Archives for category: perspective

SPECIAL DELIVERY

 

Due to equal parts nostalgia and habit, I subscribed to the local newspaper when I bought a new home last year. It is tossed from a car, shrouded in plastic, to the end of my driveway. Only two or three other homes in my community are similarly barraged, a far cry from the uniformity of newspaper saturation in not-so-distant memory.

A man named Calvin delivers the papers, usually. Most days, he arrives before I am awake. I first communicated with him directly only because I called the circulation department to advise that my Sunday paper had not arrived for the second time in a month, and an exasperated representative said: “Here’s Calvin’s number. He just gets angry when we call. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”

This suggestion seemed strange.

I asked: “Do you think a customer should confront someone who visits his home every day? And should you really have a hostile deliveryman?”

“Oh, he’s not mean,” said the representative. “He’s just ‘different.’ We don’t have many deliverymen these days. We have to use who’s available.”

 

*****

 

When I was little, in early 1960’s West Philadelphia, a slew of delivery and service people were connected with our household. As such, they were tangentially connected to me. As to newspapers, my family received the “Inquirer” every morning and the “Bulletin” every evening. I never met or even saw the delivery persons. I’m not sure they angled for year-end tips the way they might now with holiday cards accompanied by self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Paper routes were profitable.

Less anonymously, a man named Mr. Tribble cut our lawn throughout spring and summer and raked leaves in autumn. A woman named Naomi ironed our shirts and sheets once a week. A farmer named Mr. Abba brought milk and eggs. A franchisee of “Charles Chips” brought snacks. Mr. Davis washed the windows each spring. Mr. Brown failed to complete necessary repairs. And a succession of women including, but not limited to, Essie, Pearl, Gina and Jasmine pushed mops and vacuums with varying degrees of diligence.

Looking at this list, it seems I lived in a veritable Downton Abbey. But, in reality, we were modestly above “middle class” and lived in a comfortable, but unremarkable leafy neighborhood. My father chose to work seven days-a-week at his clothing store and, to make up for his lack of assistance on the home front, I suppose, afforded my mother the means to employ “help.”   Except for vying with Naomi for the Breyers’ coffee ice cream in our freezer, I rarely interacted with the service people beyond a nod or to say “hi.”

 

*****

Upon answering the phone, Calvin deployed alternative pleading like an experienced defense attorney.

“I’m sure you got the paper,” he said

“No, I looked all over. No paper,” I said.

“Maybe somebody stole it,” he suggested.

“I’m sure no one stole my paper,” I said.

“Well, my wholesaler didn’t give me enough copies this morning,” said Calvin.

“The wholesaler?” I said.

“Yeah, and I had car trouble, too,” said Calvin.

I recognized there was no point in expressing skepticism or being angry. “In the future, I just want the paper to come,” I said.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin. “I won’t miss again.”

 

*****

 

By 1974, when I left for college, most of the characters had disappeared, except for a weekly “cleaning” woman, the deliverer of the morning newspaper, and Mr. Tribble’s son, who had inherited his father’s lawn-cutting business. In just ten years, a revolution like the present-day Amazon phenomenon seemed to have wiped out such service providers, at least for homeowners who were not conspicuously wealthy. Supermarkets provided eggs, milk and cookies. The evening paper had gone bankrupt. Window cleaners and handymen were scarce.

 

*****

 

The next morning, I opened the front door intending to walk to the driveway and nearly tripped over a pile that included not only the local paper, but also a New York Times, a Wall Street Journal, and another local paper, the “Herald.” This abundance continued for a week. One day, Calvin included a Barron’s, another day the Financial Times. I couldn’t keep up. My reading area resembled a tornado site.

I called Calvin again.

“Thank you for all the papers. I appreciate the extras. But I can’t read that much. The local paper is enough.”

I didn’t tell him I’d already transitioned to reading the NY Times on-line. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Gotcha,” said Calvin.

“And you really don’t have to get out of your car and place it at the door. I’m happy to pick it up from the driveway,” I said.

“Are you sure?” asked Calvin.

