Monday, August 26, 2013

WAY BEFORE...WHAT HAPPENS IN LAS VEGAS...

In January 1979, (I was twenty-three years old), I showed up for my first day at the Slots-A-Fun Casino with my brand new "Sheriff's Card" in my billfold.  Before I was permitted to work, I had to show these credentials to the boss.    
DUE TO THE FEAR OF ORGANIZED CRIME INFILTRATION, A COSTLY NEW JERSEY GAMING LICENSE INCLUDED AN IN DEPTH BACKGROUND CHECK.  THIS LENGTHY INVESTIGATION CAUSED THE MOST ROUTINE APPLICANT TO WAIT SEVERAL MONTHS, EVEN A YEAR TO BE APPROVED. NEVADA WAS DIFFERENT, IT HAD AN "INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY" ATTITUDE. TO GET MY "SHERIFF'S CARD,"  I WAITED IN LINE FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES AND PAID THREE DOLLARS. 

I carefully slid my sheriff's card back into my unique billfold. My billfold was a card holder that some salesmen used to display credit card-sized photos of their goods, (it was practical too because it had two hidden sleeves that were suitable for storing small amounts of paper money).  Even though I received a lot of flak because it was a less than masculine baby blue, I liked it because of the gimmick I developed, (too bad I was never clever enough to take a picture of it). 

The gimmick I discovered, included putting the heavier, laminated cards like my Brooklyn Collge ID and draft card at the top.  That way, I could fling the cards forward simultaneously while saying, "Let me present my card." Like an accordian, the plastic compartments would fly open towards who ever I aimed it.  People thought it was funny..the manager at my new job...not so much.  However, about a week later, I found out that one of the dealers waiting to go home on my first day, Pete Izzo, thought it was hilarious.

It should be noted that Vegas was separated into two licensing jurisdictions, (basically, the strip and downtown).  The specific border that divided the city from the county was Sahara Avenue.  Therefore a toilet like Slot-A-Fun which was south of Sahara was technically in the high rent district, (a.k.a. the fabulous Las Vegas Strip), and required a sheriff's card.   On the other hand, the rinky-dink casinos downtown, (north of Sahara), required a "police card." Much of this story is concentrated on that Sahara Avenue division.
I ALWAYS HAVE TROUBLE FINDING DECENT SLOTS-A-FUN PICTURES ON THE INTERNET.  IRONICALLY, I'VE HAD THIS ONE ALL ALONG, (TAKEN BY MY DAD IN JANUARY 1980).

Pete Izzo (25) was so fascinated by my billfold gimmick that he tried to buy it off me.  He was such a nice guy that even when I turned him down, we became passing friends. 

Izzo was a sloppy, fat guy from Woonsocket Rhode Island.  His dark, pockmarked, oily complexion and sharp facial features gave him a caveman look.  His greasy, wild hair was a trifle long for casino standards.  But due to his tough exterior and claim of connections to the wise-guys in Providence, noboby bothered him over such trivialities.

On one of my night's off, I bumped into Pete and two of his fellow, Slots-A-Fun graveyard shift dealers.  They were a rather large trio. His buddies were, Joe Imperiale, (a 310-pound former college football player) and Frank Ianucci (who was built like Izzo, at 5-11 and 260 pounds).  I later nicknamed them.  Then years later, I wrote a corresponding blog, (March 1, 2010) called, "THE LAW FIRM OF, IMPERIALE, IANUCCI AND IZZO." 

They were on their way to the El Cortez Casino for the steak dinner special and invited me along.  Later, we played twenty-five cent craps and drank for free all night.  I hung with them on my night off many times.  In the weeks to come, we made several more visits the El Cortez.  Also, we went to Jai Alai at the MGM on three occasions (until we got barred for life) and horse back riding once.

Izzo's tough exterior was just a front.  He was a country boy at heart and his move to Las Vegas was the first time he had ever left Rhode Island.  Privately, he was a milk and cookies kind of guy who missed his mother and phoned her every Sunday.  Another part of this big galoot's unwillingness to leave home was a fear of flying and driving.  He was okay on a bus, in a taxi or as a car passenger but to move west, he took AMTRAK.  Therefore it was shocking that he got on a horse, (at the time, I joked that the other horse's were jealous of my horse because at 190 pounds, I was a twig compared to them).

Sometimes, I pushed the envelope with Pete.  Luckily, he thought my "jealous horse" line was funny. He also had a sense of humor when we wound-up at Denny's for munchies, at six o'clock in the morning.  Imperiale, Ianucci and I all had breakfast food but Izzo ordered "Dinner Italiano," (a.k.a. the slop Denny's called meatballs and spaghetti). 

We were all cutting up Izzo's odd choice up when Ianucci said, "Are you sure your Italian?"  In the middle of gulping his root beer Izzo countered, "Pure Sicilian!" Imperiale sneered, "Your mother would be so proud." Izzo interrupted our laughter by saying, "You assholes can drop dead! 'Cause I know when you see my plate, you'll all want some...and you can beg till you're blue in the damned face...but I ain't givin' up shit!"

Izzo dug in as soon as he was served. His contorted expression signaled to us that he made a poor food choice.  He moaned, "Yous wanna try this?"  We shook our heads.  To save face, he devoured the whole mess.  We had a good laugh at his expense when he looked up from the empty dish with red sauce all over his face.  Pete Izzo stated with a sigh of satisfaction, "That was pretty good. But these guys would make a fortune if they made pizza."  I looked at his sausy face and said, "You look like a friggin' pizza."  Then the joke hit me.  So, I modified the pronounciation and said, "Your new name is 'Pizza,' (more specifically 'Pete-Sza').  He didn't care so after that day, that's what I usually called him.

