PHILADELPHIA PHUTILITY

 

 

The Philadelphia Phillies blew a baseball game in the final inning last night. That’s unfortunate, but not notably so. In fact, it has already happened eight times in this young season. Losing is an art form for the Phillies, the only professional franchise IN THE WORLD to have lost over 10,000 times. They hold the record for longest losing streak, too – 23 games in 1961.

When ahead in the final inning, they lose by way of home runs, errors, strikeouts, etc. Basically, they lose in all the usual ways. And once, in 1964, just once, they lost in an extraordinary way – the opposition stole home to deliver a 1-0 verdict. For non-baseball fans, stealing home in a major league game is like a total solar eclipse; it happens a couple times a year somewhere in the world, but rarely.

 

*****

I recently read a long article in the New Yorker (is there any other length?) about an author’s personal recollections of his grandparents. It’s touching and meaningful and made me ponder my own lack of such familial connections. Three of my four grandparents were deceased before I was born. I only knew my maternal grandfather, Joseph Nemerov, who died when I was nine. By all accounts, the man known to me as “Grand-Pop” was a beloved patriarch, friendly and easy-going, a hero to my mother and her siblings, and also to my father who wholeheartedly embraced him to fill a parental void in his life.

I’m certain I loved Grand-Pop, but my recollections of time spent with him are almost nil. His images in my mind are like disparate photographs, not films or even short videos. I recall the vacation boarding house where we joined him in Atlantic City, but I don’t picture him in any of my memories from there. I vaguely recall being in the backseat of a car he drove; I recall him presiding over a Passover Seder, though honestly, my memory may not be as much my own as based on a photograph I’ve seen. I remember the morning he died because I heard my mother and aunt sobbing in the kitchen downstairs when I awoke. Not knowing what to do, I stayed upstairs and tried to play a baseball-themed board game on my bedroom floor.

I’m sure I was upset about Grand-Pop’s death, and also confused, but what I most remember is feeling ashamed to be concerned about my lack of breakfast. I chose to remain hungry and alone upstairs rather than go downstairs amidst the crying adults.

 

*****

 

One of the few one-on-one experiences with my grandfather I recall, a full-blown memory with time, place and appearance, is tied to the worst historical moment in Phillies’ history.   Given the number of bad moments they have accumulated in their 125-year existence, that is saying something.

Despite their history of futility, in 1964, the Phillies approached the end of the season with a large lead in the National League standings. The city was abuzz with anticipation of the World Series where the Phillies would seek their first title since 1915. In my grandfather’s kitchen, with him and his radio, I remember settling in to listen to the entirety of the late-September game between the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds. (Only weekend games were televised in that era; the radio was still prominent).

I recall Grand-Pop’s shock of white hair and vivid blue eyes. I also remember the square, brown pattern on the linoleum floor in the kitchen and white appliances. I remember the rounded radio, shaped like a toaster, and the familiarity of the sounds at Connie Mack Stadium, the beer and peanut hawkers (“Peanuts here, peeeeenuts!”) that intruded into the background of the broadcast. I recall the familiar ads for Ballentine’s Beer (“Hey, get your cold one”) and the sonorous voice of the team’s long-time announcer, Byrum Saam.   Sitting comfortably beside my grandfather at a card table, we rooted for the home team. It didn’t occur to me then that where he was born, in Ukraine, loyalty to a baseball team was as likely as my rooting for a sports team based on Mars. Most likely, he feigned interest for my sake.

Were this a story in the New Yorker, I would explain in great detail something profound about my interaction with Grand-Pop that evening. But other than the sense that I enjoyed his easy-going company (we played a card game, either “War” or “Casino” while we listened) my specific memory is what happened in the game. It was a tense, scoreless tie until the final inning, when Chico Ruiz, an infielder for the Reds, STOLE HOME to win the game for Cincinnati, 1-0. I remember trying to explain what had happened to my grandfather. “By” Saam better conveyed the amazing moment with his tone of voice – something startling and rare had occurred, but for the WRONG TEAM.

