Monday, May 26, 2014

ZHITNIK: HE'S A TOY, HE'S A PET, HE'S A FRIEND

In the mid-1990’s, MLEM and his wife took their schnauzer to the nearby Shore Mall for a photo-op with Santa Klaus. While on the long line, Nervous Nellie, (the pooch's actual name withheld to protect the guilty), deposited on the otherwise glistening, sea foam green ceramic flooring, an oblong, dark mocha-colored tribute for ol’ St. Nick.
SANTA PAWS...NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE 2010 DISNEY MOVIE, "THE SEARCH FOR SANTA PAWS..." IS A HOLIDAY TIME, MONEY GENERATING GIMMICK WHERE PEOPLE HAVE THEIR PETS PHOTOGRAPHED WITH A GUY IN A SANTA KLAUS SUIT.

Lickety-split, Mrs. MLEM reacted to the emergency. She whipped out a Kleenex and disposed of the nitrogenous waste nugget in a convenient trash can. However, this episode embarrassed her so badly that she insisted on penalizing doggie-dearest by taking him immediately home. Unfortunately, upon marking his territory, the canine criminal wouldn’t budge.  When Mrs. MLEM’s frustration turned to neurotic anger, MLEM panicked by tugging on the leash and dragging their precious twenty-five pound beast a couple of feet.

When the others on the Santa Paws line responded harshly, it was discovered that the remnants of the previous Santa gift were being schmeered. Thus the bright, unsullied, sea foam tiling now had been customized with an optional brown racing stripe. I call it a racing stripe because the dirty look MLEM got from his misses caused him to scoop up the dog and run for the sanctuary of the parking lot.

MLEM had no luck with animals. When his kids were six and four, he bought a bird feeder and set it in the yard. During breakfast, through the back window, the three of them watched in vain as the free meals were ignored. Ten fruitless mornings later, his children began to lose interest in this tradition (that never was). All seemed lost until a small feathered-friend ventured over to everyone’s delight. Oh how cute it was to see the tiny flier peck away at the tasty treats...then suddenly, a much larger bird swooped down and snatched the little fellow off his perch and carried him away. MLEM said, “My kids were traumatized...and I even had bad dreams over that.”

It was about the same time that MLEM won a goldfish (in a baggie) at a carnival. He bought a plastic bowl and left “Midas” as the centerpiece on the kitchen table. I’m not sure what the shelf-life of a sideshow prize goldfish is but after a month, Midas expired.

In his infinite wisdom, MLEM thought a valuable life lesson on grief could be learned by having everyone say some kind words before flushing the glittery floater down the toilet. At the bathroom gathering MLEM started by saying, “Midas always put a smile on my face. While I had my coffee, I noticed how fast he swam when I fed him. It made me happy to see him happy.” When he encouraged his son to say a few words the six-year old said, “I never liked him.  He was just a dumb fish. I don’t care he’s dead.”

Fortunately, at my house, we have had plenty of positive adventures with our pets. On many occasions, I have mentioned to my readers how great our nine-year dog Roxy is. I also said three froglets (Frenchy, Pierre and Lucky) have graced our home. But until now, I have never given our guinea pig the props he deserved.

My son Andrew was five and a half when we bought the chubby South American rodent on September 4, 1999. At that point, my boy named our new critter, Cutie. The name was fitting and was further endorsed by my wife Sue. However, due to the little pellets (or as I called them, zhitniks) our furry darling left behind (everywhere he went), I called him Zhitnik.
UNLIKE A HAMSTER (above), A GUINEA PIG IS SMALLER THAN A WHITE RAT AND MUCH BIGGER THAN A GERBIL. HAMSTERS ARE LESS DESIRABLE BECAUSE THEY SLEEP DURING THE DAY AND IRRITATE THEIR OWNERS AT NIGHT BY BITING THE CAGE AND RUNNING ON THEIR SQUEAKY WHEELS.

For Andrew (and the rest of us), Zhitnik became a perfect blend of a toy, a pet and a friend. Unlike a bird, a fish, a dog or a cat...for a five-year old, this was the ultimate hands-on animal. Whether in the guinea pig’s two-foot by five-foot cage or scurrying on the family room floor or in my boy’s arms, this rascal could be safely handled.
NORMAN ROCKWELL WOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN MORE FAMOUS IF HE CAPTURED THE JOY OF YOUNGSTERS WITH THEIR GUINEA PIGS.

Andrew developed a special voice and spoke as the guinea pig. His gravel-toned personification identified Sue as, “Marm-Eye” and me as “Dard-Eye.” Then my boy combined funny dialog while imitating Zhitnik’s seemingly round-the-clock hunger cry of, “Wee-wee-wee.”

In addition to vitamin enriched pet store food, our little buddy went crazy for lettuce, (he went bonkers every time he heard the refrigerator open). We liked to joke that Zhitnik’s birthday fantasy would be getting dropped into a restaurant’s salad bar.
ZHITNIK'S ANTI-FANTASY WAS BEING SOMEONE'S LUNCH. MY FRIEND JERM (above) IS A WORLD TRAVELER.  SINCE I KNOW HIM, HE'S BEEN THROUGHOUT EUROPE, CHINA, INDIA, THE MID-EAST AND ICELAND.  WHEN HE VISITED PERU, HE FOUND OUT THAT SOME CULTURES CONSIDER CONEJILLO DE INDIAS TO BE A GASTRONOMIC DELICACY,  (YES THAT'S A GUINEA PIG ON HIS PLATE).  YUCK !!!

Considering that Zhitnik was a vegetarian and that he got plenty of exercise, he was rotund. When we let him loose on the floor, he’d slowly waddle and then suddenly scoot away. These elusive inspirations to run gained him many moments of freedom, hidden under and behind furniture and in closets.