Imperiale and Ianucci left Slots-A-Fun for better jobs at the same time that I was pushing myself to get out.  On one of my last shifts, I crossed paths with Izzo as I was rushing in and he was rushing out. I noticed that he had a fresh, short haircut and cracked, "Hey Pete-Sza, you look different...what did you do, wash your face?"  He gave me a dirty look.  That look stayed with me because after I left the job, I didn't see him for several more months.

By December 1979, I was living with SK28 on East Sahara and dealing craps at Hotel Fremont.
I WAS AT THE FREMONT FROM SEPTEMBER 1979 UNTIL MARCH 1980.  ON THE NIGHT BEFORE MY FIRST DAY, I WRECKED MY CAR. SO MOST OF THE TIME I LIVED WITH SK28, I HAD NO WHEELS.

SK28 had no car either.  He was a pan dealer and break-in poker dealer at the Sahara Casino.  This was way before casino Texas Hold'em went viral.  So SK28, in order to qualify as a poker dealer had to serve an apprenticeship by acting as a Hold'em player to fill spots on the table during his breaks from dealing pan.
PAN, FROM THE PHILIPPINE WORD, PANGUINGUE (pan-geen-gee) IS A RUMMY-LIKE, 320-CARD GAMBLING GAME.  IT DATES BACK TO THE 1800's AND WAS INTRODUCED IN THE USA IN 1905.  IT IS NO LONGER OFFERED IN LAS VEGAS CASINOS AND CAN ONLY BE FOUND IN A HANDFUL OF CALIFORNIA CARD ROOMS OR ONLINE.
SK28 could rationalize not needing a car because he could walk to work, a shopping center and the bus stop easily.  One night, I walked to the Sahara to meet SK28 after work.  We had decided to eat in the steakhouse diagonally across the street, in the Jolly Trolley Casino, (by being on opposite sides of the jurisdiction border, Jolly Trolley workers required a police card and Sahara employees needed a sheriff's card).

The Jolly Trolley Casino was a bust-out, saw-dust joint with a terrible reputation for attracting low-lifes as clientele, dealers and managers.  To lure in gamblers, they had a seedy topless theater.  At the snack bar, (which offered a huge hamburger for 49c), if you sat in the right seats, you could avoid the cover charge and get a cheap thrill when the bouncer pulled aside the curtain and exposed the dancers.

While I was waiting in the Sahara for SK28 to punchout, I saw Pete "Pete-Sza" Izzo playing poker.  He was dressed like a knucklehead tourist and was toting a plastic bag full of Vegas souvenirs.  He whispered that he was a professional poker player and duped the so-called sharpies by having them think he was a mook (an easy mark) from out-of-town.  He also explained that he lived nearby and played a lot at the Sahara.  Similar to SK28, he liked living in the area because the city bus was convenient and made the whole town excessible.

We exchanged phone numbers.  Once I dropped by his apartment and we went to the Jolly Trolley for a burger, a beer and some cheap thrills.  He had two of each so my check was half his $1.98.

The second time we decided to have lunch at the Trolley, I was sitting on his sunken-in couch admiring his littered living room.  I was amazed to see so many partially-finished Fudge-Covered Oreo Cookie packages and the army of McDonald's chocolate thick shake empties.  I complemented his choice of cookies but added, "How can you drink so much of that aerated kaopectate?" as the phone rang.  Someone told him about a lucrative poker tournament at the Aladdin Casino. Pete-Sza excused himself from lunch and wasted no time in getting his faux-tourist uniform on.  We were going in the same direction so I waited with him at the bus stop, (same corner as the Jolly Trolley).  When he got on, I went into the casino.
THE JOLLY TROLLEY  (1977-1981) WAS LOCATED IN A STRIP MALL, (PARDON THE PUN).  IT WAS ORIGINALLY HONEST JOHN'S CASINO.  IT BECAME THE BIG WHEEL IN 1971 AND FROM 1975-1977, IT WAS CALLED THE CENTERFOLD.

I got my belly-full as well as many quick glimpses of the topless girls.  But when I reached for my baby blue billfold that I used as a funny gimmick, it was no laughing matter...it was gone...and I was penniless.  Based on their scummy reputation, I loudly made a fool of myself and claimed to have been the victim of a pickpocket.  That dump was used to vermin...except it was the bouncer accusing me of being a cockroach trying to beat a 99c check.  I was powerless to resist and was ushered out.  In the street, I was confused, mortified and angry.

A few weeks later, I got a new (old) car and a different apartment miles away. I fell out of touch with Pete-Sza again.  In that time, the porn star Marilyn Chambers did a one-women show called, "THE SEX SURROGATE," in the Jolly Trolley showroom. 
MARILYN CHAMBERS (1952-2009) WAS AT THE TOP OF HER CRAFT THROUGH THE 70's AND INTO THE 80's.   IN THAT TIME, SHE APPEARED IN 36 HARDCORE FILMS.

Ms. Chambers was supposed to use the Jolly Trolley opportunity as a springboard to the legitimate singing and dancing career she always wanted.  But her act featured full-frontal nudity during an interpretative dance as she pantomimed an orgasm during self-satisfaction.  Vice cops were in the audience so her first and only performance was stopped.

Months later, I got a call from SK28.  He said Pete Sza called and found my billfold in the cushions of his couch. When I was re-united with my Canarsie branch of the Brooklyn public library card, New York State driver's license, some pictures and other forms of ID, I was also relieved that all eleven of my dollars were still hidden in the secret compartments.