“I’m sure,” I said.

“You’re great,” said Calvin.

I hung up the telephone basking in the approval of my newspaper deliveryman. Though I’d never met Calvin in person, I felt like I knew him. But I was also questioning if I WANTED to interact with my newspaper deliverer.

 

*****

 

Not long after, I went out one morning to retrieve the paper and found none. I wondered, as I stood, empty-handed, not for the first time, if continuing my subscription was worthwhile. My mind reviewed well-rehearsed arguments: “I can read any paper I want on-line for less than paper delivery.” “Less paper and gasoline is better for the environment.” “I won’t have to call Calvin anymore.”

At that moment, a rattletrap SUV raced down the street, its fenders scratched and dented. Exhaust belched from the rear. Calvin had arrived.

“Sorry I’m late,” he shouted, as he pulled up.   “Sorry. Car Trouble.”

Seeing the car, I believed him.

Calvin appeared to be of an indeterminate age between forty and sixty-five. A gold front tooth nestled among several open spaces. He hadn’t shaved in awhile.

“Are you Sanders?” he asked through the open driver-side window, as the car idled like an asthmatic.

“Yes,” I said, taking the paper from him.

“I need a new car,” he said. “But since I bought this damned paper route….”

“You bought it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Calvin, a far-off look in his rheumy eyes. “Thought it was a good deal.”

I immediately contemplated the last person who’d invested in a Moto-Foto franchise around 2005 or, as the expression goes, “Whoever bought the last ticket on the Titanic.” I didn’t know what to say.

“Maybe it will get better,” was the best I could muster, my tone and forced smile almost certainly giving away my doubtfulness.

“Don’t know,” said Calvin, slowly shaking his head. “Don’t know ‘bout that.”

No words filled the moment, just car exhaust.

“Well, nice to finally meet you,” I said.

“Yes, “ said Calvin. “Have a good day.”

He drove off. One thing had become clear: I will continue to subscribe to the local paper for however long it lasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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GRANDPARENTHOOD

 

My next job description in life’s journey appears to be that of “grandparent.” In a matter of months I expect the title along with the attendant salary. Oh, there is none? Well, I’m not surprised. In order to succeed, I will rely upon my experience as a parent and also as a sort of grandparent to three dogs. I’m reasonably confident I would get good references from my three children, and I’m absolutely confident in the canine corps.

 

*****

 

I’ve not reflected upon being a grandparent prior to learning “it’s happening.” This approach is consistent with my attitude towards parenthood, to marriage and to my former career. Some say this is “not normal.” Apparently, I have a natural tendency to conserve brain cells. Yet, when the bell has rung, I’m proud to say each endeavor has been successful. The kids are healthy, happy and “off the payroll;” the marriage is nearly thirty years old; and, the career didn’t need to extend past my 40’s.

How did I do it? I cite adherence to three basic tenets, namely: the best action is often inaction; if at first you do not succeed, quit; and, no good deed goes unpunished.

My wife, Katie, an ultra-diligent sort of person, has often taken issue with all three pillars of my philosophy.   Probably in conjunction with her admirable example, we raised successful kids. In addition, as I’ve always admitted with regard to my career path, I had a lot of LUCK.

 

*****

 

Grandparenthood looms with a tinge of bittersweet. When I became a parent, in my thirties, mortality never crossed my mind. Cinematically speaking, if I’d considered my expected view of my children’s lives, (which I did not) I would have realized I might not make it to the final credits, but most of the good parts would be seen. To become a grandparent in one’s sixties is different. Realistically, I hope to be functioning well enough to enjoy some high school graduations and, perhaps, see a college graduation or two. Weddings? If I’m there, I may be wielding a walker and brandishing a bib.

How to process this? Clearly, I will have to focus on enjoying the time I do have with the grandchildren. Some grandparents emphasize their favorite aspect to be: “At the end of the visit or activity, you give them back.” But there must be more to it than that – a second opportunity, perhaps, to enjoy youth sports with less heart-pounding seriousness; or a chance to see new sites and activities that didn’t appeal to my own children.

