Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An excerpt from "Porch Sofa Almanac"

(This essay appears in "A Porch Sofa Almanac" under the title "Cooking With Grandma")
Whenever I hear one of those food poisoning stories come across the radio, I reach over and turn the volume up. It’s only a matter of time until my mother-in-law is implicated.

She’s developed a cavalier attitude toward freshness codes lately. She thinks they’re a sign that America has gone soft. She says common sense and her nose will tell her when something “goes bad.”

It’s the South Dakota Depression era farm girl coming out in her – the one who grew up without electricity, refrigeration or pasteurization.

Either that or it’s the frugal Fridley mother of eight, who routinely performed miracles with loaves of Wonder Bread and cans of tuna fish and got her lunchtime multitudes fed.

There was a brief period – a couple of decades there – when she cooked fairly normally. Now she’s reverting to form, paring the spongy parts off shriveled potatoes and making soup with octogenarian leftovers.

She’s playing fast and loose with the microbes – and reminding us every so often that Flemming developed penicillin from some form of mould.

“Eat this,” I once heard her say as she handed an open container of cottage cheese to a grandchild. “Then I’ll tell you how old it is.”

She’s even found stores that specialize in selling old and dented canned goods and come home with bags full of God-knows what and a glow in her heart that not even the most successful Bloomingdale’s bargain hunter could hope to match.

The woman doesn’t date freshness in days or weeks – or even in months. It’s a matter of years, decades and, now, centuries – even millennia.

There was the can of coconut milk she bought in Hawaii in 1976, last seen on a cupboard shelf in 2002. Asked where it went, she said she’d made cookies with it, and served the cookies to her card club.

“The ladies said they were the best they’d ever had,” she reported smugly.

Don’t get me wrong. The woman is a great cook. She still makes a world class ginger snap, and I’ll put her fried chicken up against anyone’s – any time, any place, anywhere.

But, like Ronald Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union, I’ve adopted a “trust-but-verify” stance when she cooks. I like my chicken – all my food for that matter – to be at least four decades younger than I am. I want to see it every step of the way from the store to her frying pan and on to my plate.

Especially now, with the Holidays coming and all those old family recipes about to hit the table. I’m going to keep an eye on my mother-in-law. I suggest you keep an eye on yours, too.

Those old recipes are great – especially with fresh ingredients.

Which is why, if I have my say, Thanksgiving will be at our house once again this year.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Poem For Librarians

Such cheerful, educated souls, behind the desk
whispering in literary collusion,
sharing some egregious pun.
reading in the lunchroom on their breaks.
dreaming, books on chests at night
that they are lion tamers,
cracking whips, firing blanks,
making ferocious data banks stand rampant on circus stools.

When they die,
God puts them on his cart
and shelves them with the saints.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The 12:25 Milwaukee Road Out Of Union Station

I was knocking around the Internet the other evening. I do that sometimes late at night when the rest of the family has gone to bed. I sit at my desk in the spare bedroom and rummage around as if the Internet were an enormous kitchen junk drawer.

I’d been thinking about the old Milwaukee Road commuter rail line that ran north, out of Chicago’s Union Station to Libertyville, where we lived while I was growing up, and from Libertyville west and north—up to Fox Lake near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line. I’d been thinking about the last train out of the city at night. The one that left Union Station at 12:25 in the morning and got into Libertyville an hour or so later. I just had to know if they still ran the 12:25.

And so to the web. The Milwaukee Road is long gone, supplanted by some part-government, part-God-only-knows-what regional transit system called Metra. This I dutifully Googled. Seconds later, the timetable for what was clearly the old Milwaukee Road North Suburban line was glowing at me from the monitor.

It was reassuring to see the stops hadn’t changed. They were all still there and, a lifetime removed, I knew them immediately, and I recited them from memory.

I knew them backward and forward—into the city and out. They’d been drilled into me by countless trips and a generation of Milwaukee Road conductors, who slid from car to car, padding the aisle on tired legs wearing dandruff-flecked conductor’s caps, clicking their punches, calling for tickets, droning those stops in that tired, nasally voice they must have learned in conductor school, sounding as tired and rote and bored as an old parish priest at Saint Joe’s leading the Ladies Rosary Guild at somebody’s Tuesday night wake.

Every mile of the gritty little pilgrimage came flooding back to me. The rail yards and industrial neighborhoods north of the Loop yielding to bungalow-lined north side streets. The first flickers of open space and forest preserve at the edge of the city. The old suburbs, followed by newer, sprawlier suburbs. A few miles of open prairies dotted with hawthorn trees. The switching yard at Rondout. Saint Mary’s Road, the Des Plaines River viaduct, and then Libertyville.