It was no surprise to me that the Jolly Trolley lived-up to its reputation and closed down in disgrace.  That's when a keno player hit the top prize $25,000.00 and the Nevada Casino Control Commission revoked their license because the casino didn't have enough cash to pay-off.
CASINO KENO IS A LIVE, INEXPENSIVE, LOW-PERCENTAGE LOTTERY-LIKE GAMBLING GAME. TWENTY OUT OF EIGHTY NUMBERED PING PONG BALLS ARE RANDOMLY CHOSEN AND THE PLAYERS WHO MATCH ENOUGH NUMBERS WIN.  IN 1979, THE JACKPOT WAS $25,000.00.  THESE DAYS, IT'S DOUBLE.

Today that strip mall boasts a true Las Vegas landmark, the world's biggest gift shop.
IN 2009, I TOOK MY FAMILY INSIDE.  AND YES ANY CHINTZY LAS VEGAS SOUVENIR YOU COULD IMAGINE IS FOR SALE IN THIS INCREDIBLY LARGE STORE.  MY ONLY REGRET WAS THAT I DIDN'T SEE PETE-SZA BUYING NEW PROPS TO SUPPORT HIS" INEXPERIENCED POKER PLAYER" SECRET IDENTITY.

These days the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and Better Business Bureau have teamed-up with slogan; What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.  Now that you read this blog, you know the craziness out there...is nothing new.

Monday, August 19, 2013

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM...THANKS FOR TEACHING ME THE FINE ART OF RESTAURANTING

AUGUST 22nd WOULD HAVE BEEN MY MOTHER'S 83rd BIRTHDAY. PLEASE HELP ME CELEBRATE HER GREATNESS BY ENJOYING THIS COLUMN.

MOM ON VACATION IN RIMOUSKI, QUEBEC, CANADA...SEPTEMBER - 1971


                                                                              *


A few years back, I was eating with my mouth full.  When some of it went down the wrong pipe, my mother smiled, "You're just like me...even when you're choking, you keep chewing."  Her point was, we both enjoy eating so much that an idle death threat won't force us to spit anything out. 

If mom was young today, she'd be a foodie.  She had an appreciation for good eats especially the exotic, (Indian food, Thai, Turkish, Moroccan and sushi).  Me, I'm far less discerning.  I can't even spell cuisine without a dictionary.  So, I let my sister take mom to the fancy places she referred to as, Ipsy-Pipsy.  That means, don't waste your time, energy and money on me, I don't need gourmet specialties...just give me what I like.

But just because you give me what I like, doesn't mean it's good.  The perfect example of this would be the original Ray's Pizza in Manhattan.  Some how...since the 70's...the world's greatest slice has gone in the toilet.  While you'd be hard pressed to find an Italian person working in the kitchen today...the recipe should be the same?  That means you can't blame the waitress, the counter man or the chef...all the accountability lies in the dirty hands of the penny-pincher who buys the ingredients.

In regard to cutting corners, one of my new readers, VJV shocked me by ragging on restaurant management, "I don't like to eat out...especially Italian food."  VJV was born in Italy and has owned restaurants.  The ultimate host, when you go to his house, you eat like royalty.  So much is homemade and even his store-bought items are so fresh, tasty and beautifully prepared, you'd think they were made from scratch too. 

During his rare trips to restaurants, VJV's family is sometimes embarrassed because he'd nitpick seemingly trivial matters like covering the ice reservoir, regular vacuuming and the necessity of pristine restrooms. When he was really riled-up, he'd confront in the manager/owner.  If the owner blamed an unmotivated staff VJV would blast, "No, you're cheap, lazy or both!  If they were trained well, this, that and the other wouldn't happen."

I believed everything VJV said until he added, "But I do like eating at the Olive Garden." 
SINCE 1982, THE OLIVE GARDEN, SPECIALIZING IN ITALIAN-AMERICAN COOKING,  IS A CASUAL, FAMILY-STYLE RESTAURANT CHAIN.  THEY NOW BOAST 800+ LOCATIONS WORLDWIDE.

I arched one eyebrow in disbelief until he added, "If you stick with soup, salad and breadsticks...that's one place that you know exactly what you're getting.  Besides, the only reason why you're there to begin with...is to socialize."



                                                                                 *


My dad passed away in 1995.  In his absence, mom and I arranged around ten visits a year, (a combination of her taking a casino bus to Atlantic City and me driving into Canarsie, Brooklyn).  When her mobility failed, the amount of visits stayed the same...with me exclusively driving to her.

The early part of my visits were dedicated to sorting out mom's personal affairs and running errands.  This was a time when my mom relied on Meals on Wheels or microwavable delights for many of her suppers.  So my visits were highlighted by early evening outings, usually to diners, (which in New York...is a good thing). 

My adventurous parents were always willing to travel to new places or return to far-off restaurants.  So once I put the bug in my mother's ear that I was getting tired of the same local hot-spots, she amazed me with a vast knowledge of eateries throughout Brooklyn and into Queens, (today we rely on computers. But the old-school word-of-mouth network the ladies at mom's senior center used...NEVER failed, (she once hinted that the famous rooftop carrier pigeons of Canarsie were part of their information sharing equation but I'm fairly certain she was kidding).
AT BROOKLYN COLLEGE, ONE OF MY PROFESSORS, NICK PINGATORE SAID, "I'M EXCUSING CLASS EARLY IN HONOR OF THANKSGIVING.  PLEASE, EVERYBODY ENJOY YOUR TURKEY...AND THOSE OF YOU FROM CANARSIE...ENJOY YOUR PIGEON."

Mom's connections gave her insights to where to find valuable coupons and the best daily menu specials.  She knew who served lobster, Hungarian goulash, brolied fish, Romanian steak, lamb stew etc. But mom's health continued to deteriorate.

They say; when life serves you lemons...make lemonade.  So, I made more trips to Brooklyn.