Zhitnik was not always a team player. To keep his teeth sharp, rodent instincts caused him to gnaw on things (anything). These tiny nibbles tickle even the most sensitive skin of little humans but they do damage walls, all things wooden as well as wires, (TV, stereo and computers).

For the most part, "The Rat" avoided mischief. To reward good behavior, Sue's usual routine combined cleaning Zhitnik's cage and bathing him in the kitchen sink.
ZHITNIK WAS WASHED SO FREQUENTLY THAT HE NEVER HAD A CHANCE TO SMELL BAD. WE SHOULD HAVE CALLED THE GUINNESS WORLD BOOK OF RECORDS BECAUSE HE WAS THE CLEANEST GUINEA PIG ON THE PLANET.

One time Sue didn't have time to bathe Zhitnik when she cleaned out his cage.  To keep him from running amok, she temporarily set him on the outer edge of our entertainment center. This narrow ledge was a foot long but only two or three inches wide. She must have gotten distracted because she went to sleep with Zhitnik stranded four feet in the air.

When I came home at 4:30AM, I turned on the lights and found the poor shivering bugger marooned, (a minimum of six hours). Maybe he was afraid of heights because he was clearly no dare-devil. He had plenty of down-time waiting for a rescue party so luckily, he didn’t have a decent angle to chew anything.  But in fear and protest, he littered his slither of space with zhitniks.

Sometimes the four of us would watch TV together. Zhitnik was so calm that he would hang-out on my shoulder or be still in someone’s lap or hands.
YES, OUR WHOLE FAMILY HAD HOURS OF FUN WITH ZHITNIK.

The vonce was also permitted to run along the arms and back wall of the sofa. It was during one of those moments that we discovered that in addition to being a great pet and even a friend...that guinea pigs can be a toy too.

While sitting together, in the same vain as, “Musical Chairs,” the three of us would pass Zhitnik around like a hot potato. Instead of the odd man out being unable to find a place to sit when the music ended, our game’s loser was the person who got the inevitable tiny squirt of guinea pig pee on them, (I should have copyrighted that idea. If marketed properly, I could have parlayed that quarter thimble worth of piss into a million dollars).
ZHITNIK WAS PATIENT AND LET ANDREW PLAY MANY DIFFERENT GAMES WITH HIM...INCLUDING, DRESS-UP.

Andrew’s adorable chum was portable. He brought Zhitnik to friend’s houses and to school for Show and Tell.

WHEN ANDREW GOT OLDER, HE TOOK ON THE RESPONSIBILITY OF TAKING ZHITNIK OUTSIDE.  HE REMAINED DILIGENT BECAUSE I POINTED OUT THAT THE SKIES OF OUR NEIGHBORHOOD WERE INVESTED BY HUNGRY HAWKS, (CHANCES ARE, MLEM's FIRST BIRDSEED CUSTOMER WAS SNATCHED-UP BY SUCH A PREDATOR).

On May 17, 2004, Zhitnik passed away.  There's no way of telling how old he was when we got him but he was an important part of our family for four years and ten months. I’m confident that he lived “high off the hog” while coming close to reaching his six-year life expectancy. Therefore, it’s bittersweet to remember that this past week marked the tenth anniversary of his death.

TIME MARCHES ON. A YEAR LATER, (MAY 2005), THE PLEASANT MEMORIES OF ZHITNIK FADED AS ROXY BECAME ANDREW'S NEW PET.

When Zhitnik died, I had no idea that MLEM had gathered his family to eulogize their fallen pet. So I thought I was being original when I encouraged ten-year old Andrew to invite his friends from our street who loved Zhitnik, to say good-bye.

LACC came with her boys and brought small bunches of flowers for all the adolescant mourners. Zhitnik was placed in an envelope box and lowered into a pre-dug grave, (next to our shed). To keep the somber moment from being too serious, I reminded the kids that I called Cutie “Zhitnik” because of all the zhitniks he left behind. They smiled, (poop humor gets them every time).

I addressed the group, “Zhitnik was a like a toy, a great pet and a wonderful friend all rolled into one. I will miss him.” Andrew said some kind words too but the others were bashful.

Last week, I looked at the one gnawed wall in the computer room closet.  I guessed it was a memorial and never mended due to the joint respect my wife and I had for our esteemed pet. When I mentioned that to Sue she said, “Ugh, I never noticed. Get the spackle!”

Monday, May 19, 2014

TRUE CONFESSIONS AT THE DMV

In the early seventies, my image of hell was wasting a day at the DMV. I'm sure the Division of Motor Vehicles may have been a harrowing experience in other towns but in Brooklyn, the antiquated system could only have been designed by a spiteful, sadistic, psychotic lunatic.

First I must remind you that Brooklyn, (one of five New York City boroughs), has a big enough population to be our country's fourth largest city. That meant that daily, untold hoards of people converged on the DMV’s office in Downtown Brooklyn...making the waiting line enormous.
TODAY, BROOKLYN HAS ABOUT 2.6 MILLION RESIDENTS.  IT IS BROKEN INTO 37 SECTIONS (NEIGHBORHOODS).  BY COMPARISON, IN THE 70's, CANARSIE (MY SECTION), HAD A QUARTER MILLION PEOPLE BY ITSELF.  I SERIOUSLY HOPE THAT THE ELDERS OF KINGS COUNTY HAVE REVAMPED THEIR DMV BY NOW.

The “Division’s” space was made up of several offices in the same building. So it was criminal, the way they cut through walls to accommodate the ridiculously long lines. In larger rooms, serpentine lines, (similar to busy amusement park rides) packed the most people in. At its worst, the line went down a flight of stairs that was exposed to weather extremes and back up the other side.
THIS LINE AT TOKYO DISNEY GIVES YOU AN IDEA OF LIFE AT THE BROOKLYN DMV.