At that moment, it only seemed the Phillies had lost one game, and their unaccustomed position atop the standings wouldn’t be threatened.   Only as the next two weeks unfolded, and they lost ten games in a row, did it become clear Ruiz’s audacity had sent the team into a tailspin from which they never recovered.  The St. Louis Cardinals swooped in like birds of prey to win the title on the last day of the season. Though painful to the Phillies, I didn’t sense a personal connection in that moment, but the intervening half-century has rendered the memory significant to me.

 

 

*****

 

I’m sorry I don’t have more memories of my grandfather. In that era, his presence at every one of my little league games could not be assumed like nowadays. My youthful lack of perspective prevented me from taking more note of the times we did spend together. I hope circumstances will allow me to make more of an impact when I’m a grandfather. At present my only “grandchildren” are dogs. Stella, Boris and Bea definitely love me but I’m doubtful about my place in their long-term memories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


BOYCOTTS

In these hyper-partisan times it’s a chore to keep track of all the personalities, shows and businesses I have to boycott. There’s Papa John’s mediocre pizza due to its owner’s odious positions against raising the minimum wage and universal health insurance. There’s Fox News, the inventor of “we deceive and you believe,” and my related disinclination to watch anything on a Fox station that might incidentally benefit the Murdoch family, the owners. There is, of course, anything owned or supported by any Trump. Ivanka’s products don’t interest me nor do the con man’s golf courses or ugly ties, garish hotels and failing casinos. Thus, while I boycott the foregoing businesses, these are not painful sacrifices. It’s like skipping cigarettes or broccoli rabe, products I skip in the absence of moral or political motivations. I simply don’t like them.

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A dilemma is presented by Chick-fil-A. Here’s the problem: Several years ago, when taking cheap shots didn’t appear to have negative consequences, Chick-fil-A’s bible-thumping owners expressed their feelings against marriage equality and gay rights, in general. They helped fund a referendum their preferred political party used in a cynical (and successful) effort to prod their old and hateful core to vote.

After a backlash, the owners retreated behind a semi-sincere effort to “not offend anyone” and have been circumspect and non-controversial in a corporate way ever since. But I’m confident the owners of the company continue to harbor views I would consider hurtful and would express them openly if it didn’t cost them money. In addition, I’m certain whom they supported for president. I tend to wish for nothing but failure for such people. Accordingly, I know I should continue to boycott their restaurants.

Unfortunately, my new home is only one minute from a Chick-fil-A. I pass the building nearly every day, often more than once. When I returned late from a long tennis match hungry for lunch, and didn’t wish to drive out of my way, I recently offered myself an indulgence. “Just once,” I rationalized, “you can go to Chick-fil-A. Maybe they’ve changed. It’s proper to forgive and forget, at least occasionally.” (Even as I thought that last thought, I knew it didn’t sound like me; I didn’t really believe it, and I knew I was simply justifying an indefensible moral position).

As I entered the restaurant, I felt a tinge of embarrassment as though every person there sensed my hypocrisy. I wished I were wearing my “Bernie for President” tee shirt so I wouldn’t be assumed to be among the 71% of Caucasian males who voted for the con man.

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But no one looked at me. I approached the counter. An impossibly cheerful and scrubbed young man wearing a tie asked: “Good afternoon, sir. What would you like?”

Taken aback by his pleasantness, I stumbled, but eventually uttered: “Um, ah, the basic chicken sandwich and fries, please?”

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“Will you be dining in?” he asked.

“Hunh?” I said.

“Will you eat in or take out?” he asked, smiling patiently.

“Oh, I’ll stay, ah, sit, ah, dine here,” I stuttered, hoping my use of “dine” didn’t sound mocking since he really, really seemed sincerely interested in my choice and he really, really seemed to consider what I would be doing with my chicken sandwich and fries to be “dining.”

“And your choice of beverage?” he asked.

“My drink?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Iced tea. Can you mix unsweetened and sweet fifty-fifty?”

“Of course, sir,” he said. “That will be my pleasure. Thank you so much for your order. We’ll bring your meal to your table.”

 

*****

 

My earliest boycott performances were spotty. In middle school, around 1970, I became aware of Cesar Chavez and the campaign to boycott grapes on behalf of the United Farm Workers. Gifted at rationalization, I avoided seeded grapes and red grapes for several years. But I really liked green grapes, and convinced myself they were picked by fairly treated workers.