Mom was bogged down with emphysema.  That meant we had to incorporate her oxygen tanks and a walker to our travels.  Luckily mom's personality always remained sharp so the new reality of her physical shortcomings were minimized by great conversations.

On my end, I started to do research into better restaurants for us to try.  By working in a casino and having a strong customer following (primarily in roulette), I had a wealth Brooklynites to ask for suggestions.  A man I called "Z" because he was from Avenue Z, told me about Maria's Restaurante on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay.  Mom and I loved it and the owner/manager sitting with us for a short while was a memorable touch.

(M and R) A cigar chomping jerk with an extremely pleasant wife hooked me up with Gargiulio's in Coney Island.  Mom had mixed feelings about that place.  Everything was great, except her condition made the one giant step-up into the dining room...like Mount Kilimanjaro.
IN EARLIER DAYS, MOM'S FAVORITE WAS FLORENTINO'S, IN GRAVESEND, ON AVENUE U.  WE HAD SEVERAL BIRTHDAYS FOR HER THERE, AS WELL AS  (LATE DECEMBER 1999), I THREW HER A MILLENIUM PARTY, (above).  WE ONLY STOPPED GOING BECAUSE THE LADIES ROOM WAS DOWN A FLIGHT OF STAIRS.

Another of my regulars, Adam, a thirty-ish jet-setter surprised me by saying, "I don't eat out much in Brooklyn because I go to my mother's apartment every Sunday."  But he did add that Jordan's Seafood Shack off Knapp Street had a top-notch reputation.  And he wound-up being right. 

Tony Baloney, (the self-proclaimed Emperor of Kensington) recommended Thursday's International Cafe.  It was the remodeled coffee shop in one of those hourly-rate motels near Kennedy Airport.  Through mom's connections at the senior center, she found a grand opening, two-for-one, seven-course meal, earlybird special coupon. I don't know if it was the hideous orange and white decor leftover from the 70's, the musty stink that was covered by the thick stench of pine cleaner, the poor service or the fact that they were out of the glamorous items that lured us in...Thursday's was a dud.  But as VJV would say...we were there to socialize.  Plus we had the added bonus of being able to poke fun at the place for a long time.

One year, when mom's birthday rolled around, my sister and her family came in.  Mom heard through the grapevine that Ember's Steakhouse in Bay Ridge was the top-of-line and it lived up to its high expectations.  That day also started my son Andrew as a bon vivant.  Thus following in the footsteps of his connoisseur grandma and meat-n-potatoes dad.  It started when I ordered scungilli and calamari salad as my appetizer.
SCUNGILLI SALAD, MY MOUTH IS WATERING JUST THINKING OF IT...TO COMPLETE THIS PERFECT PICTURE, I'D WASH IT DOWN WITH A DR. BROWN'S CEL-RAY SODA.

Ten-year old Andrew looked at my plate, pointed at some tentacles and said, "Yuck!  What is that?"  I said, "Scungilli and calamari are the Italian words for octopus and a shellfish called conch."  He distorted his face and shook his head.  I said, "If you try it, you may like it."  He's an infintely braver soul than I'll ever be.  He ate some, liked it and still loves it.

At his age (hell, even now), if something doesn't strike my fancy, NOTHING on this earth can get me to try it...even mom.  Looking back, in situations involving me turning down such delicacies as; borscht, gefilte fish, cooked fruit or Brussel sprouts mom would smirk, "Good, that means more for me."
NO PHOTO ON THE INTERNET SHOWS JUST HOW DISGUSTING GEFILTE FISH LOOKS.  FAR WORSE THAN RESEMBLING BRAINS, THIS ETHNIC TREAT OF MY ANCESTORS IS COVERED WITH A SLIMY GEL WHICH MAY HAVE PROMPTED THE SAYING, "I WOULDN'T EAT THAT WITH YOUR MOUTH."  P.S. BORSCHT IS FAR MORE GHASTLY AND SOME PUTRID THING CALLED SCHAV IS A GAZILLION TIMES WORSE. 

About a week after the party at Embers, the casino had a restaurant owner convention.  I saw a delegate's nametag from West Virginia.  Her first and last name were Italian, as was the name of her restaurant.  I told her a fast version of Andrew's introduction to scungilli and calamari and she said, "What is scungilli and calamari?"

Most of mom's last two years were spent in a rehabilitation center.  Towards the end, I needed help getting her in and out of my car, causing our excursions to become far less frequent.  Her 78th birthday party was at Lenny's Clam Bar in Howard Beach Queens. My sister and my cousins Vicki and Sonny attended.
WHILE ANDREW WAS OFF PLAYING ANGRY BIRDS, SONNY THE PHOTOGRAPHER FORGOT TO SAY CHEESE

Mom's last birthday was at Brooklyn's Outback Steakhouse in Dyker Heights.
MOM WAS FRAIL BY THIS TIME . THE REHAB CENTER RECOMMENDED THAT WE DON'T TAKE HER OUT.  WHEN WE GOT TO THE OUTBACK, MOM COULDN'T MANEUVER HERSELF, TO HELP US GET HER OUT OF MY CAR.  HEROIC COUSIN SONNY (far right) STEPPED-IN AND LIFTED MY MOM OUT LIKE A FIREMAN.  I COULD NEVER DO THAT AND IF I TRIED,  I'D RIP THE VERTEBRAE OUT OF MY BACK   I RECENTLY REMINDED HIM OF HIS GREAT ACT AND MR. MODESTY SAID, "IT WAS NOTHING."

