Archives for category: family relationships

THE PANTRY

Mankind’s fervent desire for new and interesting experiences is reflected in the contents of the pantry. Alas, that is also where that desire crashes on the shoals of reality. For the pantry is where forgotten packages of couscous, cellophane noodles and pearled barley await their expiration dates. Oh, did I forget to mention the grits, lentils and ultra-grain quinoa penne?

The main course for dinner in our household is often chicken or fish. The accompanying dish is usually from the worlds of pasta, potatoes or rice. When we dine out, however, especially if it’s at an ethnic restaurant, we see greater variety. Our enjoyment of exotica invariably leads us to purchase “something different” for use at home. Yet, when “push comes to shove,” due to the familiarity of taste and preparation, we almost always opt for one of our basics. After several rejections, the “different” recedes into the dark corners of the closet where it is forgotten, out of sight and out of mind.

*****

I am responsible for several household tasks including, but not limited to, the following: unloading the dishwasher, taking out the trash, and mowing the lawn. Every few months, I voluntarily venture into the food pantry.

Sometimes, my goal is to organize and sometimes to alphabetize. And sometimes, like a lemming jumping off a cliff, my goal is to find packages that have fallen behind others into obscurity. When I locate one, I tend to announce to my wife, Katie: “We’d better eat some spinach channa tonight, whatever that is. The box says it’s about to expire.”

Sometimes, the discovery is within the tastes and preparation parameters of the planned meal. More often, unfortunately, there is a reason the product hasn’t seen the light of day. “Long grain, slow-cooking brown rice” is, as the label notes, slowly cooked. Forty-five minutes for a side dish is rarely acceptable. And “rice fettuccine noodles without gluten?” Does that sound appealing to a person who isn’t on a gluten-free diet?

*****

The other evening, in a fit of masochistic efficiency, I took out everything in our pantry that didn’t fall into the category of “normal.” I determined to make a meal of several of the products. “Kasha,” I announced, “is something my mother used to make. I haven’t had it in forty years, but tonight’s the night.”

“I don’t like kasha,” said Katie.

“Then why did we get this?” I asked, brandishing a small, plastic package.

“I think it came in a gift box,” said Katie.

“Someone gifted us kasha?” I asked, incredulous. “They must not like us very much.”

“Well, it’s supposed to be healthy. You know, it’s buckwheat,” Katie said.

“I didn’t know. I’m impressed. How does that differ from plain wheat?” I asked.

“Now you’re pushing it,” said Katie. “Maybe the groats are shaped differently.”

“Groats?” I said.

*****

Anyway, I recalled from childhood that kasha often surrounded bow-tie pasta. We didn’t have any bowties but I found a package of green and red Christmas tree shaped pasta purchased in a fit of holiday enthusiasm. Suspecting kasha might benefit from some flavor other than buckwheat, I also grabbed a small bag of dried currants that was surely destined for disposal. In my view, currants are to raisins what harpsichords are to pianos or typewriters are to computers –- obsolete. Still, they could play a role in my meal of obscurity.

The directions on the package of kasha were basic. Add a cup of water to a cup of groats, boil them for fifteen minutes, let them sit for ten minutes, then, eat. When the kasha began to thicken, I added the currants and threw in some almond slices, for texture. I also had the idea that a can of cannellini beans that had held down a corner of the pantry for nearly three years might be helpful. I threw them in, too.

Within half an hour, I had a massive pot of dark brown paste along with a second pot of colorful trees. The kasha gave off a fairly unpleasant fragrance.

“I feel like we’re in a gulag,” I said.

“This was your idea,” said Katie.

“Well, how bad can it be?” I asked.

No response.

*****

After only two or three bites, Katie went to the refrigerator and found herself some leftovers from the previous night’s restaurant meal. Left to consume my medley on my own I determined to finish. I added salt, then pepper, then more salt. I drowned a portion of my kasha in blue cheese dressing. There was no way I would admit it was inedible.

After the meal, Katie turned to me and asked if I’d like to go out for dessert. Like a person throwing a life preserver to someone who’s drowning, she added: “Let’s go to the place next door to the pizza shop.”

*****

Later that evening, on the phone, I told my mother what I’d made for dinner.

“Oh, I love kasha,” she said.

“You do?” I asked, incredulous. “It hardly had any taste. And the smell…”

“How did you prepare it?” asked my mother.

I told her the details and she laughed.

“There are different kinds of kasha,” she said. “Yours sounds like the type you just add for texture, like bread crumbs, not to eat as a meal.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was like eating little pieces of buck-shot, not buckwheat.”

“You made the wrong kind. There’s a type of kasha that’s fluffy and delicious.”

“Hard to imagine,” I said.

After this experience, I’ll avoid the pantry for at least a month. Then again, there’s a jar of peach-mango chutney that might be just perfect with Fat-free Organic Thai Rice Noodles.

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AND THE MEN WORE SKIRTS

I recently attended a same-sex wedding for the first time. Other than the fact that a number of the women wore suits and several of the men, being from Scotland, wore skirts, the event was indistinguishable from any other wedding. Food was plentiful, music loud, and loving sentiments wafted through the air like the fragrance of a thousand flowers.

That I was one of the fathers of one of the brides (how modern!) provided me with intimate knowledge of its planning, background and inner-workings. This was my first go-around as a wedding parent, but I believe the issues and anxieties leading up to the non-traditional wedding weekend were as traditional as they could be.

*****

My daughter, Kelly, announced her engagement to Laura at a family gathering in August, 2012. “Have you set a date?” was the natural question. The girls (I know they are “women” but please allow a father’s indulgence) seemed disinclined to respond.

“No rush,” Kelly replied. “In a couple of years.”

