Archives for posts with tag: Coming of Age

TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT

For the first decade of my life, my haircuts took place at a local barbershop called “Dom’s.” Dom wore thick glasses though the ironic possibilities of his poor eyesight didn’t occur to me at the time. Early on, trying to avoid visits to Dom provoked ridiculous tantrums on my part. I professed to hate the itchiness of newly cut hair on my shoulders and neck. And I was uncomfortable due to Dom’s repeated complaints about the difficulty of cutting my hair.

“He’s got two holes in his head.   It’s hard to work around,” said Dom.

“You mean cowlicks?” asked my mother.

“Yes, I call them holes,” said Dom.

I didn’t realize the “holes” were two places in the back and top of my head where whorls circled. Most people have one such area, which is centered; when little, I had two and, because of Dom, I feared I had actual holes in my skull.

Dom was busy and did not accept appointments so I always had to wait. Therefore, I endured the fact that nearly all the adults in the waiting area smoked and the place reeked with an eye and nose-stinging stench. Adding to my discomfort, Dom’s selection of magazines featured racy covers, which embarrassed me at six or seven, sitting beside my mother. I literally couldn’t imagine what sorts of pictures were inside. By my teenage years, when I’d go to Dom’s alone, I could at least imagine the pictures, and I was curious, but I still couldn’t make myself look inside amidst a bunch of strangers.

*****

By the time I went away to college, in the mid-1970’s, hair cutting had given way to hair “styling.”   Salons for men, and coed establishments were common. Vidal Sassoon, a hairstylist, for instance, was a household name and ubiquitous on television and in print. When I returned home on break and learned that Dom had retired, to my amazement, I missed the familiarity of his shop and the predictable results.

At my older siblings’ urgings, I reluctantly accompanied my brother, David, to several different stylists over the years. Unlike Dom, in his white smock, these stylists wore huge jewelry, purple or blue hair and bizarre outfits. Getting a haircut was like visiting a fashion show, but not one to my liking.

Although, by the standards of the day, my hair wasn’t long it still topped out several inches above my skull. Inevitably, these stylists urged me to have “STYLE.” They dismissed the cut I’d been wearing since childhood, which included a part on the left side, and hair trimmed around, not over, my ears. Some wanted it to be longer; some wanted bangs and longer sideburns. All wanted to do away with the part.

“Your waves are special,” said one female stylist. “People would pay to have waves like these.”

“I guess I’m lucky,” I said, unimpressed.

“Can I tease them out?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what “teasing out” involved, but my answer was “No.”

Never knowing what the end result would be, I always tensed in a stylist’s chair, and my taciturn tone stifled most discussions. While my hair length shifted modestly through the decades, my cut never changed. Effectively, the only difference between Dom’s cuts in the 60’s and stylists’ cuts in the 70’s and early 80’s was the price, by several magnitudes. Luckily, as long as I was in college or law school, I enjoyed an almost total parental subsidy.

*****

I’d absentmindedly failed to get a haircut in the weeks leading up to our recent trip to Costa Rica. I knew that before we returned home, we were slated to attend a wedding in San Francisco. To describe conditions as humid in Playa de Coco would be understatement and the messiness of my hair was obvious. Accordingly, I agreed that a haircut in Costa Rica was in order – my wife, Katie, thought this was a simple matter. She didn’t know my hair-related history housed some anxieties.

Once I’d agreed to have my hair cut in Costa Rica, the issue became “where?” The barbershop in the small downtown area sits between several bodegas and a restaurant. When I passed by the first several times, thinking I might just pop in for ten minutes and get it over with, there were crowds of men hanging out. The television showed soccer games and the men sat around drinking beer and cheering. Worse even than cigarettes, the smell of cigars wafted through the air. I just couldn’t make myself walk in.

The days passed and Katie kept reminding me of my need for a haircut, even though seeing the mirror should have been sufficient. One day, we ran into a local friend, Lupita. She mentioned taking her son to get a haircut.