All these restaurant trips came to mind two weeks ago when Sue and I met our life long friends the Zymbiodelic's, ( ZYMBOT and FLOWGLO), for dinner.  It's unfortunate how infrequently we get together.  This time we met halfway between their mountain chateau in Central Jersey and our old homestead.  The place we decided on was the Artisan Grill, in Toms River.  To justify the beautiful Tuscan theme and a warm, comfortable micro-brewery, the menu was quite pricey.

Our conversation, as if we were with them the day before, never wavered.  We were so chatty that the waitresses was turned away twice because we hadn't scoured the menu.  When we did make our selections, everyone chose something different.  I picked last because I was blabbing so much that I still hadn't decided.  Everyone was waiting.  I felt rushed.   But I didn't have my glasses.  So I squinted well enough to see my old standard, veal parmigiana.  I should have seen this as an omen when the waitress said, "We don't have that on the menu.  We have chicken and eggplant parm but no veal."  Upon harder squinting, she was right.  Some Italian restaurant.  On impulse, I went with the eggplant...and it was awful.  Later, I commented that it was like eating an On-Cor frozen dinner. 

ACTOR AL MOLINARO WAS THE FACE (AND NOSE) OF ON-COR's TV COMMERCIALS.  HE WAS BEST KNOWN AS MURRAY THE COP ON TV'S, "ODD COUPLE" and AL DELVECHHIO, THE OWNER OF ARNOLD'S DRIVE-IN RESTAURANT ON "HAPPY DAYS."  CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO SEE HIM STAR IN AN ON-COR AD.
http://search.mywebsearch.com/mywebsearch/redirect.jhtml?searchfor=Al+Molinaro&cb=CD&p2=%5ECD%5Exdm003%5ES04317%5Eus&qid=d8d773761e884b31b324f701f1a0cb06&n=77fc41c7&ptb=D6B92608-79BD-4909-92A0-160CFD832118&si=CKuH4unForUCFQPd4AodLCEADg&pg=GGmain&action=pick&pn=1&ss=sub&st=bar&qs=&pr=GG&tpr=sbt&redirect=mPWsrdz9heamc8iHEhldEcgdjfjqpMajKYmz288FhTKQMkoOrq6%2BR%2Fz7%2FzOO9S3WrH4ww5G5oc7Wmk7aNOyGZw%3D%3D&ord=5&ct=AR&

Unfortunately everyone in our party was also disappointed in the Artisan Grill.  Like my mom and VJV like to say...we were there to socialize so in this case...the company was great and the expensive food was secondary.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!  Thanks for teaching me the fine art of restauranting. And if restauranting isn't a real word, I say let's make it one and credit you with its discovery.  Then while we're at it, let's also give my mother the proper footnote every time we use it.

More importantly, I hope the food in heaven is better than Thursday's !

Next time we hang with the Zymbiodelics, we'll see if Tom's River has an Olive Garden.

Monday, August 12, 2013

DEBBIE DOWNER'S BROTHER DINO

In 1993, I crushed my thumb with a hammer. I let out a muffled yet sickening yelp.  My wife Sue ran upstairs to investigate.  When she saw me writhing in agony, my ever-supportive mate shook her head and smirked as I recited chapter and verse from my, "Big Book of Advanced Profanity." 

I have no talent as a handyman.  Deep down, she knew I was a spaz with a history of making simple repairs worse...while usually hurting myself.  So I had no business hanging pictures. Sue's confidence in me was proven the previous autumn when I found out that she charged our palmcorder the night before I went up a twenty-foot ladder to clean leaves from my leaders and gutters.  She even put, "AMERICA'S FUNNIEST VIDEOS," on speed dial, in an attempt to cash-in on my anticipated accident...making their blooper reel.

Sue thought my thumb was serious and insisted that I call-out and go to the emergency room.  But I decided to gut-it-out.  My wound pulsated all day and was still radiating when I got out of the shower before work.  The reddish, brown, purple and black skin around my cracked nail was tough to look at.  By the time Sue finished bandaging me, it looked like I was trying to smuggle a lightbulb into the casino.

That was twenty years ago when I was new to dealing roulette.  So, I was uncertain if there was a casino rule that might prevent me from dealing that night.  I decided to give my supervisor a heads-up.  On the schedule, I saw that Dean Leopold, an ugly, tiny man with a shaved head, (before it was popular), was overseeing me that night.  He always had an intense look on his face and the prominent veins that protruded from around his beady eyes and tight skull looked like he were always ready to burst.

Dean (50+) was nicknamed "Dino Downer" because in addition to being unfriendly, he was a serial complainer.  Dino was famous for venting about his finances.  Those complaints led to his frustration about not being able to afford a divorce. Then he'd plow on about how his wife propagandized their only child against him.  But he hated one thing even more...his job.  Dino would whine about the special treatment his cohorts were getting, (he called them "Jet-Setters)."  He'd get so frazzled that the few people who actually hung around long enough to hear his rants would joke about him going postal.

Dino hated serving the public as well as the tedium and unnecessary paperwork that was at the core of his job description.  He had no interest in multi-tasking so on the rare occasion that he really had to exert himself, he put up a brick wall of pure attitude to close off added responsibility or went into a rage.  He especially couldn't stand the being accountable for break-ins, (someone new to casino work...or in my case, new to a specific game...roulette).