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Later, when car shopping became relevant to me, I joined many of my co-religionists in not considering a Mercedes or Volkswagen due to their Second World War complicity in the Nazi cause. When my eye caught a cherry red BMW circa 1983, however, I rationalized its purchase on my childhood misunderstanding that BMW was a British company. I knew better by then, but…the car was really beautiful.

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Subsequent boycott efforts lacked political motives. Like most people, I avoid restaurants known to be dirty, stores known to have unpleasant salespersons, etc. But what to do about a restaurant displaying sanitation scores of 100%, friendly workers, and unsalted waffle fries made just the way I like them? This brings me back to Chick-fil-A.

 

*****

 

I take my seat and observe the cheerful and bustling scene around me. Customers run the gamut from toddlers to senior citizens, from every ethnicity, and, I imagine, every gender preference. After only a minute, a young woman with a broad smile brings my meal to my table and sets it before me. “Would you like ketchup, mayonnaise or barbecue sauce?” she asks.

“Just ketchup,” I say.

“Here it is,” she says, as she retrieves several packets from her pocket. “Y’all just let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” I say.

I behold the food before me. In a neat cellophane package is my chicken sandwich. It is hot and juicy, the chicken tender, the pickles zesty, the bread fresh. I’m not claiming this to be a healthy or gourmet choice, but for a fast food sandwich that costs less than $6, it’s good. And the fries? They are plentiful, soft and hot. The table and tray are immaculate. The iced tea is cold and tasty.

“What,” I ask myself as I eat, “am I going to do about my boycott?” Finally, I have an idea. After I eat, I seek out the “Suggestion Box” and write the following to the manager: “I enjoyed my meal today. I would enjoy it even more and, probably more often, if Chick-fil-A would issue a statement in support of all people, no matter their preferences in gender, color or political persuasion. Such a statement should be issued on rainbow paper.” I drop my suggestion in the box.

I’m not going to eat at Chick-fil-A often, but each time I do, I will leave a similar note. If my suggestion is ever followed, I will declare an end to my leaky boycott and urge everyone else to do the same.

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FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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MAJOR LEAGUE TRYOUT

Is there a little boy (or little girl) who has ever thrown a baseball who hasn’t dreamed of the day the scouts come to watch him, if only for a moment? During the countless childhood hours I spent throwing a ball against a wall, I imagined performing in front of clipboard-carrying men in numerous ways. The dream sometimes evolved into making diving catches in front of thousands, or signing autographs for long lines of adoring fans. Occasionally, the dream involved hitting the World Series-winning home run. But first, always, the sense of being discovered by scouts, the sensation of BEING the diamond in the rough.

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Even as a ten-year-old, I never seriously envisioned myself a professional baseball player. Still, my imagination had to chew on SOMETHING while I threw the ball against the wall, over and over and over. Eventually, thanks to my solitary practice, I developed an extraordinary level of control. As a high school senior, I pitched 45 innings and walked only one batter. But the ability to “control” my pitches constituted my only big league ”tool” — there are at least four others I didn’t have – a pitcher who excels beyond high school must throw with velocity, movement, deceptiveness, command of several different pitches, such as a fastball, curve, and slider, AND control. Against accomplished hitters, to have control without the other attributes is called a batting practice machine.

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*****

By age sixteen, my imagination was even less likely to take major league flights of fancy. I fully accepted my status as a solid shortstop and pitcher for a weak high school that rarely produced a college player, let alone a professional. Over summers, I played for a team in West Philadelphia sponsored by the American Legion a step or two more accomplished than my high school team, but still a bottom feeder in the ocean of baseball talent.

Despite my sense of reality, my heart fluttered when my summer coach, a man whose only memorable trait was to sport a perennially open fly, called me aside after a game to ask me to attend a special practice the next afternoon. He said, affecting nonchalance: “The Dodgers will be there.”

“What Dodgers?” I asked, as though there were numerous kinds.

“The Los Angeles Dodgers, their local scout,” he said, a broad smile melting his cool.

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My eyes widened with excitement and disbelief, until he added: “You’ll cover shortstop for Jeff Leonard’s tryout.”

“What about ME?” I said.

“Well, he won’t be there for you, of course” he said. “He’s looking at Jeff.”

