, was a Polish-American from Wausau Wisconsin, named Chuck. He taught me a lot on the table. But the harsh blood and guts of this dirty business, I learned from what happened to him.

The spelling of Chuck's eye chart last name overflowed with consonants and was pronounced, "Shirts." He was thirty-three and as nice a fellow as you could imagine. At the end of each shift, his wife and two prekindergarten-aged daughters would come in to pick him up. Yet despite his genuine work ethic and clean-cut image, his supervisors (for their own childish amusement) tortured him over his nationality.

To prove his greatness and sensitivity, despite working in his own hostile environment, Chuck protected me (and the other break-ins), from these narrow-minded asses. All the craps dealers were open to constant criticism. We were so new that Chuck had to demonstrate the most fundamental aspects of dealing over and over again...even the most basic thing, handling the chips. Sometimes, our on-the-job-training included him standing up and fixing a screw-up himself because I (we) weren't sharp enough to follow his instructions.

Nobody realized how each pressure-filled shift was internally taking its toll on Chuck Shirts. It all came to a terrible end after a hectic and mistake-filled day. Chuck had spent eight hours deflecting the bosses' nonsense off us and enduring their wrath himself. A minute before his shift was over, Chuck's happy family, like clockwork, approached our table.

The dealer who substituted for Chuck on his days off and pined for the job full-time, flicked his ear. The innocent prank went haywire when the shock caused Chuck to have a seizure. He fell off his stool, vomited and convulsed on the ground in it. To the horror of his family, his eyes rolled back into his head as he screamed and cried.

He was sitting on the floor, in a trance, shivering and sweating at the same time as the emergency team strapped him into a straight jacket. Through teary eyes, his girls saw Chuck wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance and rushed to a hospital. And yes, the moron who flicked his ear (Willard Lafitte from my short story, "THE HEAT IS ON,") did take over his job.

I saw Chuck Shirts only one other time...two years later.

Another great boxman was Dick Paynlewski. In my short story, "RETREADS," he was the man who got bit by a ferret on a craps table at the Holiday International Casino. That has to be the funniest boxman story I ever witnessed. It's so bizarre that the usual ten percent embellishment factor that readers should expect from me, is NOT present in this true event. Nevertheless, for the full brunt of the plot, you should read "Retreads," in its entirety.

By the time I got to the Stardust Casino in March 1980, I still needed technical assistance from boxmen, (I still do...all craps dealers do). But among a veteran dealing staff, the boxmen, (nearly all old-timers) were there to make sure nobody was cheating or stealing, keep the game moving and to entertain the troops.

These boxmen all had colorful stories. One started dealing poker in a Runyanesque back-alley casino in New Orleans when he was twelve. Another was treated like a king when he dealt craps in Havana's golden-age before Castro took over. There were stories about prize-fights being fixed, rigged horse races, shaved dice in the military, scamming charitable organizations during casino nights and point shaving schemes in college basketball. One guy even claimed that Elvis gave him two-thousand dollars to take him all over Vegas to teach him to shoot dice. But it was the dullest of them all that I remember most fondly.

Perry Lane, on the verge of retirement, was a hemorrhoid ring toting curmudgeon. UNLIKE THE CURRENT DOS EQUIS TV BEER COMMERCIAL FEATURING, THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD, PERRY, WAS THE LEAST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD.

Perry Lane was married for forty years, had no children and bragged that he hadn't left Las Vegas in twenty years. While the other boxmen were telling stories about the women they had or the celebrities they hung out with, stone-faced Perry came off like a hard-ass. Actually, he wasn't tough, he just couldn't be bothered. He wanted to sit there quietly or complain. But he understood the true nature of his position. So when the game perked-up, which was nearly all the time, he dropped his low-profile and was an inflexible houseman, (making sure every advantage went to the casino). It was this gruffness and unapproachable facade that made dealers afraid to hustle tokes around him.

Two times I tried to get on his good side by striking up a conversation and both times I failed.

I once said while dealing, "Whoever named the streets where I'm moving must have been a big Superman fan." When he didn't react I continued, "There are four small streets in a row called, Lois Lane, Clark Lane, James Lane and Perry Lane. See that Perry, they named a street after you." He scoffed, "Dummy up and deal."

When I moved into that condo I told him that my girlfriend was going to live with me. He said, "This place, does it have a garage?" I said, "No. But it has a carport." Perry said, "You messed up kid. Where are you gonna hide when your little lady's dander is up?"