I knew Dino wasn't thrilled to have an inexperienced roulette dealer (me) that night.  So I was rather sheepish when I pointed out the gigantic bandage on my thumb. Dino snarled at me, "You think that's bad, look at these old shoes, my feet are killing me and I'm too broke to get new ones."  I changed my tact and said, "Can I deal with this?"  He bellowed, "I don't give a shit, it's your left thumb.  For all I care, you can push the chips with your stink-ass feet."  I shouldn't have been surprised by his reaction but was.  I said, "Oh." He lashed out at me, "How old are you kid?"  I said, "Thirty-eight."  Then the asshole said, "Thirty-Eight?  You're a friggin' baby!  In a day or so your stupid finger will be fine.  But just wait a couple of years...once you hit forty, all those little pains NEVER go away.  Then you become enslaved by your pharmacy and you'll be dependent on chemicals the rest of your miserable life."  I said, "Wait."  Dino Downer cut me off, "No!  You listen to me. In no time your body will start to fall apart.  Every couple of years you'll have another procedure done and the next thing you know, you'll always feel like you're dyin'.  AND!  The only thing that'll make you feel alive is that other guys your age have it worse."

The last thing I ever would want to admit was that ugly, little weasel was right about ANYTHING.  But when I woke up the next morning, I examined my thumb and I was okay.  In a short time, Dino was fired and I went two years without recalling his pearls of wisdom.

In December 1995, my family and I were visiting friends in San Diego.  One morning, I was rubbing the side of my foot and notice that the skin near the ball of my foot was cracked.  I used some moisturizer and forgot about it.  Weeks later at home, I noticed that the problem returned.

I figured I would gut-it-out but instead of healing, it got worse.  Then I sarted feeling other strange symptoms like; dry skin, body hair loss, always feeling cold and incredible levels of fatigue.  I was so easily exhausted that I had to rest while shampooing or brushing my teeth.  I couldn't even write a check without my hands cramping up before I got to my signature.  Still, I remained in denial until large, sensitive pimples formed on my tongue.  When I had three or more of these weird zits, it effected the clarity of my speech   I had never gone to a doctor in adulthood but I caved-in because...I thought I was going to die.
A SELF-FULFILLED PROPHECY.  COMMEDIENNE GILDA RADNER (1946-1989) DIED FAR TOO YOUNG.   SHE FREQUENTLY USED THE CATCHPHRASE, "I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE," IN HER SNL SKITS AS MYTHICAL NEWSWOMAN, *ROSEANNE ROSEANNADANNA.  ONCE I FOUND MYSELF OVER-USING HER LINE, I RAN TO A DOCTOR. *THE CHARACTER WAS INSPIRED BY ABC-TV IN NEW YORK CITY'S REPORTER ROSE ANN SCAMARDELLA.  WHETHER SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS BEING CLEVER OR JUST TRYING TO SENSATIONALIZE (OR BOTH) , SCAMARDELLA WAS KNOWN TO PUT A MICROPHONE UP TO THE MOTHER A MURDER VICTIM AND SAY, "YOUR CHILD HAS JUST BEEN FOUND CUT-UP IN A MILLION PIECES AND STUFFED IN GARBAGE BAGS NEAR THE AIRPORT...HOW DO YOU FEEL?"
Once I started feeling like I was going to die, I cursed the memory of what Dean Leopold said and researched a physician. Friends recommended a local doctor. But before I became acquainted with him, my easy-going nature was tested because I was stuck in the waiting room for an hour before I met the doctor. 

He was a short gentleman around my age.  Despite his Oriental accent and squeaky, high-pitched voice, my first impression of his manner and professionalism was positive. When he asked me to list my symptoms, I had only rattled off a few when he started naming others like, swollen joints, edginess and lack of patience before I could.  In seconds, he diagnosed my problem as an under-active thyroid.  I had faith in him even as I struggled to understand him say, "What you have can be easily treated and is not life threatening.  We'll draw blood today, prescribe medication and repeat the process every other week until we find the right dosage for you."

This scenario of me waiting forty minutes to an hour in his waiting room would repeat itself three times.  While there, the entire support staff was friendly and approachable.  So after giving my latest blood sample, I asked the petite receptionist, "To avoid the long wait, when is the best time for me to come...once I'm in, I'm out in five minutes."  She said, "Come at night.  Make a seven o'clock appointment and you'll be first after our dinner break."

I followed her suggestion.  But just before I went, my wife Sue had an emergency and had to rush out.  Rather than postpone my appointment, I took my son Andrew (he had just turned two).  Andrew even at that age was exceptionally calm and patient.  I took his favorite, "WIZARD OF OZ, " book and a couple of toys to occupy him...just in case.  As an extra precation, I arrived at the doctor's office five minutes early.  To my shock, seven people were already in the waiting room.  The receptionist was a stranger to me.  I said, "I have the first appointment for seven o'clock."  This tiny girl didn't look up as she twirled her hair and cracked her gum.  She used a pencil to point at the waiting room and stated, "So do they!"

Andrew and I had quiet fun for twenty minutes.  Afterwards, his patience withered so I had to control him from running around as well as I shush him.  I reopened his book and returned to the page with the flying monkeys.  But the time passed slowly and I was getting antsy myself.  Under my watchful eye, I let my boy freelance.  Andrew put a smile on some people's faces but one patient complained to the receptionist. She called a nurse, (I never saw her before either).  This woman reminded me of a five-foot, Margaret Hamilton version of Nurse Ratched.
VETERAN MOVIE AND TV ACTRESS MARGARET HAMILTON (1902-1985) WAS BEST KNOW AS "THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST," FROM 1939's, "THE WIZARD OF OZ."

Nurse Ratched was the villian from 1975's hit movie, "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST."  I was reminded of her when my doctor's night nurse rose the hackles on the back of my neck by sternly whispering to me, "Wouldn't you agree that it's not a good idea to bring babies to a doctor's office." 
LOUISE FLETCHER WON AN OSCAR FOR HER PORTRAYAL OF CRUEL AND TYRANNICAL, NURSE RATCHED.