Another mental hurdle is my sense that grandchildren cannot possibly be as enjoyable as grand-dogs.   My mortality is not in play with regard to the dogs, due to their shorter life spans and presumed obliviousness to mine, and they always seem thrilled to see me. The dogs are unfailingly cheerful and undemanding in circumstances that human offspring are not. True, they need to be taken outside in any weather to relieve themselves, but changing a soiled baby diaper is not exactly a pleasure.

 

*****

 

If I accept that I have aptitude to be a successful grandparent, I must also wonder how much of that aptitude will be tapped. When it came to parenthood Katie and I operated on the basis of “all hands on deck.” If assistance was available, we availed. Grandparents’ involvement, however, is measured by a critical intermediary layer. Will our input be valued by our children and/or their spouses?

We have experience and they do not. Yet, there is a tendency for every young parent to believe they know what’s best in every situation. A lot has changed since Katie and I felt certain we made all the right choices. Now there are movie screens in cars, I-pads and computers everywhere, smart-phones. My interests will skew more analog — a walk in the woods, a simple game of catch. Delicate negotiations with the parents may be necessary. A bitten tongue may be essential.

 

*****

 

Katie and our daughter, Sarah, were recently slated to enjoy a mother-daughter day at a Disney musical production of Beauty and the Beast. The animated version was a staple of Sarah’s childhood circa 1993-1996, ages four-seven. Sarah didn’t feel well so I filled in and found myself nearly the only male in attendance not describable as a father, grandfather, or supremely unhappy little brother.

Pouring into the theatre were excited little girls in gowns and tiaras. Several sported gossamer wings. The production was splendid and, I must admit, I enjoyed seeing the inevitable happy ending. It didn’t hurt that the Beast’s ultimate triumph was to throw the bad guy, Gaston, over the wall of the castle. Gaston reminded me of someone much in the news, preening in front of his mirror, flexing his muscles and abusing even his own sycophantic henchmen.

Most important for me, I had a chance to savor the show as seen through the eyes of hundreds of enthralled little girls. When Sarah watched the tape three or four times a week back in the day, I doubt I was enthused. I hope she never noticed me roll my eyes when she asked to see the tape again. From a young parent’s busy perspective, those hours and years seem like they will never end.

Unexpectedly seeing the show offered me the opportunity for a healthy perspective to approaching grandparenthood. Embrace the moments you NOW know are not forever.

 

 

 

 


RECENT IMPROVEMENTS

 

The election season shows the value and even the NECESSITY of such technological advances as the DVR and, in its absence, the humble mute button.

 

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Thanks to them I have not yet endured the entirety of a single political advertisement. I began to ponder what other developments in the last quarter century have improved my life.

 

The first two I thought of are in the realm of food, namely: seedless grapes and watermelons. I’ve found the latter may represent a sacrifice in terms of sweetness but, overall, still an improvement.

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GPS devices strike me as wonderful products, helpful without a downside. In a low-tech sort of way, “Post-it” notes are helpful.

 

Unknown-2.jpeg At the other end of the spectrum are personal computers. A related development that strikes me, at least, as ambivalent, is the smart phone. Do they make life better? Or is constant connectedness a scourge?   Doubtless they are convenient, but they are also intrusive and dangerous when viewed in the context of distracted drivers or pedestrians.

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I can’t think of a downside in caller I.D., unless one misses the frisson of suspense in picking up a telephone “unprotected.” For me, Facebook and its ilk are in the “mixed blessing” department. I recognize the joy of those who “stay in touch” with their thousand closest friends. I even succumb myself every week or two just for a peek. But at the risk of sounding like a hopeless curmudgeon, after five or ten minutes the vapidity sends my finger to the “X” button. Still, I admit it’s an easy way to KIT.

 

Doubtless there are thousands of other developments, big and small, that were barely imaginable when I was a child, that now improve my life. I’ve not even touched on the realms of medicine, science or transportation.   Some readers may view hover boards as modern miracles. How about mountain bikes? High-end tennis strings? Yoga pants?

