The gardeners show up, borracho. Shouting and laughing and singing at the top of their lungs, a little unsteady behind the leaf blower. The other guy is gonna hurt himself with that weed whacker. It’s like one of those end of the world movies, the streets empty and the only signs of life are drunken gardeners.
[written sometime during the pandemic]
Maybe 25 years ago we were at a yard sale in Los Feliz and saw a box of wine glasses. It was about fifty assorted glasses, the remains of many a complete set. Dude said some of them went back thirty or forty years. Five bucks for a couple generations of wine glasses. The people attending our parties had been rough on our nice glasses. Plus me being so huge I shattered a couple just holding them (true). One I put down on a table after a sip, misjudged the velocity and the fragility of your tiny world, and shattered the glass on the table, much to everyone’s surprise but my wife. He does that, she said. Anyway, the fifty new old wine glasses lasted longer than you could have imagined, considering my oafishness and the barbarism of our friends, probably because everyone is so old now that breaking things is hard, but we’re down to the very last one. So either we drink wine out of Dixie cups or buy some more glasses. I found some we liked on the website of one of the doomed but clinging to life big box stores and ordered them. Easy enough. They came today. Four in a box. Lovely things, though apparently I’d forgotten what a world of lushes we now live in and hadn’t considered the size of the glass. No mere Lilliputian wine glasses of old, these were big enough to fit a human head. And I think there’s four more coming. That’s eight human heads. Two quartets worth. Alas, we live in one of those early Depression era Spanish style duplexes atop a hill in Silver Lake with not enough outlets or closet space, and certainly not enough cupboard space for eight human heads worth of long stemmed wine glasses. We don’t even drink enough wine for eight human heads worth of long stemmed wine glasses, I mean I’m epileptic and she’s from Milwaukee. Oh well, the problems of the modern retiree.
[Popped up on Facebook from 2019]
Remembering going into the den to flip through the seven or eight channels to see if anything was on and nothing ever was and going to my bedroom and putting on a stack of LPs (six at a time) and reading a book from the library. Wow. The seventies.
Nancy posted a mess of photos or her and Rich going back their 27 years and the earliest of them, with her so drop dead cute, was only a couple years before I first met her. That first time I met Nancy was the weird meeting her HR coworkers arranged so that she—she’s really cute and funny, Phil, you’ll love her!—and me—he’s huge and funny, Nancy, you’ll love him!—could meet and be cute and funny together for the people who collected around to watch. I’m serious, that is exactly what they were planning. Nancy and I still talk about how weird that was. Of course, I kept putting it off. Finally, two of the HR girls (HR girls always adored me, why I don’t know) came and got me. Nancy’s here! You two must meet! I grumpily followed. We get to the meeting spot and point out Nancy and I nearly died. She was so little, they hadn’t told me she was so dinky. And she was the cutest, most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen. They hadn’t prepared me for that either. She smiled that smile of her and looked at me with that gaze of hers and suddenly I felt like the biggest and the clumsiest galoot, just ridiculous, and the last thing I wanted to do was to meet somebody so gorgeously dinky. I hesitated. Come on, Phil, meet Nancy! and they led me up to her. I’m totally fucking this up, I was thinking, I don’t wanna meet her. She seemed just as uncomfortable. I can only imagine what she thought with me looming over her. The audience was getting impatient, waiting for witticisms. Say something, Phil. She was so cute, and those eyes of hers so irresistible, that I couldn’t even look her straight in the eye. I don’t think I’ve ever been so discombobulated. But the audience wanted something funny. I couldn’t think of a single funny thing to say. So I mumbled a short joke. A short joke. I remember regretting that instantly, but Nancy laughed. Our audience laughed. Nancy replied with a joke, though neither of us can remember the joke, but it was funnier than the short joke, and the crowd laughed again. Apparently we’d passed the audition. The crowd dispersed, and relieved at the end of the weirdness, Nancy and I chatted briefly. The whole weird scene certainly made it clear that neither of us were like these other people. Normal people are so strange. And we’ve been pals since.
I much prefer two spaces after a sentence. Why that new idiotic single spaced rule came about I have no idea, nor why people think it makes them a better writer when all it means is they still couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag but they do so with one less space after a period. There isn’t a single punctuation or spacing rule that improves writing, period, double spaced. If you want to be a writer quit worrying about punctuation or grammar rules or proper spelling. You can learn that later. First learn to write. And you don’t learn to write obsessing over which rules are in vogue at the moment. You learn to write by putting your thoughts into sentences that other people will like to read.
I hate language rules. I fucking hate them.
You know, I graduated high school with a summa cum laude in English. I’d forgotten all about that for thirty years till I found the certificate in some of mom’s papers, like I’d left it somewhere and quickly suppressed the memory. But I remembered being called into the English office and wondering what the fuck I could’ve done to get in trouble in the English department and there were all these nice teachers looking at me. They told me I’d been awarded the summa cum laude in English. I had no idea what summa cum laude meant. They told me. I must have looked confused because to be honest I hated English classes. I despised the grammar rules and the old poetry. I only took the goddamn things because they were easy, I could bullshit anything on an essay test and never do any of the homework. I think I took every one they had. I just had to show up, write the occasional essay and ace the class. It was that easy. If you’re kind of a natural at writing you learn that trick quick. I was an autodidact anyway, voraciously reading big, thick, dense books I’d get at the public library and studying my beloved set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I still have, actually. I was reading the histories my dad would get from the Book of the Month Club when I was still in grade school, some of which I also still have. I read all three volumes of Bruce Catton’s Pulitzer winning Army of the Potomac trilogy while in fifth grade, pronouncing Potomac like Fotomat. I’d nearly drowned in the damn thing back in first grade and I still couldn’t pronounce it. And here they were seven grades later still trying to teach me grammar as if language were built on rules like the Ten Commandments and all you have to do is memorize them. Yeah, right. I’d be damned if I wasted my adolescence with their silly assed grammar instruction. I never told them that, though. I was always very nice. Pleasant, even. So they give me a fucking award on my way out the door.