Anytime you pent-up that many frustrated Brooklynites in a tight space, for long periods of time, they are liable to lose their tempers. It was almost a guarantee that arguments arose that led to fights, (primarily over personal space and selfish bastards cutting into the line).

If being stuck for an hour or two in that powder keg environment wasn’t bad enough then the nirvana of finally getting served was wrought with its own potential for disaster. Please bear in mind that the impatience and idiotic mentality of those waiting in line was easily surpassed by the desensitized Brooklynites who worked there. What a horror it would be if you stepped up to the window with the wrong form filled out or your work was illegible or so dramatically incomplete that it couldn’t be simply adjusted.  Because then at the whimsy of that representative, you would be cast aside, told to redo your papers and be exposed to the possibility of being excommunicated to the back of the line. Fortunately, that never happened to me.

A few years later in Las Vegas, my understandable fear of DMVs kept me from applying for a Nevada state driver's license, (once, I even received an added traffic citation for not having one…and I didn’t care). But once my future wife Sue moved out west, we got new licenses together.

Upon entering the crowded the football field-sized Las Vegas DMV, we could see how a little twentieth century common sense propelled this agency away from the Stone Age.  It seemed so calm and natural to be properly handled in a pleasant and expedient manner, (albeit that municipality had only a tenth of Brooklyn’s population).

The huge air-conditioned space had Muzak pumped in to lighten the mood.
MUZAK, a.k.a. ELEVATOR MUSIC, PIPED-IN MUSIC, WEATHER MUSIC OR LIFT MUSIC, REFERS TO A TYPE OF POPULAR MUSIC, OFTEN INSTRUMENTAL, THAT IS PLAYED ON A SPEAKER AT MALLS, RETAIL STORES, WHILE ON HOLD (TELEPHONES) AND ELEVATORS.  FAMILAR PIECES LIKE, "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD," ON A CONTINUOUS LOOP HELPS PEOPLE RELAX AND IN THE CASE OF RETAIL STORES, SLOW DOWN ENOUGH TO SUBLIMINALLY ENCOURAGE BUYERS TO BROWSE LONGER.

A large sign directed in-coming DMV visitors to take a number. A separate information desk further assisted people with specific questions and individualized problems. Then a long rectangular waiting room with a gazillion (mostly in use) chairs faced the two dozen service counters, (fifteen were actually manned). These stations were equipped with a little light and a soft door bell-like sound-effect that signaled the next eligible in line to approach.

We felt good, the gigantic “now being served” sign displayed a cheerful light blue #22. I whispered to Sue, “This won’t take long. Twenty-two is my lucky number and we’re #37.” Then I counted the service windows and added, “As soon as each representative serves one person, we’ll be next.”

My prediction came true in ten minutes. We scurried up to the window with big smiles. The agent was a toad-like who woman who did not return our smile! She snapped, “I am now serving blue 37…YOU are red 37!”  Farkle!  This system sucked too.  There were a hundred people ahead of us.

In retrospect, if you were caught-up in those old days then you are as thrilled as I am that most DMV issues can now be resolved by computer or by mail. In my case, I have three cars (mine, Sue’s and my son Andrew’s). So something like renewing a car registration is a simple matter.

Overwhelmingly, a week after sending out a check, the renewed registration appears in my mailbox. I always start the process early and I’ve never been disappointed…until this year. This time, (mine and Andrew’s renew in April), I was about to research the delay when (after six weeks) they arrived, (with two weeks to spare).

Andrew was still away at college at the time. I called and found out he had no plans to come home before the first of May. So, it was no big deal to mail his registration to him. Two days later, he had it. Coincidentally, he surprised us with an impulsive overnight visit the next day. In the afternoon after he was kind enough to let Sue do his laundry he was leaving when I joked, “You remembered to put the registration in your car, right?” I really thought he was giving the business back to me when he said, “I lost it.” Guess who wound-up in the friggin’ DMV to apply for a duplicate?

I was annoyed that I had to drive down there and it was worse inside. The throng of seedy folks reminded me of a waiting room at an insane asylum.  So only the dopiest of the moronic didn't have access to a computer or wasn't clever enough to know that most issues could be done by mail...and now, I was one of them.

Luckily, the wait time wasn’t awful but because there was certain information I needed…and didn’t have, I had to come back the next day. A dopey father must do what a moronic father must do. This time, my wait wasn’t too long and when I mailed the duplicate out, we still had ten days leeway.

During that day's fifteen-minute wait, the time passed quickly because I bumped into an old friend (MT) who had retired two years ago. I told him how the old Brooklyn DMV system took hours...or could have been an all day affair. Even in Las Vegas, the way they did it was a million times better but although we were comfy, it still took an hour.

TM said, “You should have used a stink bomb to clear out the long line up and down that staircase.” I shook my head, “Heh?” He said, “Maybe I should say anything...but I guess they can't do anything to me because my stories are so old and I don't work there any more..."  I was confused as he lingered in thought before starting back up, "Remember back on ’95 there was a rumor that employees weren’t going to be able use the shortcut stairway next to the security booth?” I shrugged, “No.” “Well," he said, “I dropped a stink bomb in there. The whole place swarmed with investigaters and weasels in hazmat suits and the whole place was paralyzed. In the end, I proved how important that passageway was to everyone so banning the employees from it never happened.”