During the next few weeks, in the absence of a date, my wife, Katie, and I speculated on which iconic site would be the location of the wedding. Since the girls live in Brooklyn, off the top of our heads, we named the Botanical Garden, the Library, the Naval Yard and Prospect Park. Just across the river, in Manhattan, there were Central Park, the Battery, and Tavern on the Green, among hundreds.

In an early telephone conversation, Katie said: “We once attended a beautiful wedding at the Chelsea Piers.”

Kelly said decisively: “We’re not doing it in the city.”

Thinking she was eliminating only Manhattan, Katie plunged deeper: “You’re close to the Botanical Gardens, aren’t you? And I heard the Naval Yard has an amazing facility.”

“We want to marry at a farm,” said Laura on the other line, in her Scottish lilt, sounding non-negotiable.

“We will figure out which one,” added Kelly.

I’m sure we are not the first parents to encounter the “kids’” desire to choose the location of their own wedding with some degree of alarm. We accepted that the girls were entitled to their choice. Still, after a lifetime of dispensing guidance, Katie and I felt it’s our duty to point out issues Kelly and Laura might not have considered, such as: travel; accommodations; and, footing for older guests.

“And don’t second guess our choice,” added Kelly, as though she could see our dubious facial expressions over the phone. “We know what we’re doing.”

*****

The role of parents in wedding planning is a curious one. Society has provided some traditional guidelines, namely: the bride’s parents pay for the wedding; the groom’s parents pay for the rehearsal dinner, the bride wears a white dress; the bride’s mother, with her wisdom and experience, is assumed to have huge influence, etc. All this is unclear, however, when there are two brides and no groom, suits and no dress, and two thirty-somethings with resources and opinions of their own.

What’s a father to do? As a general matter, first, keep your mouth shut. Second, keep your mouth shut. Third, keep reminding yourself and your spouse, “It’s THEIR wedding.”

*****

Kelly holds masters’ degrees in education and library science and continues to hold down the midfield on several adult soccer teams.   Laura comes from Scotland. She holds a PhD in neuroscience, and an undergraduate degree from UCLA, where she was the star of the golf team. Neither, in other words, is a shrinking violet.

Throughout 2013, parental inquiries about wedding plans, whether posed by Laura’s parents in Scotland or by us in North Carolina, were parried away by the girls like weak shots against a World Cup goaltender. Still, Katie just couldn’t resist. She asked more than once: “How are the plans coming?”

“Fine,” Kelly would say.

“Have you decided on a venue?” Katie would ask.

“You’ll be among the first to know, Mom,” Kelly would answer.

One day in October, however, Kelly volunteered:   “We’ve chosen a date.”

Katie and I held our respective phones in wide-eyed suspense.

“July 26, 2014,” Kelly continued. We felt as though we’d received classified information from the CIA.

“That’s wonderful,” said Katie, happy to have information. “Can we tell everyone?” she asked.

“Yes, Mom,” said Kelly. It wasn’t easy, but Katie finally seemed to have the necessary tone and rhythm. Though it frustrated her mightily, she’d learned not to bring up the wedding unless Kelly did first. As always, I remained silent. After several additional months, refraining from asking questions paid off. In January, Kelly asked:

“Don’t you want to know about the farms we’ve visited?”

“Sure,” said Katie on the phone. She grinned from ear to ear, but strained to keep her tone of voice neutral. We learned from Kelly about a cross-section of New England’s barns, meadows and rustic inns, and listened to the girls’ impressions of each.

*****

Gradually, by spring, the girls shared the chosen farm’s website address. As a bonus, Kelly requested that Katie organize the gift bags. When the farm staff sent the guests a note that began: “The Bride and Groom ask you to mark the date…” the girls enlisted Katie to “go New Jersey” and add a parental voice to the brides’ howls of indignation.

The staff apologized and no similar fumbles occurred. The other pre-event issues in which we participated to some extent concerned the guest list, seating chart and wedding party participants. Again, Kelly and Laura handled nearly everything with minor consultations. A few deep breaths arose from parents and brides alike, but none proved insurmountable.

*****

Wedding weekend finally arrived and 125 guests arrived in Pittsfield, Vermont. For us, this involved flying from Raleigh to Burlington via Newark and driving ninety minutes south in a rental car. Upon arrival, we checked into a scenic inn perched atop a stone out-cropping, surrounded by wildflower gardens. I observed that the massive wooden beams and the stone foundation reminded me of the Flintstones.

“Don’t say that to Kelly,” said Katie.

“I know, I understand,” I said, though I wasn’t really sure I did.

The map included with the invitations implied that the various lodgings, barns and fields at the venue were all within walking distance. In fact, a system of golf carts and shuttle buses were necessary. One hotel that housed forty guests was four miles from the site. I think even the girls were surprised; when they’d visited the site in January, perhaps their perception was blinded by heavy snow.

A bus hired by Laura’s parents brought twenty guests from Scotland via Manhattan. They emerged at the inn looking groggy. Traffic was worse than anticipated. When I considered their itinerary, I could hardly complain about my own. All the Scots were wonderful people, but initial conversations concerned road repairs, airport delays and traffic.

Some confusion also reigned, at first, about where people were sleeping and how they would move from site to site. Quickly, however, the guests settled in, assisted by wine, beer and, no surprise, Scotch. The rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, which featured fresh local fish and pasta, proceeded seamlessly in an elegant refurbished barn. The Scots blended with the Yanks, the young mixed with the not so young, and the gays mingled with the straights.

*****

Saturday morning’s schedule included a group hike up a mountain, a soccer match between Team Kelly and Team Laura, and casual lunch at an authentic Vermont general store. Afterwards, everyone relaxed, shared conversation, and prepared for the main event that afternoon.

The Scotsmen planned to dress in kilts, and the twelve women in the wedding party brought lavender dresses. For several who preferred to wear suits, there were lavender vests. Though offered the chance to wear a kilt, an experience that would have provided my family a lifetime of laughs, I wore a tuxedo with a bowtie in the pattern of Laura’s family tartan. All these details had been painstakingly labored over by the girls in advance.