 

I invite readers to weigh in on the most important developments they enjoy. But for the next two weeks, I’m satisfied to have my mute button and a DVR.

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CHEF SANDERS

 

We’ve been invited to a dinner party this evening, and I’ve been asked to make my famous cheese pie for dessert. Technically, it’s a “sour cream cheesecake” and derives from pages 611-612 of the 1948 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.   Few of my fans know that. They believe (or claim to believe) that I’ve created the recipe through decades of trial and error. Or, perhaps, they believe it comes from a long line of family pastry recipes. Uncomfortable living a lie, but not so uncomfortable that I would tell them directly, I write this post to blow my own cover.

 

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*****

The culinary arts are not a field in which I’ve excelled. Though pretty solid in breakfast options, e.g., French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, my greatest skill in the estimation of my children is the ability to spread butter and jelly evenly on a piece of toast. All three lauded my expertise when they lived at home. Did they simply feign enthusiasm to extract additional before-bed snacks? Is that a cynical question? No, I believe I truly am gifted at spreading. Still, their flattery highlighted the lack of other tasty arrows in my quiver. EXCEPT for the cheese pie.

Somehow, to the apparent joy and relief of my wife, Katie, every time we are invited to a dinner or party my cheese pie is requested as our contribution. Accordingly, we keep a supply of pie-crusts in the pantry. And I know where to find Breakstone sour cream and Philadelphia cream cheese in the local supermarket. (Only name brands suffice).  Has Katie created this demand with subtle hints to our hosts? Am I being cynical again?

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*****

 

My lack of development in the kitchen can probably be attributed to the model established by my father. Note that I did not say: “blamed.” He was, after all, a normal man of his era in the sense that he did not consider the kitchen to be his domain.   Plus, a child shouldn’t blame every shortfall on his parents any more than he should claim a child’s triumphs. Heaven knows I’m not implicated in my son’s gift for chemistry. Like me, my father had one specialty, namely: fresh-squeezed orange juice.

In my childhood recollection, my father used an ancient, hand-powered metal machine that looked like a combination of a water pump and an oil derrick to make delicious juice 365 days a year. More likely, there were times when oranges were not available, or we ran out. But memory sometimes gilds reality to the point of improbability. For this story, I’ll just go with it.

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Each morning, I arrived in the breakfast room to the sound of KYW News Radio in the background. Several steps away, in the kitchen, my father would be slicing four or five oranges in half and crushing them into juice. He would place the empty rinds in the previous day’s newspaper and fastidiously discard them in the trashcan. He then placed three glasses with bright orange nectar on the round breakfast table for me, my mother and himself.

We rarely spoke during this ritual except for him to express disgust at the odors that our cats, Farah and Cubbie, had produced in their litter boxes in the adjoining powder room. This communication by my father was non-verbal, along the lines of “Feh, eccch, phew.” My job was to empty the messes before sitting down to eat. My mother would typically be preparing eggs or toast or pancakes or assembling bowls of cereal.

 

*****

The 1960’s were a simpler time in many ways. Orange juice, for instance, was known as a pure pleasure. I enjoyed it; I expected it; I hadn’t yet learned to say: “But it has so much sugar,” as we do today. “Real” orange juice also didn’t yet come in a package; Minute Maid was only available in concentrated form and tasted far inferior. Dare I say I took my father’s efforts for granted?

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     When I returned home from college or law school a decade later, packaged orange juice had improved markedly. I noted that my father’s juice machine had migrated to the back of a drawer; he usually poured juice from a box by then. We all remarked at how “real” it tasted. Only now, four decades later, do I recognize we’d lost something special.

 

*****

 

Not all my cream cheese pies have been successful. Once, I forgot to add sugar. Another time, I absent-mindedly doubled the recipe and couldn’t figure out why the pie erupted volcanically all over the oven. Worst of all, I once mistook the cinnamon container (an ingenious ingredient I add between the cream cheese and sour cream layers) for a curry powder container. They look alike! Really, they do! The taste was… not so good.