I thought MT was a character. A likeable free-spirit who never grew-up. Others thought he was a knucklehead and one guy I respected used to say that his initials are just like his head…M-T. So to support his detractor’s case, while we waited at the DMV, he added in a dopey, moronic manner, a couple of other true confessions.
TRUE CONFESSIONS MAGAZINE ORIGINATED IN 1922.  IN THE 1930's, ITS CIRCULATION TOPPED TWO MILLION COPIES PER MONTH BY TARGETING YOUNG ADULT WOMEN WITH COMPELLING, EMOTIONALLY CHARGED, ROMANTIC STORIES THAT INFREQUENTLY LIVED-UP TO THEIR RISQUE TITLES, (LIKE THE JULY 1955 ISSUE ABOVE). 

“Steve,” MT said, “do you remember the great meatloaf mystery?” I said, “No.” “Back around ’99, I silently protested the crappy food they gave us. Every day, one way or another…chicken…chicken…chicken! Then one day out of the blue, they put out a meatloaf with ceazy rainbow-colored streaks in it. Ugh!  It looked so bad all I ever wanted after that was chicken. Well, I took some of the meatloaf to a private corner of the lunchroom, cut away the strange colors and molded my own, all-brown masterpiece. I then took this artwork and left it on the toilet seat in the main employee men’s room.”

MT paused for a belly-laugh and went on, “The EVS staff closed the whole room. Guys were running all over the place looking for a different place to pee. Then security came in full body condoms and used fancy equipment to analyze the toxicity of the meatloaf. You might think I’m nuts…but right after that, they opened the employee carving station and we ate fresh turkey, pork loin, glazed ham and flank steak every day, for years!”

I wasn’t sure if MT was kidding or not. Then he added, “If you don’t believe that… everyone knows this one. When I was living in Chatsworth, it was about an hour ride home. Maybe I had a bad piece of pork loin because when my shift was over, on my way to the parking lot, my stomach seized up on me. I hate using the filthy restrooms at work, even the 'customers only' ones but I realized there was no way I was going to survive an hour without relief. I was rushing to the second floor public men’s room by the big chandelier when I couldn’t hold back a small fart.” TM stopped, locked eyes with me and said, “We all know, you can’t trust a fart after forty.” I was nodding as he continued, “Son-of-a-bitch, it was a wet fart! I knew something wasn’t right as I limped to the first stall. I took down my pants…what a fuckin’ terrible nightmare; I had shit myself.” I was smirking as he continued, “Know what I did? I took off my underwear, stuck it on the coat hook and went home commando-style.”  I was speechless.  He finished by saying, "If I didn't need a shower so bad, I would've loved to be a fly on the wall when they sorted that out."

At the same time that MT's phone rang, the DMV rep signaled me forward. I waved good-bye and got the duplicate.  I drove straight to the post office and mailed it to Andrew...thus leaving us ten days wiggle room. Two days later, I followed-up to make sure my boy got the second duplicate. He didn't. After seven days, it still hadn’t arrived.

To avoid the potential of Andrew getting a summons for not having a valid car registration, on the morning of April 30th, Sue went to the DMV herself. After a decent-sized wait with the dregs of the earth, she was informed that the registration was in my name so I had to sign for everything. She came home and dragged me back there so we could wait around psychopath central, together.

Afterwards, she drove the seventy-five miles and hand-delivered the third duplicate, (as of May 18th, the second duplicate was lost in the mail. It never made it to Andrew and was not returned to sender...me).

At least Sue made practical use of her time and brought home a ton of Andrew’s clothes which lightened our load two weeks later (May 9th) on college move-out day.

The moral of the story is, the DMV in Brooklyn, Nevada or South Jersey (probably every town) hasn’t become a love-fest in the last forty years. Always remember its hell-like qualities and do whatever you have to do to avoid going there.  But if you must, dot your i’s and cross your t’s…and where ever possible…let your children do their own waiting…trust me, it builds character.

Monday, May 12, 2014

LITTLE VICTORIES BEFORE MOTHER'S DAY

It sucks when little victories come at a disproportional high cost. Deep down as annoying as the price might be, ultimately it’s okay, because we want what we want…and occasionally, we want what we want…NOW!

My latest little victory was yesterday as my wife Sue and I ran the gauntlet of my son Andrew’s move-out day, from The College of New Jersey, (TCNJ).
HARD TO BELIEVE BUT TRUE, ANDREW IS OFFICIALLY HALF-FINISHED WITH HIS UNDER GRADUATE STUDIES.  MY FONDEST MOVE-IN DAY MEMORY FROM HIS FRESHMAN YEAR WERE THE TWO AMBASSADORS (above) POKING THEIR HEAD IN HIS DORM TO OFFER HELP.  ONE OF THEM LATER SAID,"I'M GOING TO BE A JUNIOR AND I'M JEALOUS OF YOU (ANDREW) BECAUSE I LOVE IT HERE AND WISH I COULD START OVER AGAIN."

The little victory I was shooting for was simple…gather up Andrew’s belongings and schlep them home. We understand the big advantage we have over folks with kids hundreds of miles away or even across the country. I remember SLW telling me that part of his harrowing experience of helping his daughter move from the San Francisco Bay Area to grad school at Columbia, (in Manhattan) involved him carrying a sixteen metric ton box on the New York City subways…and then to her dorm…only to find out the carton was filled solely with shoes.

Andrew attends TCNJ, in the sleepy university town of Ewing. The school is far enough for him to feel that he is truly “away” and close enough for easy access. That easy access translates to an hour and forty minute drive, (seventy-five miles) on toll-free and generally traffic-free roadways. Considering the distance, cost and congestion other families endure, we are thrilled to come up, do our business and return home all in one day. Therefore the monotony we cope with while trekking through the New Jersey Pine Barrens is nothing compared to others, ala SLW going to Maine or Florida or their own special Idaho.

Andrew’s move-out (and move-in) days have been refined to a science especially since my friend Josè lets me borrow his hand truck, (making the heavy-duty, long hauls simpler and easier). These long hauls, if done by the rule of TCNJ law would mean parking in a designated, visitor approved lot.