*****

At the appointed hour, the guests assembled in chairs set in the middle of a sun-splashed expanse of grass. The wedding party excitedly lined up in an adjacent building in the order chosen by the girls. I tried to take a moment to ponder the momentousness of the event — the first of my children was getting married. But there was so much excitement and energy, it was difficult to focus!

At the signal, the wedding party emerged one-by-one about ten strides apart, led by a four-year-old flower girl, for a forty-yard walk to where the guests sat.  Following twelve bridesmaids and several ushers, I focused on maintaining an even pace and smile. So dazzled was I at the splendor of the setting and the day, my recollection is hazy. Behind me, Kelly walked with Katie and Laura walked with her father. The ceremony was officiated by Lo, a friend of both girls’. Though she described herself afterwards as “petrified,” her performance impressed everyone. She touched on important points about love and commitment and life. I’d be more specific, but the wash of emotions and thoughts crowded out my short-term memory at the time.

Immediately after Kelly crushed a glass with her foot to signify the end of the rare Humanist-Judeo-Scottish ceremony, the girls walked arm-in-arm as a married couple to the sound of a bagpipe and cheers. The guests reassembled under an adjacent tent for heavy hors d’oeuvres, including chicken sate’ and stuffed mushrooms, and drinks. Dinner, dancing and the wedding celebration followed in another reconstituted barn, just a hundred yards, or one golf cart ride away.

Besides an open bar that featured maple syrup mojitos, the festivities included an arcade-like photography booth, a seven-piece band, a choice of steak, fish and gnocchi, more dancing, fireworks, toasts and, finally, more dancing. In the end, the ecstatic brides ran through a gauntlet of handheld sparklers and everyone cheered. A large group of revelers retired to a nearby tavern to continue the party for much of the night. For story-writing purposes, I should have gone, too, but collapsed in bed instead.

*****

By Sunday morning, the wedding could only be declared a total success.  The weekend had been interesting, memorable and fun.

Following a final gut-busting brunch in yet another rustic banquet hall, while a too-late-to-ruin-anything rainstorm raged outside, the guests gathered their Vermont maple syrup souvenirs and wished each other, and the brides, all the best. As Frank Sinatra might have said, the girls had done it “their way.” Indeed, the girls had DONE it, it was great and, after two years and just a wee bit of anxiety, it’s now a wonderful memory.


FOREIGN LANGUAGES

“Hola,” I say.

“Hola,” says the short man with what appears to be a genuine, warm smile. He wears a baseball cap and holds a leaf blower.

I’m taking my daily walk around the neighborhood. I feel it’s appropriate and respectful to greet landscapers in their own language when I can. Often, the response I get appears to me to be a combination of surprise and delight. But some disagree. My wife, Katie, for instance, thinks the workers may feel insulted when I speak to them in Spanish. Readers are welcome to share their opinions. My children cringe whenever I utter a word of Spanish in ANY context. Granted, I’m not a linguist.

*****

When I was little, I had an excellent opportunity to learn other languages. My father’s clothing store was in a section of North Philadelphia that contained a mixture of Puerto Rican and eastern European immigrants. Though I didn’t spend a huge amount of time there, whenever I was in the store, I witnessed my father navigate fluently between English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. He could also speak passable Polish and German.

My father passionately wanted his children to learn Russian. Only one of his four children inherited his gift and interest, however. My sister not only learned Russian but she achieved college-level proficiency at Spanish and chose to take graduate-level courses in French, Italian and Romanian! The extent of my knowledge of Romanian begins and ends with “blintz.”

I remained oblivious to the babble around me at the store. And my father was not the sort of parent to impose his linguistic hopes on me. My first exposure to foreign language study did not occur until seventh grade when I entered a private school, Friends’ Academy. Most of the students there had commenced studying French in third grade.

To my continuing regret, Friends’ Academy did not offer Spanish at any level because it was deemed “too easy.” Before I could commence French or German or Russian, however, they felt it necessary for me to obtain a foundational understanding of western languages, and it doesn’t get any more foundational than Beginning Latin. For an entire school year such terms as “dative” and “ablative” bounced off me like hail hitting a metal roof. All that stuck with me were: “puer spectat puela,” meaning “boy looks at girl;” and “stultus asinus,” meaning “stupid ass.” The latter characterizes my level of my accomplishment in the subject.

Despite my evident lack of aptitude, Friends’ Academy required continued foreign language study. Recognizing I was too far behind my classmates in French, and that Russian would be impossible (a different alphabet!) they placed me in Beginning German in eighth grade.

To my shock and dismay, I learned a language could have ten or twelve or fifteen ways of saying “the.” Also, nouns can be feminine or masculine.

“Why?” I asked in despair, “is it necessary to complicate simple things?”

Frau Herta Springer was not sympathetic. At the time, I thought of her as an elderly woman though I now realize she was only around fifty. Peering at me through thick glasses, she said, in a clipped Austrian accent: “Deutsch is a precise language. It is not sloppy. And it is not supposed to be easy.”

*****

Frau Springer and I had an awkward relationship for the next five years. She couldn’t understand why I found grammar impenetrable. I couldn’t understand why she thought it was so important. But what she really didn’t understand is why the weakest of her eleven students crushed her in Scrabble when we played in class every other Friday. (It had only taken a couple of weeks for me to graduate from playing my fellow students to taking on Frau Springer).

My secret weapon was a lifetime of play with my mother and aunt. I found words easily, so long as I didn’t have to know what they meant or how to place them in a sentence. Scrabble in German is the same as in English, except that the letter distribution features more S’s, C’s and H’s. She simply could not reconcile my relative genius at the game with my non-comprehension of everything else.