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I’m still producing cream cheese pies even though we’ve deduced in recent years that I am lactose intolerant. This malady has caused my personal consumption to decline, though not to disappear.  After all, the chef must make sure his product is decent, right? But I’m less inclined to eat half a pie over a two-day period as I might have in the past.

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Today’s pie has turned out successfully. Per usual, I regret not having made a little mini-pie to enjoy at home tomorrow. Thinking of the thin legacy of Sanders men in the kitchen, I think I’ll go down the basement now and see if I can locate a box that holds the antique juicer. Damn the sugar. It’s time we experienced something delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rabble Rousing

I attended college four or five years too late to participate in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. And had I been at a hotbed of unrest, like Wisconsin or Columbia, it’s unlikely I would have led a sit-in at a dean’s office or stared down the National Guard. Still, in one college era controversy, I overcame my reticence to bear witness to epic events.
*****

Midway through my comfortable first year living in a leafy coed dorm at Dickinson College I learned, to my dismay, that sophomore men had to live in one of the ten houses comprising the fraternity quadrangle, whether or not they belonged to a fraternity. This system had developed in an era when near-unanimous fraternity membership prevailed. By 1975, however, things had changed. Dickinson’s male population split evenly between “Greeks” and independents.
Hostility festered between the two camps like an open wound. Greeks openly referred to independents as “geeks,” a term suggesting a circus freak. Independents showed their disdain for the inanities of “brotherhood” with imitations of secret handshakes and lingo. Fraternity members, for instance, scored life’s experiences on a spectrum from nega-dece (not decent) to dece (okay) to gungabo-dece (the best) and every sort of dece in between. To mock fraternity members was not even a challenge to my friends and me. We described everything, from classes to dinner vegetables, as somewhere on the dece scale. We called our fake fraternity Kappa Wu.
An undercurrent of tension permeated the College cafeteria where factions self-segregated at their unofficial, but unchanging tables, the locations handed down by generations of students. Similarly, in some classrooms, “brothers” sat among brothers and “independents” among independents. Segregation was pervasive, like at schools in the Jim Crow south, albeit without serious national significance. (For that matter, most of the few African-American students at Dickinson also sat at “their” tables in the cafeteria and self-segregated in classrooms, too.)
*****

I played on the soccer team. One fraternity, Phi Psi, dominated the program. Though I hadn’t participated in any social interactions to attract a bid, midway through my freshman year, Phi Psi invited me to join. Certainly, my receipt of a handwritten invitation occurred solely due to the likelihood I would be the goaltender for the next three years.
Fraternity life held no appeal to me. I had two real, biological brothers and found the concept of referring to near-strangers as my brothers to be silly. Also, I perceived no value to the fraternity system except as a cost-effective way to enjoy binge drinking.
A minimal drinker myself, I didn’t take the membership offer seriously. Plus, none of my quirky, socially awkward freshman friends had sought or received fraternity bids. Still, the night I failed to show up at midnight at the center circle of the soccer field to commence “pledging” passed with a realization: “This may become a struggle. Fraternity membership isn’t something I desire, but non-membership is a significant choice.”
*****