I learned early in Andrew’s first year that toting his shit stuff a quarter mile across the campus to (or from) Wolfe Hall was out of the question. That’s when I asked myself, what would Joe Vanilla do?
MY UPBRINGING N THE CANARSIE SECTION OF BROOKLYN AND EXPOSURE TO JOE VANILLA, (THE PATRON SAINT OF PARKING SPACES),HELPED ME UNDERSTAND THAT A MAN IS NOT JUDGED BY THE QUALITY OF HIS CHARACTER BUT BY THE QUALITY OF HIS PARKING SPACES.

Through the ingrained joy of creative (illegal) parking, I found out that leaving my car behind the freshman towers next to the dumpsters, (ten feet from the back door) was the only way to go. I might have risked walking through swarms of bees, mosquitoes and flies (and frequently needed to scrape random crud off the bottom of my sneakers) but I saved tons of time, and wear and tear on my back.

This school year, (August 2013), on sophomore move-in day, I discovered that the new dormitory (Decker Hall) didn’t have the secret luxury of parking spots next to the giant trash bins. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes opened and discovered a hidden treasure trove of parking spots (only accessible to students and staff…and only in use when the student lot was full). Joe Vanilla would have been smiling down on me as I sought refuge there by ignoring a “DO NOT ENTER” sign and entering this nirvana-like island, (way closer than the mandated spots).

This year, I was confident that the rewards of Friday’s move-out day would be less difficult because Sue, Andrew and I knew the ropes. Plus, a week earlier, Sue had soloed up and took back a bulk of his clothes, (and to hand-deliver my boy’s third duplicate car registration…that’s right, I said third duplicate…but that’s an entirely separate matter).

On Thursday night, I went to bed early (11:00PM), to maximize my sleep and further assure alertness. Despite being torn between the anticipated happiness of having Andrew home for the summer (three months) and the actual torture of accomplishing this daunting mission, I feel asleep easily. Unfortunately, I woke up with a severe sore throat at 2:10AM. I had no previous symptoms so this cold hit me from out of nowhere.

I was in terrible burning pain and felt like I had swallowed bits of rusty razor blades. I got temporary relief from expectorating hairball-sized lumps of infectious loogy-ness but getting back to sleep was difficult. This process, along with alternating bouts of feeling hot and cold, repeated itself hourly until 6:10. At that point, I was up for good with the assistance of a woodpecker jack hammering just outside the window.

In addition to being sick, I was exhausted, cranky, bored and feeling sorry for myself. I made a cup of coffee. The warmth bathing my throat felt good…for a short time. To fill the next four hours before blast-off, I went for a power walk…only to return home, uninspired, after ten minutes.

I tried to go back to sleep so I watched an episode of “PERRY MASON.” Normally the show is a guaranteed sedative even when I’m into it? Isn’t it ironic how often we fall asleep while watching something we want to see on TV. But such was not the case this time. I suffered through the whole rigmarole, (I didn’t even have the consolation of guessing the right murderer, I wasn’t certain so I went with the philandering brother-in-law. Next time I’ll remember…when in doubt, always go with the frustrated butler).

The clock wouldn't move for me that morning.  That's when I figured I'd eat something. I’m still not sure if you’re supposed to feed or starve a cold? Either way, I was fueled by the expectation that in all the excitement I might forget my plethora of mealtime meds so I made myself a mushroom, onion and cheese omelet. I’m not a breakfast person but later on, this seemingly unimportant decision proved to be a genius move!

I took a hot shower. I felt marginally better when we took to the road. I was in poor condition, spaced-out and therefore horrible company. Sue must have been really desperate for entertainment because she read me an article off her phone about the fifty unknown uses of cucumbers.
IN MY FUNK, I BARELY ABSORBED THIS HIGHLY EDUCATIONAL TOPIC.

It was difficult to concentrate on her story because I felt awful. Plus, in the back of my mind, I knew that Andrew was stressed-out by having two final exams that day, (the last day of finals week). We were halfway when he contacted us and said the first (most dreaded test) was over and that he felt good about it.

At the school, I yelled out, "SHAZZBOD!!" as soon as I saw all the chaos. It looked like the whole TCNJ student body decided to wait to the last day to move out. Far worse, my secret parking island was full-up and apparently common knowledge. Luckily the student lot was opened for the occasion. But the shear number of vehicles forced us to the second floor. On the way down, I saw my next obstacle was going to be the waiting line at the elevator because it was jammed-up with ant-colony, cargo-bearing, drone-like, pack-mule parents.

Andrew met us and took us up to his room. "Jesus H. Christ!" I declared. Apparently he was so enraptured by his studies, (which is good to a certain extent…after all, that’s what he’s there for), but no preliminary work had been done to make the move-out easier.

My boy’s living quarters looked like Yucca Flats after an atomic blast. Ugh, what a shambles, just imagine the ruins of a laundomat and a saloon from a movie western churned together by an earthquake!  In this case, NOBODY could rationalize with a straight face that; Boys will be boys. 

While he proudly informed us about his anticipated grades, Sue and I sifted through the rubble.  Andrew was upbeat as he described the good feeling he had about the hard test he just finished.  At the same time, his mom and I were half-scared that we might uncover dead bodies.

Under a thicket of never-ending dust-bunnies, fossilized Oreo cookies from September were unearthed. I flashed back to archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 and imagined how he felt when he found King Tut’s tomb. However instead of finding valuable antiquities, I came upon coffee cups that were 90% encrusted by cement-like oatmeal. Rather than using a chisel, I agreed to take them home…with the caveat that if the dishwasher can’t handle the job, his irreplaceable Elmo mugs would be trashed.