The trip was a rolling meditation. Between the clang of the warning bell, the clack of the track, the whistle at crossings, and the almost-too-regular spacing between stops, there was a rhythm, repetition, and ritual to it. Tibet had mantras and prayer wheels, Lake County had that train.

The 12:25 was the last prayer of the day. If you arrived at the station at 12:26, and you would be in for a long, expensive cab ride home or a fitful night on the waiting room benches. So at the stroke of midnight you’d tear yourself away from your crowd at some Rush Street bar, race across the loop and climb aboard with two or three minutes to spare.

You climbed aboard feeling alcoholically affable, like William Powell’s Thin Man, the last round with your friends at the bar standing you in good stead. But your fellow commuters already on the train started dampening your spirits pretty quickly.

Tired blue collar swing-shift regulars with lunch boxes and tomorrow morning’s Sun Times. Businessmen heading home after dinner with clients. Fans who’d stopped for a beer after whatever game they’d been to. All of them oozing that sallow, almost luminous post-midnight fatigue.

Suddenly, you too would feel immensely tired. You found a seat and, head against the nicotine-oily window, an hour from home, just one more prodigal son awash in reveler’s remorse, you would join them and wait for the hangover to begin.

The car’s door would open, then slam closed, and other passengers would come up the aisle and find single seats. No one spoke. Everyone kept to themselves. You—all of you—sat there, alone together in the cigarette smoke and the diesel fumes and the oil-and-cleaning-compound-scented subterranean dark of late night Union Station. You all sat there, listening to the big locomotive idle, waiting for the engineer to throttle up, and the train to make that first slow, powerful northbound tug.

You sat alone, and yet there was a communion of sorts. It was as if you were all sitting in an Edward Hopper painting, sharing a little island of light and moving down a tunnel that augured through the city night. You were each your own story, to be continued tomorrow; not finished, but certainly done for the day. You were ready to go home and go to bed.

The feeling is not unique to the 12:25. It’s there, on the last train out of every city. It rattles through the night on every subway and commuter line in the world. There’s an empathy at the heart of it—an empathy so strong that it holds you forever. Once you climb on the 12:25, you never, ever get all the way off.

There is a small stretch of right of way for an old, long-defunct municipal trolley line near my house in the suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s no more than two blocks long. It runs through a patch of municipally-owned woods that they couldn’t sell when they tore out the tracks sixty years ago. The right of way is part of a trail system now, and, walking it, I sometimes sense the doppelganger of the last trolley of the night surging past, the same tired motorman, the same tired anonymous passengers, everyone eternally on their way home to bed.

The people riding my doppelganger 12:25 out of Union Station are nameless too. They sit there, bone weary, reading the Sun Times or staring out the window into the night. One man I do know always gets on one stop north of Union Station. He’s a careworn second generation Irishman—the factory working father of a huge family of playground thugs I went to parochial school with.

The door opens, He steps into the car. The door slams closed behind him. He sits, back to the bulkhead, facing me, Irish tough, preoccupied, not looking past the end of his nose.

Who knows? Maybe he’s still with us, in a nursing home in Libertyville. Maybe some nights after whichever of his ten or eleven children who came to visit leaves and the orderly dims the lights in the hall, the old man falls asleep. And, maybe, in his dream, he climbs aboard his own 12:25. And maybe I’m there—a kid he recognizes from 9:15 mass on Sunday, sitting halfway down the car on the left, a little drunk, head against the window, half asleep.

My 12:25 always gets into Libertyville at 1:25. The Irishman and I always step down onto the old platform, and he always walks off into the night.

I stand there for another moment and watch the train pull out of the station, heading west, around a slight curve to the north toward Grayslake. And when the tail end of the last coach disappears around the curve, I light a cigarette, turn my coat collar up and walk off into the night too.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Meditation Upon A T-ball Jotter

I spoke to a Rotary Club recently. I love Rotary Clubs. Such optimism and conviviality. If I ever overcome these feelings of pessimism and isolation, I might even join Rotary one of these days.

This Rotary Club listened politely. Rotary Clubs always do. They applauded politely when I finished. Rotary Clubs always do that too. Then, as Rotary Club presidents always do, the president of this club stood and thanked me and closed by handing me a pen. Pens seem to be Rotary’s universal way of saying thank you for coming to speak. I put the pen in my briefcase and promptly forgot it. I always do.

You know how pens are these days—cheap and generic, always coming and going. You run across one you like and it’s yours for a while, but eventually, it disappears. No one knows how. No one knows why. You reach for your pen and it’s just plain gone. If you hold onto the same one for a week, it’s remarkable. If you keep it for a month, it’s an heirloom.

At any rate, I must have lent whatever pen I’d been using to someone and they must have pocketed it. Because there I was the other day, in need of a pen, and it was gone. So I went to my briefcase, rummaged around, and came up with the one from the Rotary Club.