I let out a deep breath. NOW, I understood.   My face red with embarrassment, I felt like an idiot for reacting like the scout was coming to evaluate me. Fortunately, in his own excitement, the coach hadn’t focused on my naïve reaction. He’d already moved on to boast to several nearby adults: “Hey, I got the Dodgers coming out tomorrow.”

*****

Jeff Leonard was notionally a teammate of mine. But I’m certain he’d never bothered to learn my name. He never came to practices and rarely attended games. His appearances were like events after which you said: “Did that really happen?” When he came, he stood or sat by himself, aloof, until it was his turn to bat. On defense, he covered center field with silent efficiency. I’m not certain Jeff was arrogant or unfriendly; maybe he was just shy. But he certainly appeared unapproachable. As a seventeen-year-old, he carried himself like a world-weary adult, a man among boys.

Jeff, we were repeatedly told by our coach, was a superstar, a special talent. He attempted to salve hurt feelings by players displaced by Jeff’s appearances with an insider’s tone of voice, generally along the lines of:   “Listen fellas, we’re lucky to have Jeff whenever we do. He splits his time between several teams and some are way above our level.   He also has individual workouts for the benefit of professional scouts.”

Our collective sense of jealousy was mostly, but not entirely, satisfied with a sense of awe.

*****

When I arrived at the field that humid summer afternoon in 1972, I was surprised to see only three other teammates besides Jeff. I was instructed to stand at shortstop, the others were placed deep in left and center fields, and our catcher took his spot behind home plate. An otherwise nondescript middle-aged man explained he would pitch to Jeff, but his striking blue Dodger cap captivated my 16-year-old eyes like the world’s largest sapphire.

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Our coach and a man I assumed was Jeff’s dad stood next to the batting cage along with two strangers who also wore Dodger caps. They held the clipboards I’d always imagined and one held a stopwatch on a string around his neck. Jeff stood next to the batting cage, solemn as always, apparently unfazed by proximity to gatekeepers to the Pantheon of baseball greatness.

I knew Jeff starred at football as well as baseball in high school. His chiseled physique was unlike the skinny frames of the rest of us. Yet, his statistics when he played for our team were mediocre.

“What makes Jeff so special?” asked a teammate whose position in the lineup disappeared whenever Jeff appeared.

“Jeff,” the coach explained, “can run like the wind, can throw twice as far as you can, and when his bat makes contact, the ball takes off like it was launched by a bazooka.”

“Is it fair that he doesn’t come to practice?” asked the kid.

“This is baseball,” said the coach. “It ain’t democracy.”

I happened to know that Jeff’s bat didn’t make contact all that often. I’m sure his batting average was lower than mine. But scouts, I knew, looked for those elusive “tools,” the ones I lacked. A smooth swing, like a pitcher’s control, could be developed, but power, running speed, height and strength – those qualities derived more from nature than nurture. Even when Jeff sauntered on and off the field like he was bored, and slouched on the bench like he hadn’t slept in days, there was nothing sluggish about his swing.

*****

Thwack, thwack, thwack went the baseballs as Jeff pounded the easy pitches over my head. He didn’t hit any ground balls to shortstop but I received the returned balls from the outfield and, in turn, tossed them to the scout. I tried to make eye contact with him. Nothing doing. I tried to scoop the throws from the outfield with such style that the other two Dodger scouts couldn’t help but notice. Nothing doing.

After about fifteen minutes, the scout told Jeff to rest for a moment and told my other teammates they could come in while he conferred with his assistants.   After a moment, he said to me: “You stay at shortstop. We’re gonna have Jeff run down some fly balls and then hit you as the cutoff man.” (For the uninitiated, this means Jeff would show off his power and accuracy by throwing to me after his catches at full speed.) Jeff jogged past me to the outfield with his glove and one of the other men brandished a bat with practiced expertise. “Be ready, little man,” I think Jeff whispered to me as he passed. But like everything else about Jeff, I wondered: “Did he really say that?” The scout proceeded to launch balls to Jeff while I relished the renewed chance to become noticed.

I had to admire Jeff’s smoothness in tracking down the fly balls. Up, back, to the side, he made everything look easy. His throws seemed life threatening to me; never had he or any of our other outfielders put as much power and accuracy into their cutoff throws. “Jeff DOES care about this tryout,” I said to myself, as another ball crashed into my glove and burrowed down to my palm, now numb from repeated blows.