If the coffee cups weren’t disgusting enough, under a moldy, damp towel that was squashed behind his dresser, I saw rats with picket signs protesting the current infestation of roaches. Seconds later, a scurrying mouse stopped long enough to vomit on top of an official-looking slip of paper before continuing into the bathroom. Upon closer examination, the wee rodent had blown-chunks on the first car registratiom that Andrew misplaced.

It seemed impossible but the bathroom was a bigger disaster area. The stink reminded me of a lethal chemical spill and entry should have been limited to professionals wearing full body condoms or hazmat suits. Sue had brought so many support items like, a suitcase, plastic bags, shipping tape and rubber bands but what she needed here was yellow crime-scene tape. My point was proven when I saw that same mouse had hung himself behind the formally white toilet.

I started piling heavy items onto the hand truck for my first trip to the car. In the meantime, Sue stuffed the suitcase and shoved loose items into a dozen or so trash bags. I was hoping that the fresh air outside would make he feel better but it didn’t. However during a rare lucid moment, I recalled Sue reading the computer article on the ride up. That’s when I knew I was really sick because I never interrupted her story about cleaning with cucumbers, warding off insects with them or using them as health and beauty aids…with any perverted jokes.

I headed back to the room via a shortcut. By accident, I came upon the dumpsters. There was a narrow strip of six cars, parked illegally against the wall…the veil of Joe Vanilla’s influence apparently goes beyond Brooklyn. I pined for one of those cherished spots…but it seemed someone had to die and leave it to you in their will.
UNLIKE THIS POOR SOUL, THE GIGANTIC DUMPSTERS AT TCNJ WERE SO OVER-WROUGHT BY VERMIN THAT NO HUMAN WOULD DARE GOING WITHIN FIVE FEET OF IT.

On my second trip down, the hand truck was bogged down with boxes of books while I balanced lighter cartons on top. Stupidly, I also lugged a sack of laundry (ala Santa Claus) over my shoulder. I exited next to the trash cans and noticed that there was no breaking into the blood-line of parking spots. While distracted, I hit a bump in the pavement and my precarious load toppled. Luckily after some adults walked around me, a student helped me get back on my way.

The competition to use the elevator was fierce. We love TCNJ because so few of the upper crust students have the “JERSEY SHORE” mentality however, the same can’t be said of their parents. On my way back, in the middle of being annoyed by aggressive, selfish people, I cursed them to myself as my head throbbed, my throat screamed out in agony and my first pangs of hunger were realized.

When I turned the corner to re-enter the building, all the great spots along dumpster row were still taken. But I felt like I had let the spirit of Joe Vanilla down because dozens of others had suddenly used their own creativity and secured illegal loading spots…on the grass, next to the dumpsters. Yes difficult times call for difficult measures. I saw the possibility of another few cars fitting in, so I did a quick U-Turn and hustled back to re-park.

The next few trips included lifting Andrew’s mini-fridge and microwave onto the hand truck. Then at the van, lifting them again and placing them inside. The much shorter distance would have been a pleasure except the painful tendonitis that nearly cripples me after shoveling snow or raking leaves was activated by the physical labor, (it feels like a metal spike is being drilled into my right elbow).

At the same time, Sue was doing her own dog work. Andrew's fan had already been brought down, so she was still coordinating bags in the hot stagnant air. She has dust allergies so she suffered the whole time in that stuffy room while being dressed too warmly. It was around three that we declared that we were almost done.

Andrew’s girlfriend Amanda came by. She told us about her final test and was really happy about being done. Soon Andrew came by. I told him my van was almost full so I suggested that he drive up on the grass so we can pack the leftovers in his car. He mentioned that he needed to also help Amanda with the last of her odds and ends too.

The four of us decided to have a quick dinner before going our separate ways. I was gassed by this time. It was going on 4:30.  I feared the tedious commute especially the specter of rush hour traffic. Sue and I were starving as the kids left us to drop off their dorm keys at the AEB Complex and fill out a short form that attests that they left their rooms in proper order.

Sue and I, like two exhausted prize-fighters, sat in the van for a half hour waiting for them to return. Sue finally sent them a text message…they didn’t respond. I felt awful and was crashing to lower depths of sick and tiredness with every second. Sue felt grubby, spent and hungry too…except she had the added problem of having to be up at 2:00AM the following morning, for work.

The phone finally rang. Andrew said that the entire, sophomore, junior and senior class were being processed by four people. The system of handing over a key and completing a short form were also on two separate lines. He explained that he and Amanda were still on the key-return line but the second line for the disclaimer form was longer.
AMANDA TOOK THIS PICTURE OF "MOVE-OUT MAYHEM." BUT ONLY A WIDE ANGLE LENS COULD CAPTURE HOW HUNDREDS OF IMPATIENT KIDS SNAKED ALL THROUGH THE AEB COMPLEX, AS IF TRAPPED WITHIN A PSYCHOTIC'S CORN MAZE, HOPING TO GET THE HELL OUT!

At no point did I tell the kids how sick I was but fortunately Andrew said, “It’s senseless for you guys wait around…I’ll see you when I get home.”

Sue and I hit the road. The only thing more powerful than our hunger was our desire to be home, (Sue brought snacks for herself during the day but I would have shriveled up and died had I not had that omelet at 7:00AM).

The trip home took an eternity. We were slowed down but didn’t hit the big time rush hour traffic associated with Trenton and other high volume business areas. But once we got on Route 206, (a rural one-lane in each direction roadway) we were bogged down, at a snail’s pace, for the middle forty-mile segment back to Galloway.

On Sue’s suggestion, we phoned ahead and ordered Chinese take-out. I got hot and sour soup for my sore throat. Everything else didn’t matter. The other food could’ve been fossilized Oreo cookies from the Ice Age because I just slobbered it down.