“Where does he go?” asked Katie.

“To a wonderful woman,” said Lupita.

“Where’s her shop?” asked Katie.

“In her house,” said Lupita.

“Would she do Stuart’s?” asked Katie.

“Why not?” said Lupita. “We’ll see if she’ll give him an appointment. She’s VERY busy. I’ll call her. She’s an artista.”

“Um,” I say, nervous like in the old days about an appointments-only “artist.”

“Can she just do a simple trim?” I wanted to ask, but Lupita was already on her phone.

*****

The day arrives. I take a taxi to the appointed intersection where pavement ends a gravel path takes over. I look at the map Lupita drew for me. It’s 7:00 a.m., and my appointment is at 7:15, the only time Teresa has available. In fact, as a courtesy to Lupita, she’s fitting me in before the usual starting time.

I walk two blocks on the gravel until it gives way to dirt. After I turn left onto a “side street,” which is really just an alleyway, the dirt is rutted. The yards I pass vary – some are neat and resplendent with lilies and hibiscus. Others are overgrown and appear abandoned. Small houses on both sides vary from neat and finished to tumbledown and half-finished, with rusty rebar sticking out from cinder block foundations. Every property is fenced-in.

Roosters crow. Cows moo. Cicadas scream. With almost no people stirring so early, it’s like walking through a 1930’s movie set for an abandoned Mexican village. I can’t help but wonder: “Will the place be clean?” “I hope I haven’t taken a wrong turn.” “Costa Rica’s not known for kidnappings, right?”

I reach the end of the alley and look left. There, a small wooden sign hanging from a tree limb reads “Teresa” and includes an etching in the shape of a scissors. I approach the gate. A pack of dogs in every size and shape materializes in the yard to welcome me. One has only three legs, but that doesn’t curb his barking.

After a moment, a slight dark-haired woman I judge to be about thirty years old emerges from the cinder-block house, shushes the dogs, and opens the gate. Teresa is pretty but I’m mostly looking at the dogs. She motions for me to follow. In turn, each canine takes a whiff of my legs and regards me suspiciously, looking at me as though thinking: “She saved you this time, but just wait…”

I follow Teresa past rusted car parts, a semi-diapered baby in an older child’s lap, and several chickens to a tiny closet-like opening in the rear. In the small space are a chair, a small sink, a mirror and walls covered with pictures of women with various elaborate hair-dos.

“Sietate,” (sit) says Teresa, smiling shyly.

“Gracias,” I say.

“Habla espanol?” (Do you speak Spanish?), she asks.

“Un poco” (A little), I say. “Muy despacio.” (Very slowly)

Teresa looks at my frizzy head, combs it out to gauge its length and motions with her finger that she sees where I part it on the left. I indicate the length I want around the ears.

*****

Working slowly and carefully, unlike the slam-bam eight-minute cuts I receive in North Carolina at “Clips are Us,” Teresa washes my hair in the tiny basin and massages my entire scalp.  She appears not to believe in electric razors. She trims every hair by hand.   Teresa examines my hair like a jeweler regards a fine diamond.

I’m aware of the passage of time, ten, then twenty, then thirty minutes. A baby cries outside, the rooster crows again, and the dogs greet/scare the next customer. Teresa does not rush.

In labored Spanglish I learn Teresa has five children. They range in age from nineteen to one. I calculate, therefore, that she’s older than my original estimate, but maybe not by much. Her oldest is in college to become a teacher. Teresa has run her shop for five years; each year becomes “mas ocupado.” (busier) She’s proud; she’s confident; she excels at her profession.

After fifty minutes, she finally wields a small mirror and shows me the final product. It’s neat and even and layered just right.   I’ve never been so pleased with a haircut. I won’t need another for months.

When I reach into my pocket, Teresa says: “Tres mil.” (Less than six dollars).

My expression must have conveyed surprise. Teresa appears worried she’s offended me, that the charge is too high. “Menos?” she asks. (Less?)