Perry didn't like me because I wasn't as polished as the other dealers. He wanted to stare off into space instead of being responsible for me. So on the rare occasion that he spoke, nothing was directly addressed to me. Which was fine because all he did was grouse. He mostly blamed the boxman stools for the pain in his butt. But hardly a night would pass that he didn't mention that his feet needing a good soaking or how annoying it was to correct the kid's (my) mistakes. Also, he apparently used to forget that bell peppers gave him heartburn and when he really got angry, he'd go off on the social security system.

My relationship with Perry changed when a grungy bum who I dubbed Aqualung squeezed into the last spot on my side of the craps table. Aqualung, probably a homeless man, played one dollar at a time in the field. He stunk from putrid body odor and wore a badly blanched, yellow Happy Face tee-shirt. When he lifted his arms, brown veins of filth were etched into his shirt's underarms. The shirt had dozens of small moth holes and a cluster of larger ones around his navel. I couldn't believe the other players weren't offended by him or his aroma.THE ARTIST RENDING OF AQUALUNG FOR JETHRO TULL'S 1971 ALBUM COVER LOOKS LIKE "DAPPER DAN" COMPARED TO THE MAN I WAS DEALING TO. AND...IF YOU HAVEN'T HEARD THIS ROCK-N-ROLL CLASSIC IN A LONG TIME OR LIVE UNDER A ROCK AND NEVER HEARD IT, CLICK ON THIS LINK AND ENJOY. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7-EEGiABBU

Aqualung's long hair was a greasy mess of stringy, matted-down black and gray strands. On his face, a week's worth of stubble couldn't camouflage three open sores. The biggest one, on his left cheek, was a dime-sized, dark red mole that jutted out. It was disgusting to look at it but I found it hard to avoid stealing looks when he started nervously picking at it with his cruddy fingers.

Perry was mumbling about the increased price of avocados when I cut him off, "They should kick that flea out." He yawned, "His money is as good as any ones." Seconds later when Aqualung's pustule started bleeding, a rush of bile erupted into my mouth causing me to whine, "Perry, there's blood all over the chips." He looked over his bifocals and snarled, "Kid, I could go out in the street and in three minutes, find a hundred fellas willing to pay ME, to take YOUR place."

Aqualung lasted about thirty minutes. When he lost his last dollar, I was thrilled. But instead of leaving, our hero reached into his mouth. After struggling for a moment, he pulled something out. At first, I thought it was a tooth. But when it was tossed onto the table, I guessed it was money, all crushed down and chewed?, to the size of a penny.

The bill laid in limbo for several seconds as this saliva-laden orb slowly unraveled. Strings of spit snapped as this nauseating clump morphed into a twenty-dollar bill. I said, "I ain't touching that scummy thing." Perry slapped his left palm on the table with authority twice and bellowed, "Just give it here."

I took two, one-dollar chips and slowly alternated knocking the spit-ball, like a soccer player's dribble. When the players laughed, Perry lost his patience. He pulled the money-drop paddle out and used it to pull the bill closer. It was at this point that he realized how disgusting the situation was. Gingerly, he pinned one edge down with a one-dollar chip and scraped the wet bill flat with the paddle.

When Perry felt that he had proven to the eye-in-the-sky that it was indeed a twenty, he tried to fight off a laugh but couldn't. Perry pointed at this derelict and said, "Give this gentleman twenty-dollars." After he and I shared a grin of validation Perry said, "Kid, you're not so bad, for a slacker." We then buried our "infected" one-dollar chips in the back of the bankroll.

The Aqualung incident took Perry Lane out of his shell. He became an ally to my craps crew (even to me). His greatest act was sharing the valuable information that lead to the conspiracy in my short story, "LAST OF THE GREAT INDEPENDENTS."

About two years later, I did see Chuck Shirts one more time. I was at a red light in front of the Riviera Casino when Chuck's wife and kids pulled up on my left. From the passenger seat, a feeble version of the Chuck I knew, got out in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard and started ranting, waving his fist and cursing our old casino. His girls were all crying as his wife got out and assisted him back into the car.

The gaming industry isn't for everyone. For the craps dealers who have endured the back-stabbers and eluded the dangers of burn-out, the added cushion of a boxman is not a luxury but a necessity. Here in New Jersey where craps games are consistently intense and busy with fast-paced, complicated and high-end action, it is the boxman who usually keep the game from getting out of control. It would seem ludicrous to eliminate the position but some bean counters only look at profits. Their rationale is, everyone else would just have to work harder. But the reality is customer service would suffer, the quality of the fantasy that gambling provides would suffer and players would go somewhere else.

I say, long live the boxman! I applaud your service and sincerely hope that the powers that be, come to their senses and let you continue being the great warriors that you always have been..