“Was ist los mit dir?” (What is wrong with you?) she asked each time she returned a quiz.

“Ich weis nicht,” (I don’t know) I answered, not quite sure if the ending of “weis” was missing a letter or two.

I never explained to Frau Springer how I came to dominate her. My proficiency at Scrabble was critical when it came to the subjective part of her grading and I didn’t want to risk that by resolving her confusion. At the end of each semester, with my average hovering in the low C’s or worse, she gave me a B.

*****

On the home front, my father found an alternate route to Russian language enthusiasm. This came about through Robert, a classmate of mine who had taken an interest in all things Russian. Starting in ninth grade, he made it known that he read Tolstoy for fun. (Private schools have kids like that. Our German exchange student spent his lunch hours memorizing train schedules). Robert also wore a Russian hat to school each day, its fur flaps protecting his ears even when the temperature topped eighty.

When Robert found out that my father had been born in Russia (Kiev then, as Putin would have it, considered to be part of Russia) he requested the chance to visit our house on Sunday afternoons to engage in Russian conversation. My father was ecstatic. Over the course of about eighteen months, I recall sitting upstairs awkwardly watching football or baseball on television while my father laughed and soaked up the company of Robert in the breakfast room below.

Whatever psychological damage this did to me was rectified, or at least evened out, when we learned that Robert’s father was an ice hockey fanatic with front row tickets to the Flyers’ games. Robert had no interest in sharing his father’s passion for something he thought so ridiculous as sports, so I attended eight or ten hockey games with his delighted dad over the same period.

When Robert’s interest in Russian petered out in favor of a new passion for painting Victorian train stations, (what can I say?) my father was clearly disappointed. Still, I couldn’t work up any interest in learning Russian. And I didn’t foresee how useful and valuable Spanish might be. In the early 1970’s, no one had yet calculated that it could be the majority language in the country by 2030.

*****

As an adult, I’ve had more opportunities to learn Spanish than I ever imagined. First, the kids played soccer under a series of Latin American trainers. Then we bought property in Costa Rica and began to visit there regularly. In addition, my children studied Spanish in school. They tell me they are proficient though I’ve rarely heard them speak.

Accordingly,taking a scattershot approach, I’ve obtained several books and tapes and I sometimes watch Spanish television with English subtitles. Once again or, perhaps, still, my ability to memorize vocabulary words outstrips my limited capacity to place the words in proper order and tense.

Like German, Spanish features a host of ways to say “the” and divides its nouns into masculine and feminine, with all the same grammatical booby-traps. But Spanish has two things going for it: there are tons of cognates. In other words, hospital in Spanish equals hospital in English. Doctor is doctor. Goal is gol, etc.; and, Spanish-speaking people, at least those I’ve encountered through soccer or visiting Costa Rica, are not hung up on precision. When I try to express myself in Spanish, if they can understand from my vocabulary and body language what I’m trying to say, they smile and say: “Su espanol es muy bueno.” (Your Spanish is very good).

I know they are exaggerating. I also know I’d benefit if they were less kind and more rigorous in teaching me. But, at least on some basic level, I’m able to converse in a foreign language. And that’s more than Frau Springer, my father, or I would ever have expected.


EARLY MIDLIFE CRISIS CAR

In September of 1986 I steered my powerless car onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. My heart’s pounding sounded noisier than my automobile. Now what? I sat for a moment and pondered my predicament. Nearly midnight, the only light shone from a streetlight one hundred feet away. Well, there was also a faint sliver of moonlight that peaked through skittering clouds. It barely penetrated the gritty, stale-tasting air. In the midst of a scene dominated by oil refineries and smokestacks, the irony in the motto “Garden State” shrieked with each passing truck.

*****

My previous car, a red Toyota Corolla, had performed flawlessly for three years. I had hoped to keep it for at least two more, when ice, combined with a steep hill and a telephone pole, made that impossible. I survived the crash unhurt but shaken with the reality that life is short. A single lawyer on the cusp of turning thirty, I decided to upgrade my wheels in terms of style, sportiness and fun.
With insurance money in hand I researched my choices in the Sunday newspaper. A BMW cost too much. “Muscle cars” like the Camaro or Grand Prix were below the dignity I deemed required by my career. Then I saw an advertisement for Pontiac’s new two-seat model, the Fiero. It boasted of a modern marvel, sheathed in plastic instead of aluminum, an automobile that growled like a racecar, looked like a Ferrari, and cost like a Pinto.
I resolved to check one out during a weekend visit to Philadelphia. There, I would see my parents as well as my brother, Barry, twelve years my senior, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Perhaps, I thought, Barry will assist me. After all, world renowned in his career as a corporate attorney, he had just fashioned the multi-million-dollar financial wizardry behind the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Surely, he could negotiate a deal on a car for me.

*****

I was ten when Barry arrived home with his first car. A law student at the time, he needed basic transportation from his rental house on the outskirts of New Haven to Yale. He chose a used, light-green Dodge Comet that he dubbed “the vomit.”
By 1986, Barry had long-since forsaken such humble transportation for a Mercedes two-seat convertible. When I showed Barry the photograph of a Fiero, his enthusiasm for the sleek-looking automobile nearly overcame his aversion to anything produced in Detroit.
“It looks sharp,” he said. “Pontiacs aren’t terrible, on the outside, at least.”
“The suggested retail price is $12,000,” I told him.
“Ha, we’ll see about that,” he said.
Barry and I piled into my parents’ car to drive to an auto mall in Bryn Mawr. At the Pontiac lot I stood transfixed by my first sight of a Fiero in person. As promised, it looked like a miniature Ferrari, low, sleek and powerful. Pontiac offered no subtle shades with this baby. The only models available were black or fire engine red.
“What do you think?” asked Barry.
“Wow,” I said, wide-eyed. “How can it be so inexpensive?”
“Don’t talk like that in front of the salesman,” he said. “Dad would be upset.”
I laughed. Indeed, our father had enjoyed dueling with car salesmen like a cat enjoyed playing with mice. How many times could he get them to “go back to the manager?” How many free oil changes could he get them to “throw in?”