“No,” I say. “Mas.” (More)

She smiles warmly. “Tres mil,” she repeats.

I give her ten dollars. She appears pleased with the large gratuity in a country where tipping is not assumed. She walks me out safely past the dogs, and I’m delighted with my first international haircut.


BASHFUL LIPS

Only through default and seniority did I find myself the first trumpet in my high school orchestra. It was not that the other two trumpeters had more talent or less talent than I; it was that NONE of us had any talent whatsoever. So, since I was the only senior, I was designated first chair. As such, when the holiday show loomed, I was responsible for playing the melody line for a brass quartet that serenaded the audience with Christmas carols as they found their seats.
Our quartet stood in the rear corner of the gymnasium beneath a practice basketball hoop and adjacent to the restrooms. The guests were mostly adults, accompanied by their children, who had been urged to attend by their teachers. While holiday shows at schools with major musical arts programs are doubtlessly entertaining, perhaps even thrilling, my small school produced a show more out of habit and obligation than inspiration. Accordingly, I approached my star turn unenthusiastically. Since the carols were familiar and musically simple, my conscious anxiety level was minimal.
My sub-conscious apparently felt differently. As Mrs. Arditi, the Spanish teacher/orchestra conductor lowered her baton to launch our version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I pursed my lips over the mouthpiece, positioned my tongue properly between my teeth, blew, and… absolutely no sound issued forth.
The trombone and second trumpet beside me soldiered on, “boo, ba, boo, ba,” etc. Even Jimmy Prall, the French hornist who had never in his life hit a note cleanly and on time, was producing sounds. But from the first trumpet, nothing, nada, zilch.
People turned to stare. Mrs. Arditi appeared to be apoplectic, her face contorting as her eyes grew huge. “Boo, ba, boo, ba,” my cohorts continued. I blew harder and… nothing. I became tenser and tenser, my face red with embarrassment and exertion, but still, not a sound. I took the trumpet from my lips for a moment and tried to separate from my own body. I thought it might help if I could witness the calamity that was occurring to me as though it were happening to someone else. I glanced around for an escape route. I feared Mrs. Arditi might faint.
The “Merry Gentlemen” finally rested, though my non-performance meant that no one in the audience was aware of the identity of the intended piece. My three cohorts turned towards me and tried desperately to stifle laughter. Mrs. Arditi instructed us to turn to “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and screwed up her face as though to beg my cooperation.
I shrugged helplessly, hoping for a better result. Alas, none came. Our quartet commenced another carol without a melody. I pursed my lips. I sucked in more air. I blew harder. Nothing. Some of the audience began to titter and point. Mrs. Arditi stopped us in the middle.
“I’m so sorry,” she announced to the audience. I heard some scattered applause and relieved laughter. But most people quickly returned their attention to their conversations and their
search for seats. I knew that my musical performance career had ended that evening. The next day, I saw Mrs. Arditi in the hallway and told her I was sorry.
“What happened?” she asked.
Lacking any explanation, I decided to try humor. “I thought I was playing ‘Silent Night.’”
For some reason, she was not amused.