That probably came under irony in the text book.
Signed up for Medicare last night, then for Kaiser’s Senior Advantage Plan. All these pictures of sweet old people. Then today the Girl Scout cookies arrive, six different kinds. I opened the shortbread cookies. Not the Tagalongs, not the Do-Si-Dos, not the Lemon Whatevers or the Samoas. Not even the Thin Mints. I’d never not immediately opened the Thin Mints in my entire life. It was like it was a law, or biology, something involuntary that compels us to open up the thin mints first. Maybe it’s pheremonal. But no, this time I opened the shortbread cookies. I can’t even remember what they’re called. But only old people open the shortbread cookies first. Grandmas especially. They put them on a plate next to the ginger snaps and vanilla wafers. Grandma cookies.
My wife went right for the thin mints.
Not to change the subject, but back in analog times in Los Angeles. a turnip was a turnip and a rutabaga a rutabaga, and grocery stores had rutabagas by the homely heapfuls come Thanksgiving. Admittedly it’s not a pretty thing, a rutabaga, sort of a dull sickly purplish on top and a messy dirty faded goldenrod on bottom, looking for all the world like someone just dug it out of the dirt and tossed it in the cellar with the potatoes. Inside, though, a rutabaga is a gorgeous orange, but you’d never know to look at it without cleaving it in twain. (No one cleaves anything in twain anymore, either.) Any store gentrifying its produce section is not going to want piles of rutabagas marring the perfection of the view. So now there’s only turnips in lovely white and purple piles in the grocery stores, prettier to look at than rutabagas, sure, if looking at turnips is your thing. So I’ll mash turnips this year. I didn’t just fall off the rutabaga truck, ya know.
OK, I did change the subject.
Just tried to mail an envelope. You forgot the return address Fyl said. I tried writing it legibly, failed, scratched it out, tried again but it was even less legible than the first attempt. I stared at the envelope helplessly. Fyl rescued me with a self address sticker. It glowed with candy canes and gingerbread men. It’s kind of Christmasy, she said, but it at least they can read it. I sat there, shamed by the simple act of trying to mail a check. So I signed up with Venmo. Only took a minute or two, as I’m so familiar with signing my life away for some app or another. I couldn’t quite figure out why it’s better than PayPal, which I already use, not that I ever doubted that I shouldn’t worry about it. Anything to avoid the humiliation of trying to scrawl my name and address in the corner of an envelope. You’d never know that I once used to manage the mail center of a major International corporation. Years of experience had made me an expert in all things mail, from mass mailings to the simple act of mailing a letter. Secretaries would come down to the mailroom and ask me how many stamps they needed to put on an envelope, then lay it across my open palm, and I’d tell them, and I was always right.
Now I can’t even write my address on an envelope.
Lotsa kids last night where we were in South Pasadena—we had 350 or so pieces of candy doled out one per trick or treater and we were out by eight—and they were all so cute and well behaved I fear for the future. Also, the sight of me handing a piece of candy to a one year old trick or treater in a frog costume who didn’t even come up to my knee was probably as cute as it was weird. I’m told I was that little once, but I don’t believe it.
One of the more disconcerting things about old photo albums is the tiny x’s above some of the people pictured. It means that the person had died. Well, all of them are dead in these old family albums by now, I think, so I could put the little x’s above each and every person in each and every photo, but I won’t. It’s not done anymore. I suspect the x was actually a stylized cross—x’s usually were, if not used as the actual letter—and the slightly morbid tradition probably goes back centuries. You still see it in lists of names of military men, meaning they killed in action. And you see it on old photos. The young man pictured here, a lanky teen named Carl, was my dad’s eldest brother, a terribly gifted piano player, who began with the German romantics but was caught up in ragtime and jazz. He learned those chops in speakeasies in Flint MI while still in high school, then headed for the jazz bars and swinging dancehalls in Detroit, playing for money and drink. Soon he played a lot more for drink than money. His father, Carl senior, loathed jazz and blamed it for his namesake’s downfall, and ordered him out of the house over and over. His mother always let him back in. He’d get picked up stinking drunk and pitched into the drunk tank. Mom—my grandmother—would plead to bail him out. The old man would give in and the cycle repeated. Finally dad—my grandfather—put his foot down and said next time his son could rot in jail. Which he did, soon enough. There’s a recording he made, supposedly while in jail, as if the Flint jail had a piano. Obviously it was recorded sometime between his spells in jail, perhaps as proof to a judge that he wasn’t just another lush, but who knows. It’s a Duke Ellington number, Sophisticated Lady, I think—it’s been years since I’ve heard it—and it’s a baroque swing, lush with ornamentation, a display of desperate virtuosity, sad and melancholy and unrealized. He died not much later, of DTs and pneumonia in a frigid jail cell in the depths of a Michigan winter. It was 1949, nearly a decade before I was born, and he was thirty two. The old man followed two years later, of dropsy, heartbreak, failure and his own terrible shattered dreams. The two Carls lie side by side in a forgotten cemetery outside Flint, and someone penciled a tiny x over their heads in this old photo album.
[Just discovered that I posted an earlier draft of this on BricksHistory.com. Oh well….]