To my pleasant surprise, the Rotarians had laid a Parker T-Ball Jotter on me.

“Well all right,” I thought, “a T-Ball Jotter,” and I felt just a little better about the world. In an age of anonymous, blah, ho-hum pens, falling into a T-Ball Jotter was a day brightener.

My grandfather the traveling salesman was a T-Ball Jotter man. He owned a maroon one, and not just for a few days or months. It rode in his inside suit coat pocket for years. That pen was as much a part of his life as his scuffed up Gladstone suitcase, his black Ford with the sample cases on the back seat floor, and his notebook of details (penned in T-Ball Jotter) about his network of customers across southern Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and northern Indiana.

He was widowed and he lived with us when he wasn’t on the road. He sold furniture—sofas and tables and chairs and lamps—to a kind of small town family owned furniture store that disappeared decades ago. The department stores in the county seats killed them. Then the mass merchandisers killed the county seat department stores.

I drive across his old territory once in a while. I wonder which of the empty small town storefronts he walked through and which of the Main Street railroad hotels got his custom. I look up at a second floor window and imagine him at the desk in the room after supper, T-Ball Jotting the day’s hard-won orders onto company forms in the 40-watt light of the gooseneck lamp before bed.

He was widowed and lived with us when he wasn’t on the road. There were nine children in the house. Chaos reigned, especially in the morning. But there my grandfather would sit, at the breakfast room table, wearing a freshly-starched white shirt, tie properly knotted, eating his Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and working the crossword puzzle in the Chicago Tribune with his T-Ball Jotter.

It may have been the Tribune crossword that made a confirmed T-Ball Jotter man of him in the first place. He didn’t always finish the puzzle at breakfast and some nights he took it to bed. He had lived with fountain pens his whole life, and was amazed that ballpoint technology would allow him to work the puzzle flat on his back with his pen bottom up.

So he was a T-Ball Jotter man. And every so often, some occasion would come along—a birthday or first communion or confirmation or Christmas—and allow you to be T-Ball Jotter kid. Sometimes, on special days, great aunt, Flo would come through with a T-Ball Jotter, boxed and gift wrapped. It was not quite as good as a card with five dollars in cash, but it was two cuts above a box of monogrammed handkerchiefs from Kresge’s.

A T-Ball Jotter from Flo was a badge of maturity that you clipped into your shirt pocket and wore to school. You couldn’t use it for schoolwork much. It was ink, and inerasable. But it had a heft, and you felt a little more like an adult, at least until you lost it. You couldn’t look Flo in the eye for a while after that.

A few months after I left home to go to college, my grandfather had a heart attack. He was on the road, of course. He sat up in a motel in Kokomo, Indiana all night and in the morning he drove to Little Company of Mary and checked in.

I don’t know what happened to his pen when he died, but a few years ago, somebody brought one of his notebooks to a family reunion. There it was, in turn-of-the-century Chicago parochial school Palmer method cursive—a T-Ball Jotter glimpse of my grandfather plying his trade.

No doubt one of these days my Rotary T-Ball Jotter and I will part ways. I’ll reach to my shirt pocket, and it’ll be gone.

But maybe, if you’re a writer, God hands you a shoebox full of the pens you lost in life when you die. All of them. All the Papermates and the cheapo pushbutton jobs and the one or two Watermans you fell into and fell out with, and thousands and thousands of nineteen cent Bics.

Maybe God says, “Here you go, kid. Try not to lose them this time.”

If so, I’ll rummage through the box until I find this particular pen—this T-Ball Jotter. The one with the Rotary logo that says, “IN APPRECIATION TO OUR GUEST SPEAKER” on the barrel.

And I’ll put it in my shirt pocket and think, “Well all right.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Excerpt (with audio) from "Cavalcade

She was a single woman in her sixties, a professor who had done graduate work in Paris back in her twenties. Now she was teaching remedial French to the churlish sons of second and third generation immigrants. I was one of the churls.

There were six of us. We sprawled, lolled, and slouched in the student desks in front of her. We exuded indolence, privilege, and a near-hostile reluctance to apply ourselves. We were big, young, strong and male. Had we been cattle instead of humans, we would have been castrated and turned out to the feedlot by now.

We could smoke in class and a particularly acrid cigarette stink hung in the air, mixing with the smell of whatever they were cooking for supper in the refectory in the basement. The slightest hint of the scent of lilacs lingered near the front of the room, as if the ghost of Blanche DuBois had flounced by fifteen minutes ago. This we attributed to the talc in her pullet-like cleavage.

We were among the first in our families to go to college, but education was lost upon us. We were just sitting there. Killing time, that was all. Waiting for the five o’clock bell to ring in the quadrangle hall. We were one clang away from escape.