CLOSE TO THE STARS

Long before unpaid interns became the backbone of the American economy, I served in that capacity. It was 1979, and I had just completed the first year of law school. I had a vague sense of being interested in entertainment law and a vaguer sense of being interested in writing. I had a factual sense of having arranged no summer employment whatsoever.
I do not know exactly how it came to pass, but my brother lived in Beverly Hills and he knew somebody who knew somebody, and I was offered the opportunity to read scripts for a small company on the far periphery of the Hollywood dream machine.
In those pre-internet and cellphone days it was possible to complete such arrangements in a couple of hurried, long-distance phone calls, followed by a one-sentence postcard from the story editor saying: “Hope to see you at the end of June.”
It was not entirely surprising, therefore, that the day of my arrival seemed to have been entirely forgotten by my “boss.” Apparently, she was accustomed to the West Coast movie industry mentality, not the East Coast law student mentality. Thus, she had no expectation that I would actually show up.
Sharon was a pixie-like blonde, bubbling with energy. After being reminded of who I was and why I was there, she gave me a brief tour of Tony Bill Productions at 73 Market Street in Venice Beach. The facility consisted of a set of ten rooms on the second floor of a squat building, accessed by a steep stairway. The ground floor of the building contained the more-than-a-little-seedy Venice mix of that era: a used book store, a vitamin and supplement store, a liquor store, a pornographic video store, and several empty spaces.
The only notable office belonged to the owner, Tony Bill. He was an actor in the early 1960’s who had become a director in the 1970’s. His best-known directorial success was the 1978 movie, “My Bodyguard.” A huge, larger-than-king-sized bed took up much of his space, though Sharon was quick to address my unspoken, but obvious, supposition about the purpose of that bed.
“Tony’s separated from his wife. He sleeps at the office most nights.”
Finally, she brought me to my “office.” It was a corner of a windowless store-room that contained a small desk piled high with scripts. Few publishers or movie studios are now willing to read unsolicited manuscripts, whether type-written or electronic. To the extent that a few are still willing to read a paper manuscript, however, the process likely approximates Tony Bill’s procedure in 1979, namely: a lowly intern skims through as much of the “slush pile” as possible and notes the general theme of each submission on a 3 X 5 card which may or may not be skimmed at some point by the story editor. The peon then places the manuscript on an out-going mail pile. Before the out-going mail is taken to the post office, he inserts a pre-printed card that indicates something along the lines of: “Thank you so much for submitting your work. I’m afraid, however, that I am going to have to pass on it. I do wish you the best of luck.”
Just as the present-day culture is inundated with tales of vampires and the super-natural, the ubiquitous theme in 1979 was talking mannequins. It seems that every department store clerk in the English-speaking world was spending his or her evenings imagining what happens in the store after closing time. Some imagined lifeless, brainless figures with impossibly perfect bodies and cheekbones leading their peers in worldwide dominance and other fantastic feats. There may be no connection whatsoever, but in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
My days passed uneventfully, with Sharon displaying no particular interest in my tiny corner of the operation. I would peruse and summarize a few scripts, often after just a few pages, then take a stroll around the hallway or outside at Venice Beach. After lunch, I would return and review several more.
I rarely saw Tony, and never exchanged words with him, but there was occasionally a buzz in the hallway when a known Hollywood luminary was visiting him in his office. One day, I gathered he was talking with an actress and her agent about a possible project but I did not think anything of it. I had promised to take my young nephew to a ballgame, so when the end of the day arrived, I headed out to the parking lot. I found my rented Corolla hemmed in by a double-parked, white Jaguar. It was not unusual to see a luxury automobile in Los Angeles. Until the introduction of the Prius, it seemed that everyone who had ever acted in a movie, or even ATTENDED a movie, drove one.
When I went back upstairs to find out whose car it was, no one was around. The only muffled voices I heard came from behind Tony’s closed door. I paced in the hallway for several minutes trying to decide whether to knock. Various thoughts ran through my head. “What if the car does not belong to Tony’s visitors? What if I am interrupting a crucial meeting? What if I am interrupting ANYTHING pertaining to that monster-sized bed?”
”This is silly,” I finally told myself. “No one else is here. The car has to belong to Tony’s visitor. And whoever owns that car should actually be apologizing to me. They are at fault, not me. They are just another person, nothing special. There is no point in being intimidated just because someone might have appeared in a commercial or a sitcom. My nephew is waiting. I’ve worked all day, for no pay. I am entitled to leave.”
Duly fortified, I knocked decisively on the door. The voices inside stilled and I heard footsteps. The door opened, and peering out at me, was a very familiar-looking face; it was the girl from “Love Story,”(see note at end) only about ten years older.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Ummm,” I responded. “Ummm,” I repeated, even more assertively.
“Oh,” she said. “Did I block your car?”
I was so relieved she guessed my purpose that I was able to form an intelligible word. “Yes,” I said. But seeing Tony Bill and the agent sitting at his desk in the background, I hastened to add: “I can wait. It’s no problem at all.” In the face of actual fame, my resolve melted like an ice cream cone in the Mojave Desert.
“Oh, no,” she said, cheerfully. “I’ll come out and move it.”
The familiar and quite splendid-looking woman strode out, carrying her keys.
“I’m Ali McGraw,” she said, extending her hand.
“Yes, you are,” I replied, nonsensically.
We walked together down to the parking lot. I failed completely to think of anything intelligent to say. I suppose, in retrospect, that she was used to tongue-tied reactions, but I certainly felt like an idiot.
When we arrived at our cars, she flashed the most luminous smile I had ever seen in person, hopped into her Jaguar, and backed up. I climbed into my Toyota, thanked her again, and nearly drove forward into a pole. Finally, I composed myself, and eased out of the parking lot.
You know how people are sometimes described as having “movie star” looks? Yet, in reality, they are really an overweight insurance agent with a good head of hair, or a five-foot-three lifeguard with a nice smile? I can attest, without hesitation, that Ali McGraw really had “movie-star” looks.