“Wow, that’s incredible,” exclaimed the scout after one particular laser-like throw battered my hand.

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I wanted to take off my glove and count my fingers but I didn’t want the scout to think I couldn’t handle such throws routinely. Fortunately, just as I reached the breaking point of my pain threshold, the scout motioned Jeff to come in, and said to me: “Okay, kid, that’s enough. Thanks. We’re just gonna check Jeff’s speed.”

My efforts in front of the Dodgers were at an end. All three Dodger scouts gathered at first base and timed Jeff’s speed around the bases. My teammates and I watched from the bleachers as a new, deeply motivated Jeff appeared before us. We’d heard about his abilities, but in front of these men, he appeared to have been struck with a lightning bolt of professionalism. His hitting had impressed me; his throws had blasted me; but his running was beyond anything I’d ever seen close-up, in person.

*****

My tryout experience was over. Personally, it was anti-climactic. But I read in the local paper the next day that Jeff had signed a contract and even received a bonus. He left West Philadelphia for California to play in the Dodgers’ minor league system. I didn’t think I’d ever hear more of Jeff Leonard since most high school age signees never make the major leagues. Approximately five years later, however, Jeff debuted in the big leagues with the Dodgers and proceeded to have a long and successful career, chiefly with the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants. It was marked by a peculiar string of run-ins with teammates, management and opponents alike. According to my Google research, Jeff chose the nickname “Penitentiary Face” for himself! Still, Jeff Leonard had admirers. For a time, he became a team captain. And in what can only be called “major league irony,” he now works in public relations for the Giants. Who woulda thought?

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SNOWPOCALYPSE

 

 

The world appeared it might be coming to an end last Friday when forecasts predicted a 6-8 inch snowfall for Durham, NC. I’d always heard about pre-storm panics and stores selling out of essentials, but I’d never personally experienced it until I went to the local hardware store that morning in need of a paint sample. The parking lot resembled Normandy Beach on D-Day. A line snaked out the door with people clutching numbers like life preservers. Though some customers planned to purchase sleds and saucers to enjoy the storm, most hoped to obtain portions of the store’s fast-dwindling supply of salt, sand and shovels. Not anxious to spend ninety minutes at the store, I retreated, paintless, to my new home, a townhouse half a mile away.

After lunch, I went to the public library to pick up a book. A sign on the door indicated the library had closed at noon “due to inclement weather.” Even the direst of forecasts did not call for precipitation before the evening!

 

*****

 

We moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill in 2009. Having heard tales of an ice storm in 1999 that had shut off electricity for ten days we were putty in our realtor’s hands when she showed us a house with an optional generator for $7,000 and a large basement. “That’s a small price to pay for peace of mind,” she said. “And you can host the whole neighborhood in your basement when their lights go out.”

As an introvert, the latter possibility sounded awful, but the idea of having electricity during the famed Carolina ice storms made sense. We bought the house and the generator and smugly signed up for its $350 yearly service and maintenance contract. We settled in and waited for the opportunity to be “the smartest people in the neighborhood.” There was no ice during our first winter, or the second.

The years went by. No ice. We began to hope for an ice storm or even a tree to take down a power line, anything to help us realize value from our generator. Increasingly, we doubted there’d ever really been an ice storm that rendered local life as primitive as the Stone Age, or more appropriately, I suppose, the Ice Age.  After seven years, we moved to a new home in Durham just one month ago. It has neither a basement nor a generator. “I’m not making that mistake again,” I declared.

 

*****

 

The forecast downplayed the risk of ice damage because unusual cold foretold a dry, puffy sort of snow. Instead, the predicted sleet/snow line moved thirty miles farther north than expected, and we woke on Saturday to little snow but two inches of accumulated sleet. The temperature then plunged to the teens and the region shut down like a congressional committee on ethics reform. Nothing moved, not cars nor people nor trucks. And that includes snow removal trucks because North Carolina communities hardly have any, and what they have is focused solely on major highways.