I wanted to tell this supposed emissary of mercy that I made a seven o'clock appointment at the suggestion of the daytime receptionist and expected to be in and out.  But before I could get going, the bitch shushed me and walked away.  Andrew laughed when I said, "There's no place like home.  I wish I could click the heels on my ruby red slippers and..."  I was interrupted when they called my name.

At ten to eight, another unfamiliar (and vertically challenged) nurse allowed Andrew and I access into Emerald City.  She escorted us along a long, yellow carpet through Oz, to wait for the wizard in his office.  Several minutes later, the Ratched clone, while reading my file, walked in and snapped, "What seems to be the problem?"  I couldn't stand her manner and wanted to tell her; you ought to see if the doctor can give you a brain, a heart and the courage to be civil. She looked ridiculous with my case history in her hand and having the audacity to ask me that.

It wasn't easy but I controlled my temper and pleasantly said, "I'm just here to give a blood sample."  She lowered the file, bent down into my face and spitefully laughed, "We don't TAKE blood at night!"  I lost it...loudly!  Maybe I could rationalize my behavior by blaming my condition but my book on advanced profanity really paid off.  In seconds, the doctor rushed in and all of his staff converged at the threshold.  A few patients came behind them and saw me lambaste the doctor.  He said, "Make another appointment when you're feeling more..."  I cut him off and shouted, "You're a moronic munchkin and you run your office like shit...and I'm not making another appointment...because...YOU ARE FIRED !"

Unfortunately for me, Dean "Dino Downer" Leopold was absolutely right about this one thing.  I'm still taking thyroid meds.  And unless I want to feel like I'm gonna die, I'm now taking pills for six others things.

Monday, August 5, 2013

AUGUST-FIRST-O-PHOBIA

It sucks! It blows! It’s hard to believe but true that a mere date on the calendar can breed disillusionment, disappointment and hatred in me. And although hate is a strong word…to me, when I was a ten-year old…August the first was not just a simple thorn in my side. It was a hint that the red death of plague (school) was starting a four-week incubation period, ready to fester and destroy my rapidly evaporating freedom.

In my adolescence, like a dagger through my heart, I recognized August first as the halfway point of the summer. This annual observance signaled my impending doom because I was never an enthusiastic student. So each August, I would torment myself to get in as many adventures and fun times as I could. But as a kid with few resources, I realized that there was little I could do to improve my circumstance. Far worse, this situation developed into pressure and anxiety. So much so that I am positive this caused my first sense of depression.

On the positive side, I believe this fear of August first (August-First-O-Phobia), forced me to develop a keener sense of urgency…in so far as seizing the moment. This was evident in 1976 when I hitchhiked cross-country, (I took Greyhounds too).

The night before I left with all the preparations made, my "friend" backed-out on me. Even though I was a college senior (twenty-one years old) and it was the last week of June, I was reminded of my August first syndrome.  I was so stoked to go…that I went alone.  Like the syndrome that signaled the beginning of the end, (of something good), , I understood that my carefree days of childhood were dwindling and that summer was my last gasp of worry-free freedom.

It is not an exaggeration to say that every day of my sixty-eight day odyssey brought new and wonderful experiences. While there certainly were slower days, the overall flow of my journey resulted in a continuous, connection of interesting stories.

Before I started, I mapped-out a rough itinerary.  I succeeded in making it to the majority of my destinations. But I used a feather in the wind mentality, so some desirable tourist attractions slipped through the cracks.

By the time August first rolled around, I was disheartened to learn from fellow backpackers that I didn’t take enough advantage of Beale Street in Memphis (the birthplace of the blues), missed the Astrodome in Houston, the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the Monument Valley (the four corners of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah), Yosemite National Park, the 1849 California gold rush area, Alaska, Yellowstone (Wyoming), Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Canadian maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.
IT STILL IRKS ME THAT I DIDN'T HAVE THE FORESIGHT TO REALIZE THAT I MIGHT NEVER GET ANOTHER CHANCE TO SAY I WAS IN ALASKA.

Still, I can take solace in the fact that I covered so much territory and that it’s impossible to see it all. Nevertheless, over the last 47 years, I would have hoped to have scratched a few more off the list but alas, I’ve only managed Yosemite.
BETWEEN LIVING RELATIVELY CLOSE IN LAS VEGAS, (1979-1984), AND BEING THREE HOURS AWAY, (2009), AT THE PETRIFIED FOREST (ARIZONA), I CAN'T BELIEVE I NEVER PRIORITIZED SEEING THE FOUR CORNERS.

Ironically, earlier this week, (August 1, 2013), the tiny town of Kanab Utah made the news. I was there during my cross-country trip for about six hours. A lot can be accomplished in six hours but I accomplished nothing.

This seemingly insignificant hamlet in southern Utah was part of the hitchhiking route I took with a guy (Will Raymond).  We met in the Grand Canyon and he wanted to show me a great time in his hometown, Georgetown Colorado. (The whole Will Raymond story was in a blog called, "THE STOCKHOLM EFFECT ON INTERSTATE-70," from March 2009.

Will and I learned the hard way that the generalization about NOBODY picking up hitchhikers in Utah (Mormon Country) was true! On the border of Arizona and Utah, we camped on the shore of Lake Powell. In he morning (with the air conditioned welcome center across the street), we waited three hours for a ride into Utah. Whether it was out of spite or stupidity I’ll never know but some joker picked us up and dropped us off twenty miles later, in the middle of the desert.

We had learned from this jerk's car radio that it was already 106°. So with few cars going by, no shade and limited water, we were sure to die there...with our tongues and thumbs out. Luckily, a pickup truck stopped for us. In the cab, the driver and his friend were Native Americans. The day before, Will and I were in Flagstaff Arizona.  That was when  two highway patrolmen stopped us to see if we were vagrants or runaways. When we checked out okay, one of the ignorant bastard cops warned us, “Don’t take a ride from Indians. They’ll drive to a secluded spot in the desert, cut off your hands and while you're running around in agony, they use you for target practice.”