There were no immediate consequences to my decision. The spring, non-soccer semester proceeded peacefully. I hung out with my nerdy friends, and the fraternity guys were too busy indoctrinating their new members to pay attention to us. But my friends and I began to worry about where we would live as sophomores. We expected to be randomly assigned to whichever of the ten fraternity houses had empty bedrooms.
Later in the school year, after not establishing eye contact with me for several months, since my non-attendance at the initiation ceremony, the president of Phi Psi approached me in the hallway outside the cafeteria.
“Hey, Stu, how you doing?” said Neil S, friendly as could be.
“Okay,” I said. I thought I should explain. “Sorry about not accepting the bid, but my friends…”
“No need to explain, Stu. No problem at all. Let me offer you a proposition,” said Neil.
“Okay,” I said, wary.
Neil proceeded to explain that his “house” had seven empty “doubles” available for the next school year and “he’d be happy” if my friends and I would move in as a group.
“But why?” I asked.
“It’ll be like your own little fraternity,” he concluded, with a big smile. “And I’d rather have the gee… ah, guys I know rather than some random bunch of independents. You know, I’m sure you won’t be troublemakers.”
“Sounds interesting,” I said. “I’ll let you know.”
When I discussed it with them, my eight or ten friends jumped at the chance to cluster in one location. Several additional independents begged in, and I approached Neil a week later with a full roster of fourteen.
“That’s gungabo-dece,” said Neil.
*****
The following September, our group moved onto the second floor at Phi Psi. Like all the fraternity houses at Dickinson, Phi Psi had three floors. The bottom floor was the common space, including a “social” floor, a large bar and a television room. Neil assigned my group to the second floor, and fraternity members lived on the third floor.
For a week or two, the arrangement worked fine. The bedrooms were no worse than any other dorm. We watched television downstairs, if we chose, without overt hostility from the “brothers.” And the smell of spilled beer that pervaded the building seemed an authentic part of the college experience.
That all changed on October 1 when fraternity rush commenced, the intense period of partying when members indulged their addictions and recruited new members. Each weekend, loosely defined as Thursday through Sunday, a beer-soaked, music-blared bacchanalia took place just beneath our rooms. We weren’t welcome to attend the bashes but participated nonetheless by way of vibrating walls and floors. Our bathroom also was more convenient than the one on the third floor when partygoers needed emergency relief.
For several weeks, my friends groggily congregated in the hallway to lament the situation. We learned from other independents that the pattern was similar throughout the quadrangle. Most aggravating was that fraternity members who wanted to sleep or, God forbid, study, could do so in the relative, non-throbbing quiet of the third floor. Our floor served as their buffer.
“It’s horrible,” we concurred. “But at least it’s not personal or violent.”
That changed quickly during the spring. The new fraternity recruits, called “pledges,” began their indoctrinations. Among the tasks apparently assigned included rampaging through the second floor after midnight hooting, hollering and banging on doors.
Complaints lodged at the office of the Dean of Housing yielded no more than sympathetic nods and the sentiments: “Boys will be boys,” or “It’ll be over in just a few weeks.”
One night, when the door banging took place with metal baseball bats and several drunken pledges regurgitated on the hallway carpet, we finally acted. Ten independents, including myself, marched half a mile to the home of Sam Banks, the college president, coincidentally a proud Phi Psi alumnus. Declaring: “if we’re up, he’s going to be up,” we banged on his door. No one answered.
We did this the next couple of nights, too, with additional independents from other houses, now numbering over twenty. We wondered, with increasing frustration: “How do we get his attention?”
Two members of our group, CLW and MP, decided upon an inspired action I wouldn’t do myself, though I admit to having been sympathetic. When no one answered the door on the fourth night, they unzipped their pants and urinated into the college president’s mail-slot. The next night, they did the same. On the third such night, following their customary loud knocking and leaning on the doorbell, lights finally came on in the house. Bustling down the inside steps, while fastening the tie on his silk bathrobe, was Sam Banks, the President.
“Come in, come in,” he said, peering into the darkness.
Dr. Banks, a large man of about fifty, stood to the side with a look of amazement as our group, which had grown to nearly thirty students, entered. We stepped over the conspicuous, discolored floor in the foyer, and gathered in his living room.
“What can I do for you?” he said, as we stood awkwardly.
Several of my friends explained why we were there and indicated it was our intention to wake him each night we were awakened after midnight. To his credit, Dr. Banks listened with equanimity and nodded that he understood. No one mentioned the mail slot, of course. When the story concluded, he appeared downcast, but thoughtful:
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said. “The situation is unacceptable. We’ll figure something out. I’ll speak to the Dean of Housing first thing tomorrow.”
Our uncivil disobedience had apparently succeeded spectacularly, since news circulated through the cafeteria the next day that the College had established an “Emergency Task Force on Housing.” As a further indication that something was afoot, Phi Psi brothers glared at us with more hostile silence than usual. Relative quiet also prevailed on our floor from that night forward. When I passed Neil on the walkway to the house later that week, he shook his head.
“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” he said.
“Would it have helped?” I asked.
He paused for a moment.
“Probably not,” he said.
I waited for a moment, thinking he might offer some apology. He resumed walking.
*****