Like I said, sometimes our little victories come at a high cost. But the pain and struggle involved in getting Andrew home for the summer was worth it.

A little while after we got home, Andrew pulled up. He wasn’t home more than ten minutes when he got a text from the professor who gave him the daunting first exam (that day). The message informed Andrew that he received a perfect score on that test, (120 points out of 120). Previously, Andrew had figured mathematically that he was out of contention for an A in the course…unless he got a super colassal score. That professor (talk about immediate gratification), was also kind even to reward my boy's effort by including in that text that Andrew earned his coveted A in the course.

What fabulous news! A few seconds later Andrew added, “That means, I'll have a 4.0 GPA this semester.” Wow, we're not talking about your run-of-the-mill Dean's List, we're talking perfection!  Suddenly Andrew's bathroom tribute to Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed insignificant. What a great pre-Mother’s Day gift it was.

I hope that my next little victory will be that Andrew's scholastic excellence develops into future prosperity and lasting fulfillment, (if so, I'll be certain to remind him to never piss-off his butler).

Andrew, congratulations are in order my friend because your accomplishment is NOT a little victory!  Of course, bigger victories come with bigger consequences.   I regret to inform you and the world, that your Elmo coffee mugs didn't pass the dishwater test...if you want one last look at them, the garbage men will be here tomorrow.

Monday, May 5, 2014

BREAKING PROSPECT PARK'S CYCLE OF NEGATIVITY

I haven't set foot in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in forty years.  Oddly, everything I recall about it, is negative. These days, the entire area around the park is in the throes of an upscale metamorphosis.  So to maintain my of peace of mind, I’m counting on the park to re-blossom to its intended grace, beauty and recreational splendor.

Sheltered from the hubbub of New York City's craziest borough, the oasis known as Prospect Park was built and has survived since 1867. Its 585 acres are nestled between Downtown Brooklyn, Flatbush and Park Slope. Nearby landmarks include, Grand Army Plaza, the main branch of the Library, (at Grand Army Plaza), the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanical Gardens, (the site of Ebbets Field…the home baseball stadium of the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957, was a couple of blocks beyond Flatbush Avenue).

History tells us that the park's negativity goes back hundreds of years. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington lost the Battle of Long Island on the grounds of the present day park, (he did successfully retreat to Manhattan and obviously go on to bigger and better things).

Prior to the colonization of America, the park was a heavily wooded area. Unfortunately, only a few small groves exist and are nicknamed, “Brooklyn’s last forest.”

Prospect Lake is the only lake in Brooklyn. Visitors can still rent boats and relax amid the harsh work-a-day-world that surrounds the park. Additionally, there is a zoo, playgrounds, a merry-go-round and ball fields.
NEAR THE LAKE IS THE BEAUTIFUL, LULLWATER, SOUTH OF TERRACE BRIDGE.  I NEVER SAW THIS MYSELF AND WOULD HAVE BET THAT NOTHING THIS NICE WAS IN THE PARK.

Another area that I didn't known about, is Quaker Hill.  There, in a private cemetery founded by the Society of Friends, actor Montgomery Clift is interred.

Prospect Park is far removed from my hometown of Canarsie. That means due to inconvenience of distance, all my visits to the park were special occasions. That makes it unfathomable that all my dealings there were negative. My hope is to finally reverse this trend…and my deadline is July 22, 2014.

My earliest recollections of the park (I was five) were outings with my paternal grandmother and sister. Prospect Park despite its size was small compared to Manhattan’s Central Park. Plus, due to my bounding imagination, it seemed empty because the park lacked trees, gigantic, prehistoric-looking rocks to climb on and twisty paths with cool bridges and tunnels to run over and through.

While on granny’s watch getting us home in one piece was job ONE.  She didn’t take many chances and ruled with an iron fist.  So with me being glued to her side, running wild wasn’t an option. To make matters worse, to prevent accidents or nausea she restricted me to the carousel’s bench seat.  I can still remember doing a slow burn in my seat as my sister joyfully bobbed up and down, on one of the magnificent antique stallions.

Through no fault of my grammy, even the zoo was a drag because the animals were in brick and cement cages behind prison-like bars, (as an unsophisticated kid, even I saw the differences between this so-called zoo and the more natural, top of-the-line one in the Bronx).

My biggest dose of Prospect Park negativity happened in 1967, (I was twelve) while attending the H. E. S. Day Camp, in Wyandanch New York (Long Island). One day we went to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for a special activity called, “THE JUNIOR ANGLER COMPETITION.”

To prove how many geniuses there were on my bus, (mostly adolescents and young teens) no one knew what this funny, odd-ball "angler" word meant. The camp’s higher-ups didn’t want to give up the surprise either so they cleverly kept us in dark…otherwise there probably would have been a mutiny, organized by me.

Once we were there, my fellow campers and I found out the hard and disappointing way that "angler" is a fancy synonym for fisherman. I was well-versed in profanity by that age and trust me, I didn’t cry out, “Fishing? Are you kidding?”

Yeah, in the morning, we got to run around like little animals, play ball and see the zoo's depressed animals...who had NO room to run around. By lunch time, the visitor population of the park swelled to epic proportions, due to other camps, organizations and individuals gravitating to the FREE festivities.

To improve the attraction, the event organizers hired the comedy team of Allen and Rossi who served as emcees. At their best, these has-beens were a cheap knock-off of Martin and Lewis, (Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis).
DEAN MARTIN (left) AND JERRY LEWIS WERE ENTERTAINMENT GIANTS FROM 1946-1956.  WHEN THE PAIR SPLIT-UP DUE TO PHILOSOPHICAL DIFFERENCES, THEY EACH WENT ON TO TREMENDOUS SOLO CAREERS.