*****

Expecting to encounter the usual middle-aged man, we were surprised when an attractive college-aged woman dressed a mini-skirt welcomed us.
“My name’s Gina,” she said. “Can I help you?
Barry and I glanced at each other with expressions that conveyed “unusual, but why not?”
“Okay, sure,” we said.
We explained I might be interested in a Fiero but needed to take a test drive first.
“That’s great,” said Gina. While she went to retrieve a key, we whispered to each other.
“She doesn’t look like a person who sells cars,” said Barry.
“She barely looks old enough to drive,” I said.
“Should be an easy negotiation,” said Barry.
I nodded.
“The car’s only got two seats,” said Barry. “You go with her, but don’t reveal anything, got it?”
“Yes sir,” I said, happy to have a supreme strategist on my side.
Moments later, I settled my lanky body deep into the low-slung driver’s seat. I felt as if I were taking charge of a rocket ship. Gina sat on the other side of a massive center console that contained temperature and radio controls worthy of a jet, as well as a gear shifter covered in walnut veneer. I pictured myself wearing a leather jacket and driving gloves; a person outside the car would never think the transmission was automatic. They’d never guess I didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift.
Confined to a small space with Gina, I became conscious of her perfume, her layers of make-up and the fact that she was chewing gum. Much of what I saw over the console was her bare knees and a substantial amount of thigh. It was hard to concentrate on the performance of the car.
“How long have you been selling cars?” I asked.
“This is my first day. Am I doing okay?” Her tone was so hesitant and vulnerable I felt sorry for her.
“Of course,” I said.
Actually, I had a rush of thoughts in that moment. First, I couldn’t believe my car salesperson was younger, less experienced and more insecure than I. Next, I pictured Barry talking her into selling the car practically for free. Finally, I knew I should listen to the engine, feel the steering, and consider the car’s responsiveness. But my first and second considerations dominated the third.
After we returned from the test drive, I felt I had to buy the car just for Gina’s sake, so her career would start off successfully. I gestured a thumbs-up to Barry. Without the benefit of the ride, of course, Barry had no such inclination.
“The price of $12,000, you realize, is out of the question,” he said, as we settled into a cubicle containing Gina’s small desk. She sat on one side, and we sat opposite her on metal chairs.
“Really?” she said, sounding hurt. “I’ll try my best.”
“Aren’t there other colors?” asked Barry though he knew black was fine with me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There are only two.”
“And plastic panels don’t seem very safe,” he said. “The car shouldn’t be priced higher than ten thousand dollars.”
Gina looked dismayed, as though she were about to cry.
“You know,” continued Barry, as he started to stand up. “I think we’ll keep looking.”
“Wait, wait,” said Gina. “Let me talk to the manager.”

*****

As Gina departed, Barry settled back into his seat like a lawyer who’d just summarized a winning case to the jury.
“You want the car, right?” he asked me. “She’s gonna give it to you for under eleven.”
“Sure,” I said, impressed. I knew that without Barry, I probably would have offered to pay $11,800.
Gina returned and showed a slip of paper with the number $11,750.
“Gina,” said Barry. “You’ll have to do a lot better than that. Go ask the manager for the real price.”
Gina departed again. When she returned, she looked shaken.
“My manager’s really angry,” she said. “I’m not supposed to ask him again without a counter-offer.”
“He’ll get over it,” said Barry. “What’s the price now?”
“He said I can do $11,500, but not a penny less,” she said.
“Okay, here’s a counter-offer,” said Barry. “$10,500.”
Gina looked stricken. She walked towards the manager’s office like a prisoner to the gallows.
“I’d pay $11,500,” I whispered to Barry.
“I know,” he said. “But let’s see how low she’ll go.”

*****

Unable to form a single cogent thought about how to proceed during ten minutes on the shoulder of the Turnpike, the arrival of a State Policeman was a great relief to me. Someone must have notified him of the disabled car. The officer parked behind my car, his lights flashing, and approached as though I were a criminal. Once he saw I was merely a likely lemon-law victim, he relaxed.
“Sure is a pretty little car,” he said.
“Can’t judge a book by its cover,” I said.
“I’ll call a tow-truck,” he said.
“I have Triple A,” I said. “I think they provide free towing.”
“Not on the Turnpike they don’t,” said the officer. “You have to use our contract tower.”
He handed me a business card for “Elite Towing Services.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Sounds expensive.”
“Yep,” said the officer. “Call them in the morning and tell them where to deliver the car. I’ll drive you to a payphone now so someone can pick you up.”
“Thanks,” I said.