     Explanatory note for readers under 40:  “Love Story” was the Oscar-nominated sensation of the 1970 movie year.  It featured Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal.  Both were expected to become Hollywood royalty as a result.  While neither was launched to the extent of lasting cinematic fame, both were still solid movie stars throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s.  Ali McGraw is now an animal-rights activist but was still appearing in “Top 50 Most Beautiful Women Lists” into the 1990’s.  According to Wikipedia, she was treated for sex addiction following her divorce from Steve McQueen.  Little did I know this could have become such a more interesting story!


PLAYING CARDS

     An early memory, hazy, emerges like the sun through morning fog. There is a small row-house, a tiny patio in front, and white-haired Pop-Pop shuffling the deck.
     “Ve’re going to play casino,” he said, with a European accent. “You vill be good at dis,” he assured me.
     I was focused, for some reason, on the letter “W” and why it was so difficult for some people to pronounce. My father, who came from the same general part of the world as Pop-Pop, could pronounce “W” but could not pronounce a “V.” He called Vietnam “Wietnam.” I digress.
     Traffic rolled along the street in front of us in a working-class section of Philadelphia. The roof of a huge warehouse dominated the view across the street for as far as the eye could see.
     Pop-Pop was kindly. He patiently wrote down the particular scoring and rules of casino. There were fourteen points to be won in each deck. There was some “building” of hands and some “trumping.” Basically, it was a sort of unambitious pinochle. Whenever my step-grandmother emerged from the house, Pop-Pop boasted of my prodigious abilities at the game.
     On reflection, I am aware that it is highly unlikely that my combination of cards was always better than my grandfather’s. However, from the ages of 5-7, I was the undefeated champion of our games.
     Death arrived abruptly for Pop-Pop. In an antiquated way, he simply went to bed one night and did not wake up. No illness, no hospital, no ICU. No one officially informed me – I eaves-dropped from my upstairs bedroom while my mother and aunts cried one morning, downstairs in the kitchen.
     What to make of this event? I was sad, but detached, at the time. My mother seemed grief-stricken enough for the whole family, and I felt it was best to just stay out of the way.
     But there is a lot to miss when someone who is totally, one-hundred-percent benevolent leaves your life. How many people does one encounter, including friends and closest relatives, with whom one never experiences a single, solitary disagreement or argument, or even difference of opinion?
     Pop-Pop was probably just a normal, nicer-than-average immigrant who managed to escape Europe during some preliminary horrors, so as to miss the main event that arose several years later. He ran a series of small food-stands and then, finally, a small restaurant. He never made more than a minimal living, but raised four children who loved him. One could say that he played the cards he was dealt. And, based upon the benevolence and fond memories he bestowed upon his children and grandchildren, he played them well.