I attended several meetings of the housing task force on behalf of my friends. It consisted of faculty, administrators and student council members who represented the Greek system and independents, respectively. Impressive in their diligence, they produced a report before the end of the school year. They recommended an ingenious solution to the problem, namely: instead of having independents assigned to fraternity housing pay the college for their rooms, like every other student, the fraternities were required to pay for all their rooms and then seek reimbursement from individual residents. Therefore, if a fraternity with an empty bed could not entice an independent to occupy it, the fraternity absorbed the cost. A fraternity known to be hostile to independents would be unable to survive economically.
As a result, sophomore independents in subsequent years were pampered, relatively-speaking. The fraternities offered them third floor rooms, away from the noise, and also refrained from disturbing their sleep. Anecdotally, I heard that fraternity officers apologized if inebriated pledges became too rambunctious or belligerent. The entire balance of the relationship had changed for the better.
*****

Looking back on the experience, I’m pleased I participated in a cause that brought positive change. It benefitted the College, whose reputation has vastly improved, and also benefitted the individuals who spent their sophomore years in civilized circumstances, at least by college standards. I even think it benefitted fraternity members who learned to rein in their baser instincts. Instead of merely rolling over when pissed off, I’m happy I took action along with my friends, though I refrained from being an active, mail-slot pisser.


THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
*****
Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
*****
Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
*****
After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
*****
Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
*****
When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.