*****

Gina appeared to be trembling when she returned. She held out a piece of paper on which was scrawled in angry, male handwriting: “$11,250. Take it or leave.”
“Is that how to address a customer?” asked Barry.
“My boss is really angry,” said Gina, not looking up.
“We’ll leave,” said Barry.
I would have been delighted to pay $11,250, but I remembered my father’s scorched earth strategy when he had negotiated for my Corolla. Although unpleasant, we had ended up with the car and several hundred additional dollars in savings.
“Don’t worry,” said Barry, when we reached the parking lot. “Walk slowly. You’ll see. She’ll chase after us in a minute.”
We dawdled. We stalled. No Gina.
“I’m impressed,” said Barry. “I guess we’ll have to actually drive home and make the deal over the phone. They’ll need a couple hours to prepare the car, anyway.”
Barry’s confidence buoyed me. He had a feel for the process. I pictured myself in the Fiero by that evening, driving around the neighborhood like the Grand Prix, people looking and pointing in admiration.
When we arrived home after a twenty-minute ride, Barry handed me the phone.
“You seal the deal, counselor,” he said. “She’ll take eleven.”
I dialed the number and asked for Gina.
“Who’s calling?” asked the receptionist.
“Stuart Sanders,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist. “She can’t come to the phone. She’s busy.”
“Will you have her call me back?” I asked.
“Um, no,” said the receptionist. “She’s not allowed to talk to you or your brother.”
I hung up and related the conversation to Barry.
“This is outrageous,” he said. Not one to miss a battle, he said: “Let’s go!”
Barry and I headed back to the dealership.
“We won’t be treated this way,” Barry said, as he drove.
I don’t recall the rest of our conversation, but it consisted of an odd mix of disbelief, anger and respect for the toughness of the negotiations. When we arrived at the entrance a large, middle-aged man blocked our way.
“You’re not welcome here,” he said.
Shocked, Barry asked: “You are telling me you won’t sell us a car?”
“That’s correct,” said the man. “And if you don’t leave right now, I’ll call the police and tell them you’re trespassing.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this at a car dealer,” said Barry.
“There’s a first for everything,” said the man.
Shaken, we retreated to our car.
“You might have to check out a dealership in North Jersey,” said Barry to me. “They’ll probably have better prices anyway.”
“Yes,” I said. “That was weird.”
“The weirdest,” said Barry.
*****
We speculated for the rest of the weekend about what had happened. Was that particular dealership the only one in the world where customers paid list price? Was Gina the owner’s daughter or in some other way intimately connected? I didn’t think Barry had said anything offensive or abusive. I knew I hadn’t. What transpired at that dealership still remains a mystery.
As soon as I returned home I went to the bustling, local Pontiac dealership. I struck a deal with a disinterested, toupee-topped salesman for $11,200 without theatrics. When I told him what had happened in suburban Philadelphia, he just shrugged. “They probably don’t do much volume,” he said. “We got lots of cars.”
Even as I drove my new car off the lot, I realized I’d made a mistake. Throughout the year of my ownership, I experienced soreness because my neck never adjusted to the forty-five degree angle necessary for me to climb into the Fiero. The slightest miscalculation often resulted in bashing my head against the roof frame. After two months, the door locks malfunctioned. After four, one headlight failed to open. I began to notice that the one-headlight-up, one-headlight-down status typified other Fiero’s I saw on the street.
To the uninformed public, the Fiero looked as sharp as advertised.
“Hey buddy, wanna race?” said a teenager at a stoplight, while he revved the engine of his Camaro. I just smiled and stared ahead.
By that time, several months after my purchase, I understood the Fiero wouldn’t stand a chance in a drag race. Its power rivaled a low-level Buick’s more than a sports car. On occasion, a sound signaled the loosening of some essential component under the hood. Prior to owning a Fiero, I knew nothing about the various wires, pipes and belts that represented the guts of an engine. To my dismay and amazement, I could now distinguish the squeal of a loose fan belt from the grinding of a transmission. As I suspected, the complete detachment of the fan belt is what landed me on the shoulder that evening.

*****

While I waited to be picked up by a friend from a motel just off the exit in Ridgefield, NJ, I resolved to dump the Fiero as soon as possible. I realized the outward appearance of the car didn’t make up for its debilitating lack of dependability. Like a woman wearing flats because stiletto heels killed her feet, I craved a car that would just take me where I needed to go. Having decided to embrace dullness over what I now knew to be false pizzazz, I traded with little negotiation for a four-door, navy blue Ford. No one would crane a neck when I drove by. No longer the envy of teenagers and other uninformed car enthusiasts, I resumed total anonymity on the roads.

*****
Postscript: Two months after I said good riddance to my Fiero, a drunk driver plowed into the rear of my Ford at forty miles per hour while I waited at a red light. My car was totaled but I survived with just a minor bruise and a cut from flying glass. Had I been in my tiny two-seater, it’s fair to say this story would not have been written.


ELECTION SEASON

My earliest political recollection, from when I was several months short of my fourth birthday, is of the 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon. My parents and at least one of my older brothers gathered in the downstairs recreation room to watch it on our black-and-white, rabbit-eared television. While they sat on a low-slung couch about fifteen feet from the television, I set up my toy trucks and soldiers on the green and white-checked linoleum floor in between.
Why, I’m not sure, but in the presence of ardent Kennedy supporters, I took the contrarian position of rooting for Nixon. The same impulse made me root for the Cubs in a household of Phillies’ fans and for the Cowboys where only Eagles flew. Perhaps a child psychologist might have a theory. It can’t be because Nixon looked like a nicer guy.
Eventually, I gravitated into my family’s progressive orbit and supported Gene McCarthy’s insurgency against Johnson in 1968, McGovern in 1972, and so on. Attending a Quaker school from 1968-1974 reinforced my support of basic positions that fell most often in the following categories: anti-war, pro-equal rights, pro-environment. When bombing took place in Laos and Cambodia in 1970, a vague distaste for then-President Nixon hardened into outright revulsion. By the time of the 1973 Watergate hearings, which I watched with fascination, he had become the evil bogeyman that would persist in my mind and that of millions of others.
Through it all, and in spite of my father’s ardent distaste for politicians of every stripe, including the ones he supported, I found politics interesting. When I went to college in 1974, I planned to major in political science. Though English literature became my primary field of study, I completed enough courses in such mind-numbing subjects as “Structures of State and Local Government” to qualify for a double major. I still believed our efforts to govern ourselves, as well as those who did the governing, were worthy of respect.