My companion and I looked at each other. Silently we acknowledged that we had a better chance of dying from exposure…and climbed into the truck's bed. Our hosts only temporarily saved us because at a cut off for Yuba City, they too dropped us off in the middle of nowhere.

Utah is known for its incredible scenery…but not where we were. We stood, for over an hour, in a dull wasteland under a broiling sun. The occasional car that flew by, provided us with a short breeze that also stung us with a thousand dusty particles.
UTAH'S STATE NICKNAME IS DERIVED BY THE BELIEF THAT THE PEOPLE ARE INDUSTRIOUS, (BUSY AS BEES).  BUT AFTER SURVIVING THE NEXT THIRTY MINUTES, I THOUGHT THE NICKNAME MEANT, COME TO UTAH AND GET STUNG.

In the distance, one gigantic white fluffy cloud seemed to be coming near.
A LOCAL WOULD RECOGNIZE THIS INNOCENT CLOUD AS TROUBLE...BUT WE WEREN'T LOCALS.

I looked at the cloud and welcomed the possibilty of some shade. It crept closer and was almost over head when it changed from white to gray. The breeze picked up as the cloud turned dark gray to black. Suddenly the winds swirled and penny-sized hailstones fell from the sky. At first it was cool.  Then the heavens opened up.  We had no place to hide.  We were forced into a fetal crouch while covering our heads.  For ten minutes, painful golf ball-sized ice pellets zinged us from above as the dust from the crosswind sandblasted our sweaty exposed skin. When the unrelenting sun returned, we half-heartedly wanted more hail.

The first vehicle after the storm, picked us up. It was a big Winnebago with four generations of non-English speaking Germans.
FOR FOLKS WHO WANT TO ROUGH THE GREAT OUTDOORS WITHOUT ROUGHING IT, THE WINNEBAGO (SINCE 1958), IS STILL ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR MOTOR HOMES. 
We were unable to communicate with our benefactors so we rode in comfort while staring at them with uncomfortable grins. In the later afternoon, they dropped us off in oasis-like Kanab.

On the main drag, we found a shady spot in front of a filling station. Over the next six hours, several cars stopped…the folks inside sincerely wished us good luck…and left us behind.

Will and I were going to need a Plan-B because the last glimmers of dusk were giving way to night. Then like a knight in shining armor, a man in a dry ice delivery truck "delivered" from that hell hole.

For the next 47 years, my only discussion about Kanab told that story…until the tiny town made the news, last week. Coincentally, I saw the article…on August first, the dreaded anniversary of my personal depression day.

All this time, I was unaware that there is a tourist attraction on the outskirts of Kanab called, “The Wave at Coyote Buttes.” It is billed as one of the most photographed places on earth.
HOLY CRAP!  WHO WOULDN'T WANT TO SEE THIS?

In retrospect, it's frustrating to find out that I wasted so much time in Kanab when I could have taken the scenic hike to such a natural phenomena. I kept reading and found out that the terrain is so fragile that these days, only twenty permits are issued each day.  But the demand in the summer is so high that a lottery system is used to see who “wins” the opportunity to walk this uniquely beautiful, three-mile trail.

The article mentioned that hikers are issued required reading material that includes the dangers of the desert. I understood this necessity because similar warnings were issued to my family and I, when we attempted to hike down the Grand Canyon’s, nine-mile, Bright Angel Trail, to the Colorado River.

Some of the Grand Canyon’s reminders were:

• There is limited shade on the trail.

• The temperature gets hotter (up to ten degrees as you go down).

• It’s better to go early morning or close to dark.

• Wear a hat

• Bring plenty of water

• Bring healthy snacks like fruit.

In big print at the bottom, a disclaimer stated that helicopter rescues started at $2,000.00 and most insurance companies don't cover it.


To make the story interesting, we started our hike at 2:00PM, on a 100° day.
OH HOW SMUG WE WERE ON THE WAY DOWN...WE LAUGHED SKIPPED AND JUMPED UNTIL WE SAW SUPER-FIT PEOPLE STRUGGLING TO COME UP.

We had little water and a couple of apples. Our casual, joyous stroll down ended when we saw the condition of people coming back up. My wife Sue overheard a breathless Adonis say he wished he had given up and gone back sooner. At first we revised our goal, (to the first rest station 1.25 miles down).

We continued a drop further down, saw more people creeping back up the steep incline and fortunately decided to immediately scrub our mission.  We chose wisely because within fifty feet of retracing our steps, we were exhausted. We were never in trouble but it took an eternity to reach the top because we stopped to rest a gazillion times.  At the summit, my son Andrew claims he saw me humping a Pepsi machine...I know my tongue was scraping the floor at time but I still most adamantly DENY mounting the soda machine!

The Wave at Coyote Buttes article told the story of an Arizona couple who won (seven months earlier) the lottery for the hike permit. The jaunt was to be a part of their fifth wedding anniversary celebration.
ANOTHER VIEW OF THE WAVE.

The story explained that the rough, unmarked three-mile trail is easy to follow on the way out.  But despite GPS coordinates and other landmarks, it is apparently much more difficult to follow on the way back. Like others before them, the couple got turned around and disoriented.  After three hours of wandering around, the wife collapsed onto the sun-baked rock. The husband searched for service on his cell-phone.  When the rescue party arrived, his twenty-seven year old wife had already succumbed to heat prostration...and died. Far worse, this isn't the first hiking fatality at The Wave.  So maybe I’m not so depressed about missing it after all.