Today is the sixth day after the storm! To the amazement of anyone who’s ever lived as far north as New Jersey, schools and libraries are STILL closed even though temperatures have been above forty for three days. The local news refers to “stubborn areas of ice that are under trees and pose a grave danger.” The icy mix is now a muddy mess. Our electricity has stayed on, however, a fact for which I’m mostly grateful. To the extent I’m a writer, however, I’d sort of hoped for a dose of delicious irony.

 

 


 

AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


ELECTION NIGHTMARE

A number of readers have expressed surprise the election has not figured prominently in my writing. The reason, I suppose, is the subject is like a slog through a swamp, and the prospect of voluntarily wallowing in the muck for several hours is not appealing. Nonetheless, since I find myself awake at 4 a.m. with despairing thoughts bouncing through my head like ping-pong balls (a much more enjoyable subject) this blog post is not actually voluntary. I hope it will prove cathartic.

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*****

In the words of Richard Nixon, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t “like” Hillary Clinton. It’s not that she’s ever done anything to me personally. And, of course, I’ve never shared a meal or a conversation with her. She might be “likable enough,” as Obama once conceded.

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The problem is her shell, though hardened as an understandable reaction to thirty or forty years of attacks, presents as a lawyerly dissembling that disturbs me. Something is off. Something is amiss. When the circus that defines the Clinton’s comes to town, I find it exhausting. Oh, how I’m going to miss “no-drama Obama.”

But what I feel towards her opponent is an emotion so far from the blandness of “not liking” as to be irreducible to words. After “detest” and “loathe” and “abhor” I’m not sure what else I can conjure.   The language needs something stronger to express the feeling of despair, of embarrassment, of shame that he engenders.

*****

I am not a low information voter. Unlike many Americans, not only do I know that each state has two senators, but also I know the names of ours in North Carolina. Faceless factotums (lackeys) they may be, but Burr and Tillis they are.

I’m not ignorant like some coal miners who believe the charlatan when he says he’ll bring the jobs back. Anyone capable of deductive reasoning and/or of resisting fraudulent come-ons knows it is plentiful and cheap natural gas, not “Obama’s war on coal” that has consigned their careers to the slagheap of history.

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I’m not ignorant like some assembly line workers who believe the charlatan when he says their industries will return. Clearly it is the inexorable march of technology, not governmental policy that is primarily responsible for the elimination of their positions.

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It’s not so much contempt as pity and sadness that I feel for those who can be so deluded, who can be manipulated to vote against their own interests. Sure, lowering corporate tax rates will help the working poor. Haha. Very funny.

I reserve my contempt for those who live behind country club gates yet perceive themselves to be under siege. I despise the ones who enjoy social security, Medicare benefits, mortgage-interest deductions, corporate and government pensions yet cheer and aspire to the avoidance of taxes. Even worse in my estimation are the forty-year-olds, the parents of young children, who have daughters, who profess to want “change” above all, and will vote for a pig, a misogynist, a groper.

*****

I’m among the segment of voters, said to be between two and six percent, who believe the environment is the most important issue. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, the earth is special, it’s unique and it’s all we have. Caring for it, preserving it, restoring it is vital.

America should be and could be leading the way in resolving this issue. Clean, inexpensive, sustainable power should be a win-win for society, even for all of mankind. Creating profits and jobs while improving the environment are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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Republicans breathe air. They drink water. Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts. How did this issue become partisan? For some reason, probably after significant focus-group polling of low information voters, the same group of propagandists who denied cigarettes are unhealthful has been busy mucking up the truth. Their candidate professes to believe climate change is a hoax. On this rare matter, I take him at his word. He wants to eliminate regulations; he will withdraw from the Paris Accords just entered into by 190 nations.

To those who choose to ignore the scientific consensus I can only ask: Do you ever look at a sunset? Do you listen to a bird sing? Do you appreciate the majesty of a large tree, other than as an obstacle on a golf course?

*****

If I did not care about the environment in particular, the issues of education, basic human decency, women’s choice, gay equality, efforts to promote gun safety… all of these would be sufficient to make me vote for Hillary Clinton. The alternative is too appalling. (Again, I’ve failed to find a word strong enough to express my disappointment if she loses).   And if she happens to be impeached for whatever sins she has committed, real or imagined I’m okay with that. No problem! What the country might truly enjoy, and what might help me sleep again, would be several years of Tim Kaine, whoever he is.