*****
It used to be that the difference between Democrats and Republicans most often had to do with tax and spending philosophy. Obviously, there were individual variations, and that was the beauty of it. A Republican like Lowell Weicker or Arlen Spector could appeal to Democratic voters. A Democrat like George Wallace could be as despicable as a banana republic dictator.
Fast forward four decades. It’s virtually impossible to have enthusiasm for a single candidate on either side. They aren’t normal people. They are narcissists or blowhards or exhibitionists or liars or multi-millionaires who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Most likely, they are all of the above. What happened? Is it the 24-7 cable news cycle? Is it the special interests? Is it the unlimited campaign money?
When Nixon and Kennedy debated, one could reasonably believe that some insight into their positions might be gleaned. Doubtless the candidates of that era prepared and practiced. But did they merely memorize talking points? If they did, at least it seemed possible the talking points were their own. They weren’t provided a script by a national organization funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers.
Now, one party can generally be described as feckless and incompetent. The other is heartless and willfully ignorant. When I go to the polls in two weeks, my senatorial choice in North Carolina is between two candidates: one is a wealthy woman who promises adherence to the middle, as though mediocrity is a virtue, and who has accomplished exactly … I can’t think of a thing; and, the second is a corporate-owned cipher who brags about having led the charge to dismantle educational spending, environmental protections, voting rights and who opposes freedom of choice for women and gays. Oh, and did I mention he denies climate change and supports carrying guns at the State Fair?
I’ll vote for the woman, since she’s too ineffectual to harm most of the things I favor. I have no hope she’ll advance an important cause. For instance, she won’t lead the charge to establish something like the EPA. She won’t threaten her corporate contributors with something like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. She won’t initiate a major health initiative like the War on Cancer. She won’t figure out how to peacefully desegregate schools or achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with a sworn enemy. She won’t preside over a radical societal change like Title IX, which ended gender bias in universities. In other words, I’ll vote for someone without the slightest hope she will turn out to be a visionary, like, it’s incredibly, unbelievably, amazingly painful to say, Richard Nixon.


OUT OF CHARACTER, OUT OF LUCK

Anyone who has watched a soccer game knows the goaltender’s job involves intermittent spasms of exertion followed by long stretches of inactivity. Only the goalie of a completely overmatched team is active enough to be physically worn out. Mentally, however, the position is exhausting. It’s essential to remain focused no matter how far away the ball, so decision-making and reactions are sharp, when necessary. Unfortunately, early in one particular game in my first season as goaltender for Dickinson College, my thoughts flitted like flies due to repeated fouls I endured from the opposing Number Nine. As a result, the only punch I’ve ever thrown began to percolate.
Until that fateful day, violence played no part in my life. Some credit is due my temperament, I suppose, but my parents deserve primary credit. They created a safe environment. My father, in particular, disdained physical confrontation. He most often expressed his distaste in connection with sports, a field that held great interest to me, but none to him.
“Animals,” he grumbled each time the television news showed a highlight. Though otherwise respectful and engaged in my activities, my father ignored my near-obsessive participation in baseball and soccer, and left my mother the task of taking me to and from practices and games. Football and ice hockey didn’t appeal to me, fortunately, or we might have argued. Although my father didn’t exercise a veto of my choices, if he had, I wouldn’t have played anything more physical than table tennis.
To put this in perspective, my father never saw me play soccer in middle school or high school. He saw only parts of several baseball games over the years. The only athlete’s name he seemed to know, from local news reports, was the Phillies’ 1970’s-era catcher, Bob Boone. My father liked to repeat his name as fast as possible, as though the resulting sound proved his point.

*****

The first time he fouled me, Number Nine kicked my ankle. It struck me as accidental and not extraordinary, given the context. I’d gone to my knees to gather a low shot and he arrived hoping for a rebound. He even mumbled: “Oops, sorry.”
The second time, only moments later, Number Nine nicked my nose with his forearm after I had caught a routine shot. The referee called a foul and, again, Number Nine said: “Sorry.” I glared at him as formidably as possible to try to convey: “Don’t do that again.”
Only a few minutes later, I dove to block a bouncing shot with my chest, and pounced on the rebound. Enough of an interval passed for me to stand up with the ball in my arms when my tormentor plowed into me from behind and caused me to fall to the ground. The referee ran over and showed Number Nine a yellow warning card, and said to him, “One more and you’re out of the game.” Again, my apologetic opponent said “Sorry” as he jogged away.
“Quit saying sorry and quit doing it!” I blurted to his departing back, as I wiped grass and dirt off my forehead. He turned and glared at me as though there were something wrong with me, as though I should be more understanding, as though the opportunity to be a human piñata was an honor he had bestowed upon me. I thought I detected a smirk. I recall having felt disbelief mixed with anger, my heart pounding.

*****

My consolation was that Number Nine had been warned and certainly wouldn’t hit me again, lest he be thrown out. For fifteen or twenty uneventful minutes, I focused exclusively on the flow of play. After I caught a slow, non-threatening shot, to my amazement, Number Nine ran alongside me and swung his elbow into my shoulder. Instinctively, I shifted the soccer ball to my left hand and flung my entire body, led by my right hand, at his receding head. I felt only air and a few strands of his hair on my knuckles. I nearly fell over from the effort. Simultaneous with the referee’s shrill whistle I looked up to see my father, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, standing just ten feet behind the goal, having chosen to surprise me by driving over two hours to the game.
Here I was, his son, away from his home for just one month, trying to deliver a knockout punch like Muhammed Ali, though not nearly as gracefully or successfully. The referee arrived to wave a yellow card in my face and then turned to Number Nine with a red card, ejecting him. Thus, justice was done, but my father received my explanation over dinner with evident skepticism.
“This is what they teach you at college?” he finally asked.
For certain, nothing he saw that day changed his opinion about sports.