NOT MY FATHER’S VACATION

On our vacation in Costa Rica I feel my father’s presence. Since it’s twenty years since his death, his entry into my consciousness surprises me. In general, I’m not what one would call a “deeply spiritual” person. In fact, I’m pretty far to the other end of the spectrum. Yet, in separate reveries, there he was at the pool this morning, chatting amiably with the pool man. There he was last night at the restaurant, laughing with the waiters. There he was at a clothing store, turning over “the goods,” assessing the quality, checking the prices.
*****
My knowledge of my parents’ vacations is mostly secondhand or from photographs since I didn’t exist until my father was in his fifties. But to get him out of his beloved store, Lou Sanders Men’s Shop, required extreme patience on the part of my mother. Not only did my father protest how much “critical business” he would miss at the store and how much it would cost, but he also manifested his discomfort physically.
In anticipation of departing, his sciatic nerve often plagued his leg until he could barely walk. One time, arriving at the airport distressed, preoccupied with missing the action at the store , he slammed a car door on his own fingers. A nerves-induced case of Bell’s palsy collapsed half his face just before another trip, rendering my mother’s companion similar in appearance to “The Elephant Man.”
From my childhood years, I recall almost no loud disputes between my parents. This is not to say they didn’t disagree. It’s just that my father worked seven-days-a-week, and I rarely saw them interact except during dinner and an hour or two in front of the television in the evenings. In addition, my father’s argument style, which I’m told I’ve inherited, was not to engage verbally. He chose a more infuriating, passive-aggressive technique involving glances and grunts, subtle shifts of facial expressions, and seeming disinterest.
My impression is that my parents resolved things quietly, or not at all. The only exception in my memory is when my mother couldn’t get him to respond when she pressed for his availability for a long-overdue week away. While the ten-year-old me sat tensely on a couch in the living room, pretending to read, my mother raged louder and louder in the breakfast room until a slammed kitchen door, followed by silence and a quickly departing car, indicated she’d walked out.
Moments later, my father arrived in the room where I sat, picked up the newspaper, sat in the chair opposite me, and read. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was concerned I might never see my mother again. After several hours, she returned, and their trip was planned the next day as though nothing had happened.
Always, when my parents returned from their travels, whether to California, or Mexico, or Spain, my mother produced photographs and stories showing what a good time they had had. A picture of my smiling father, sitting in his buttoned–down white shirt atop a camel in Egypt, still highlights a wall in my mother’s home.
*****
Besides one or two day trips to Atlantic City that emerge without detail from the earliest fog of my memory, I traveled only twice with my father. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say he traveled only twice with me. The first trip, when I was about eight, was ninety minutes away to a Pocono resort called the Union House for a weekend. Upon reflection, “resort” may overstate the case. Little more than a rustic camp, the lodgings were more log cabin than hotel.
Still, at my age, I thought we were really “on vacation.” Though my father hated to GO on vacation, that’s different from BEING on vacation. Once there, he had fun. He shocked me by interacting with the strangers at our table during meals. He smiled. He flirted with young waitresses. He told jokes. Why, I wondered, had my mother had to plead so hard to make him come?
The Union House, now long defunct, grew out of a liberal political movement. I think most of the other guests were members of humble, low-wage labor unions. My mother had doubtless convinced my father to go due to its low room rates. The main hall, where all meals were taken, featured murals on the walls by Diego Rivera. Even as a child, I was aware of the “heroic working man” vibe. I’ve never forgotten the vibrant, larger-than-life depression-era art.
One evening at the Union House, after dinner, my father took me to see the food-related staff play basketball against the room cleaning-related staff. Though it was only a friendly game between summer-job employees, my young self viewed the players like NBA all-stars. I delighted to find myself beside my smiling father who’d never previously watched a minute of an athletic event with me without complaint.
*****
My second and final vacation with both my parents was in commemoration of my Bar Mitzvah in 1970. By definition, I had just turned thirteen. Not from a religious family, I broke my tutor’s heart when I said we were taking a trip after the ceremony.
“To the Holy Land?” asked Rabbi Schichtman, with anticipation.
“No, Puerto Rico,” I said.
From that trip, I recall that the flight was delayed on the tarmac in Philadelphia for an hour before take-off. Indicative of a long-ago era of air travel, the stewardesses (as they were then called) bestowed free drinks on adult passengers to make up for the disappointment. My father was in a jovial mood, polishing off two tiny bottles of vodka in front of my disbelieving eyes before noon.
Once we arrived in San Juan, my father was our hero. Having lived in Cuba for several years in the 1920’s, he spoke fluent Spanish. He handled every interaction with taxis, waiters, the hotel, vendors, and tour-guides. My mother and I didn’t always know what the conversations were about, but we saw a man in his element, glowing with bonhomie, relaxed.
Our last meal as a trio in Puerto Rico took place at a restaurant called “Sword and Sirloin.” I remember this otherwise tiny detail because its decor was medieval knights, a fascination of mine at the time. In each corner stood a suit of armor, emptily glowering at the seated patrons. We had a young waitress, incongruously dressed as a fourteenth-century wench in spite of her Puerto Rican heritage. My father, then in his mid-sixties, MY FATHER, had her laughing in stitches. It was unbelievable. When did he become so funny? When he interacted with strangers at the store, amusement rarely rose to the fore.
The only sad thing about that trip is that that dinner, on our fourth day, marked the end of the vacation “week” for my father. He just “had” to be back at the store for the upcoming weekend, even though a slower, bleaker time of year for a retail business than late January couldn’t be imagined. My mother and I completed the last three days of the vacation alone. We had a great time, and I have distinct memories of the time with her, but it wasn’t the same without our charming, Spanish-speaking expert and fixer.
*****
I can’t help but feel badly for what I perceived as my father’s excessive devotion to his store. Yes, he provided for us, but in his single-mindedness, he also deprived himself of joy and deprived his family of the chance to see him at his best.
Meanwhile, he’s a spirit hovering over the proceedings in Coco Beach. I’d love to have him here to talk to the taxi drivers. I’d love to have him here to haggle when we visit a souvenir shop. I’d love to have him walk outside with me and greet the pool men and landscapers. They are friendly, but our conversations don’t progress much beyond “Com estas?” (How are you?”) “Bien, gracias.” (Fine, thanks.) My father would have shocked and delighted them – no ordinary visitor, he’d be an easygoing man of the people – a role he played too rarely.