There was a certain posture one adopted when killing time in those desks. You leaned forward, left elbow on knee, right elbow atop papers, cigarette smoldering between the fingers of the right hand. You stared at the floor, and jittered your right leg fitfully.

From the professor’s platform, it must have communicated close-mindedness; a sense of futility; an unwillingness to even try to assimilate the material. I am sure we didn’t intend it that way.

Sometimes, at night, when I review the long list of people I have offended over the years, I come to this woman. All these years later, I am sorry to have been so inconsiderate and disrespectful. It was rude.

I emailed this essay to an old friend of mine—another failure at French. We met in her class.

“I am sitting in the front row next to you,” he wrote back. “This shared experience is the start of a great friendship. Good that we can look back now with sympathy and respect for her contribution to it.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Marriage and the remote control

The fall television season is upon us. Meaningful football is back. The networks are hyping the new TV shows. It’s time to review husband-wife remote control etiquette.

Few electronic devices can be so maritally divisive. If I were a marriage counselor, the first question I’d ask any troubled couple would be, “Who clicks?”

There was a time when guys did all the remote controlling. A man’s home was his castle. The remote was his scepter. Whither he clicked she followed as submissively as Michele Bachmann.

No more. With women’s programming in the ascendancy, the modern husband must not only share his channel selection responsibilities, but also surrender the remote itself at times.

It can be fourth and one. The game can be tied. Your team can be getting ready to kick the winning field goal. If she asks what else is on and reaches for the remote, your job is to pass it to her.

To sit there silently while she surfs the lady channels; to join her in watching competitive cupcake baking; or wardrobe makeovers; or spoiled brides-to-be trying on wedding dresses with their spoiled friends.

Your job is to take the program you get and say nothing. Not so much as a word.

Her remote controlling may well be a dare—a challenge, a test. To speak is to fail. To roll your eyes or heave a sigh is to invite confrontation. Simply crossing your arms or legs can communicate petulance or impatience and turn an evening of connubial viewing into a frosty little pas de deux that could last until bed time—possibly even all the way to breakfast tomorrow.

Better to stretch and yawn and excuse yourself. Leave her watching her program on the high definition flat screen, the remote control at her elbow on the sofa arm.

Go down to the basement pick up the old remote and fire up the old analog TV where, hopefully your team will have won.

Sure the picture’s fuzzier down there. But look at the bright side. You’re making a statement.

You’re in charge of the remote control in the basement. That much at least is coming in loud and clear. I’ll bet she can hear it all the way up there in the living room.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Texting While Biking

I was biking the East River Road in Saint Paul the other day when a young man on the kind of single gear bike the kids call a “fixie” came toward me, riding no-handed, sitting upright, texting as he pedaled. He was past me and gone before I realized what I’d seen, but the image has been with me ever since.

It’s a complex image. I am partly in awe of his bike skills, partly amazed at the times we live in, and partly in fear for his health and well-being.

It isn’t easy to ride a fixie. With only one gear and no brakes, it goes when you pedal and stops when you don’t. It’s a purist’s bicycle, certainly not the kind I’ll ever be able to master.

Fixies are for urban male riders in their twenties—guys out to get somewhere in a hurry and on their own terms. Deep in my Baby Boom heart, I’m in awe of them. If I could shave off three decades and fifty pounds, I’d probably be out there on a fixie too, blowing stop signs, swerving through bike traffic on the Greenway, running from Uptown Minneapolis to any part of the Cities I chose, radiating the scruffy insolence of the young male fixie rider too.

Not to be. My half century bicycling career began aboard a hand-me-down Schwinn and has included a variety of other bikes from newspaper delivery bikes to college era ten speeds, to road bikes, and, now, comfort bikes—cycling’s answer to a maroon four door Buick. But no fixie for me. Not at my age.

And, while I used to be able to ride no-handed, I acquired a deep and abiding love of self long ago. I want to preserve me. I don’t want to see me hurt. I keep both hands on the handlebars—usually on the brakes.

Then there’s the matter of the kid’s texting. If you should not text while driving a car, you for darned sure should not do it while pedaling a bike. Your eyes leave the traffic and the trail. There’s that concentration lapse texting always causes. You’re riding on tires less than a quarter-inch wide. You’re a small pothole away from a trip to the emergency room.

I was dumbstruck by the stupidity, then again, I was in awe of the convergence of youth, dexterity, balance and insouciance. It was la-de-frickin-da, up the East River Road at 18 miles an hour with no brakes—and the kid didn’t even need bifocals to see the little screen on his phone.

From the exquisite vantage point of late middle age, I sense an aura of Darwinism surrounding the young man. Either he evolves \ or he goes extinct.

But, darn. He sure was something to see coming down the bike trail, no hands, no brakes, not a care in the world.