Steve Rossi was the good-looking, singing straight man ala Dean Martin.  Marty Allen took on Lewis' role as the goofy-looking comedian.
(HARD TO BELIEVE I COULDN'T FIND A PHOTO OF THEM TOGETHER).  AS IF DRAFTED AS REPLACEMENTS FOR MARTIN AND LEWIS, ALLEN (above in 1960) AND ROSSI PAIRED-UP A YEAR AFTER THE MARTIN-LEWIS SPLIT.  FROM 1957-1968, ALLEN AND ROSSI MADE OVER 700 TV APPEARANCES, (INCLUDING 44 ON "THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW)."  THEY PRODUCED SIXTEEN COMEDY RECORD ALBUMS, APPEARED IN A MOVIE AND THEIR OWN TV SPECIAL.  TODAY THEY ARE BOTH RETIRED.  ALLEN IS NINETY-TWO AND ROSSI IS EIGHTY-TWO.

In addition to a hostile audience overwhelmingly made up as sophomoric brats, Prospect Park's outdoor venue and poor audio system was not conducive to the subtleties of Allen and Rossi's adult-based material. So the thousand or so screaming kids couldn’t care less about their schtick, (which relied heavily on Allen's singular, over-used trademark line, "Hello dere)!"

Once the actual angling competition started, (despite the lure of valuable prizes), I couldn’t get past the tedium, the disgusting, pollution-riddled lake, handling the disgusting bait and being squashed between countless disgusting strangers that included intimidating, older hooligans who kept pretending to push younger kids into the water.

To my left, some knucklehead from another camp was so distracted by those bullying idiots that he carelessly plunged a fish hook into his palm.  As soon as I saw the blood spatter on his tee-shirt, I quit.  Then I walked away and recruited my friends to also...just say NO to fishing.

My friends and I saw that Allen and Rossi were giving autographs, (all the girls lined up for Steve Rossi’s and the boys went for Marty Allen’s). To pass the time, we started our own competition, to see who could get the most signatures.

In the beginning, I could clearly read "Hello Dere,  Marty Allen." Soon he shortened it to, "Marty Allen," then "M. Allen." After signing his name a gazillion times, all his cramped hand could muster was a straight line with a slight wiggle at the end. I got about thirty…and didn’t win, (to complete my crappy day, none of my thirty autographs made it home that night).

Another negative Prospect Park moment occurred in the spring of 1973 when I attended my first semester of Brooklyn College, at their downtown campus. To avoid the long subway ride to Hoyt and Schermerhorn Streets, my dad let drive his 1968 Dodge Polara to school on Fridays.
MAY-1973, IN ELLENVILLE NEW YORK.  TWO YEARS LATER, (1975), THE "THUNDERBOLT GREASE SLAPPER" (above) WOULD BE MY FIRST CAR.

One of the less-than-lofty goals I had then was to drive through Prospect Park. Even back then conservationist groups lobbied to eliminate auto traffic, (to maintain the park as a refuge from city life). They were partially successful so I was able to fulfill my wish during a rare time that cars were permitted. Oy, what a disappointment, it still bothers me to this day, how much nothing, the scenic-drive had to offer.

Similarly, in the late 1980's, JZIMBO's wife had a curio shop in Park Slope.  He bought a new car and on the way back from the dealership, decided to show it off to GZIMBO.  He took the shortcut through Prospect Park.  A block from the store on 6th Avenue, he stopped for a celebratory ice cream at Baskin Robbins.  To his utter dismay, when he came out slurping a chocolate-choclate chip cone, his new car of twenty-five minutes had already been stolen.  To make matters worse, he called the Guinness World Book of Records but to his chagrin, the Collyer brothers had their DeSoto stolen (1956), in twenty-two minutes, (but I'm uncertain whether they drove through Prospect Park or not).

I have been permanently out of Brooklyn since 1978. So I have little knowledge of the goings-on at Prospect Park. However, I do know that many years ago, the zoo was condemned by the board of health. Apparently the animals were fighting a losing battle for their meals with rats. While a small amount of animals were re-housed, the term zoo no longer feels apt.

Today, nearby Downtown Brooklyn is having a make-over. The property values have soared due to its proximity to Manhattan causing a yuppie renaissance to take over. Then by osmosis, Prospect Park and other neighboring areas are sharing in the enthusiasm to improve.
IN 2012, THE BARCLAYS CENTER OPENED AS AN INDOOR, MULTI-PURPOSE EVENT SITE.  IT IS THE HOME OF THE NBA's NEW YORK NETS AS WELL AS THE UPCOMING CONCERT VENUE FOR; CHER, KATY PERRY, ANDREA BOCELLI, PINK AND MICHAEL BUBLE.  TO FURTHER SUPPORT DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN'S REVITALIZATION, MAJOR CORPORATE BUSINESS AND HOUSING INVESTORS HAVE PARTNERED TO FORM A COMPLEX THAT WILL BE CALLED, "ATLANTIC YARDS."

One of the big present-day improvements at Prospect Park is the band shell which has become a sought-after haven for concerts. I’m really hoping to break the park’s cycle of negativity because my son Andrew and his hipster friends, are heading there in a couple of months, to see their favorite band, “Neutral Milk Hotel.” It may sound like an odd-ball name for a musical group but at least the name doesn’t imply hours of boredom and handling yucky bait and fish hooks…like another funny word, angling.
NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL, IS AN AMERICAN, INDIE ROCK, PSYCHEDELIC FOLK, LO-FI BAND.  THEY WERE ACTIVE FROM 1989-1999 AND FORMED AGAIN IN 2013.

So it's important to me, to break my Prospect Park cycle of negativity and know that Andrew and his hipster cronies have a great time !