IRONING

Preparing to go out to dinner with our daughter, Sarah, her boyfriend, Matt, and his parents for the first time, I am more careful than usual in selecting my outfit. Though assured the restaurant is “extremely casual,” I garner my wife, Katie’s approval by selecting long pants instead of shorts, shoes instead of tennis shoes, and a brand-new polo shirt instead of a golden oldie.
“This is nerve-wracking,” I say. “It’s like going out on a first date.”
“That’s silly,” says Katie. “It’s just dinner.”
“This is a rite of passage,” I say. “We’re now old enough to meet our kids’ romantic partners’ parents with all kinds of freight attached. We might know these people for the rest of our lives.”
“I hate to tell you, but we’ve been old enough for a long time,” she says.
Fresh out of the package, my purple (Sarah’s favorite color) shirt is
creased.
“This needs ironing,” I say, hoping Katie will volunteer.
She doesn’t bite. “Make sure you use steam,” she says.
lroning is a rare activity in my life. Several times a year, I enter the laundry room, open the ironing board, and semi-competently run the hot appliance over a shirt or two. I’ve never mastered the liquid, however. I’m always wondering about technique: “Do I pour water on the shirt? What button do I press to get steam?” lf only I’d paid attention as a child, I would be an expert.

Throughout my early-mid 1960’s childhood, on Tuesdays, Naomi presided over our basement rec room. She was what was called “an ironing lady.” Though she was probably in her forties, I always thought she was elderly, since she stood on solid, black “old-lady shoes” and wore compression stockings that bunched up around her shins. Heavyset and dark-skinned, Naomi also apparently wore a variety of wigs. I would never have noticed such a detail if her style, color and length didn’t change nearly every week.
We’d had a succession of “cleaning ladies” when I grew up. We weren’t wealthy to the extent that we had full-time help, but it was typical in our middle class neighborhood to have a once-a-week cleaner. Among the several I remember were toothless Essie, who could not be understood; beautiful-accented Pearl from Trinidad who was incredibly kind; and, Corinne, black as night, who always came to work in a meticulous uniform of white stockings and black top fringed with white lace, and who proudly told us she’d once worked at a Dupont estate in Delaware.
Each of these women, and numerous others whose names I cannot recall, moved in and out of our lives within a year or two. The one constant was Naomi. She held dominion over the basement; at least, that’s how I viewed it.

When I came home from school on Tuesdays, I opened the basement door and went down to say “hello.” Once, when I was six or seven, I forgot to do so, and Naomi came upstairs, found me in the kitchen, and asked: “What, you’re too busy to say ‘hello’? You’re too important?” I never forgot again.
Visible at the bottom of the stairs was a green and white-checkered linoleum floor, a low, seven-foot ceiling, knotted-wood paneling, several old couches, and a black-and-white television with rabbit ears, that often failed to hold the picture horizontal. In the middle of the room, presiding over the ironing board, with a pile of clothing nearby, stood Naomi. While she worked, the iron hissed and sighed, like an old, asthmatic man struggling to reach the top of a flight of stairs.
I don’t recall many specifics from our conversations. Naomi asked me about school. I probably volunteered information about my little league baseball team. But I do recall she had opinions. Though she watched soap operas on the old television much of the time, she also watched news programs.
“That Nixon, he’s a nasty one,” she said.
Another time, she declared: “Vietnam is a waste of our young men.”
I’d never heard a cleaning lady offer an opinion on a subject not related to grease removal or vacuuming. I respected Naomi for her outspokenness.

The only gripe I had with Naomi concerned coffee ice cream, a staple of my diet. My favorite brand was Breyer’s, and we usually had a container in the freezer. Every Tuesday, I noticed, the half-gallon took a significant hit. When I was about eight, one Tuesday morning before I left for school, I built a barricade in the freezer around a brand-new ice cream carton. It was the first thing I checked when I returned home that afternoon. As I’d feared, Naomi had managed to remove the ice cube trays, packages of chicken and other food I’d placed in its way, found the ice cream, and made a monstrous gouge in the block.
Since I was always at school or camp when Naomi had lunch, I didn’t know if my mother had told her to help herself to the contents of the refrigerator, or just dessert. All I knew is I was angry Naomi felt entitled to systematically root through our freezer to get at “my” ice cream. I knew she knew that I had tried to hide the ice cream. Yet, she’d intentionally defied me. I recall our conversation that day was short and strained.

When I was ten or eleven, a transit strike hobbled Philadelphia’s buses. The first week, Naomi didn’t come to work. But the second week, with a pile of dirty clothing growing unmanageable, I overheard my mother arrange a taxi to pick up Naomi. At the end of the day, when it was time for my father to take Naomi home, I asked to go along. From the back seat, I watched wide-eyed as we traveled to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. The row houses were tiny and the side streets so thin only one car at a time could fit.
“Make sure your door is locked,” said my father, at one point, his words hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
There were bars on every corner and men hanging around, smoking and drinking out of bottles barely concealed by paper bags. I recall being petrified we would suffer a flat tire from the pot-holes and trolley tracks that blighted the streets.
Naomi stared straight ahead. The ride might only have taken twenty minutes, but it felt like hours in the silence. Finally, pointing to the right, she said, “That’s it. Turn there.”
My father carefully swung into a dimly-lit street. Midway to the other end, Naomi said: “That’s good. Thank you.” She got out, and we watched Naomi slowly climb a flight of stairs and disappear behind a small, wooden door. Several of the neighboring houses were boarded-up.
“Do you want to move to the front seat?” asked my father.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t mind it back here.”
What I really meant was: “I’m afraid to step out of the car.

Naomi continued to work for my parents until I went to college, though her visits were less frequent. My mother said she drifted out of our lives due to health issues. I’d looked at her more sympathetically after that ride to her home. It’s not that I wasn’t aware her circumstances were difficult, it’s just hard to picture for a youngster without actually witnessing it. Nothing really changed in our conversations as I matured; but I never attempted to hide the ice cream again.