My train ride friends

The boy is three or four years old and he rides the train with his mom every morning, presumably to daycare somewhere downtown while his mom works. It looks like the boy has been instructed to wave hello to every human being he sees, and most people smile and wave back when they see him.

So it made perfect sense that this morning as he left the train with his mom, he was wearing a Halloween costume that made him look like a spider. He had "spider legs" dangling by strings tied to his arms so that when he waved his usual waves to everybody, there were six arms bouncing and waving instead of only two.

The other train ride friends aren't quite as personable. They include the goateed young man who used to sit down across from me, place his hands on his knees, raise his head, open his mouth, and cough straight at me. The other guy I see a lot has the weathered face of a guy in his early fifties, but there's a mass of hair placed on his head that looks like it was lifted from the character of Andy Travis on "WKRP in Cincinnati."

Our little sparkplug

Reasons Betty has given for being too tired to work in the office this year:

* "A rainy day like this just takes it out of me. I need to get back to bed."

* "I stayed up way too late last night watching a movie. I didn't sleep and I am just fatigued today."

* "This office is too hot to work today."

* "I slept so much last night I am still tired this morning. I can't stay awake."

* "I can't work when the office is this cold."

* "On a day this nice and sunny I could nap all afternoon."

* "After putting that lotion on my hands, the hand massage has relaxed me into a stupor."

The laughing over the jazz

Thirty years ago, in seventh grade, I learned about the owner of a book store, someone I would know up until last year:
"They call her Mad Ruthie."
"I don't know, but there's a nameplate on the front of her desk that says 'Mad Ruthie.'"

When we were 13 a bunch of us boys would go across town (getting driven or riding bikes) to buy old comics at her store. She was intimidating to kids whose voices hadn't changed yet. She stayed seated behind a massive old desk near the store's front window and she had the deepest voice I ever heard in a woman. A smoker's cough and a smoker's laugh, with real weight behind it. She was clearly obese although I didn't see her stand up. A few guys always hung around her desk, skinny dudes in denim, t-shirts, and droopy mustaches. They talked about old movies, old music, and sports, and Mad Ruthie always led the conversation with that growly voice of authority.

The store smelled great because it was full of old paperbacks and comics. Get a paperback book that's older than you, hold it to your nose, flip the pages, and inhale: that's what the store's air was like. The music playing in the store was 1930s jazz. Mad Ruthie was surrounded by old comics and albums and paperbacks and records and movie posters occupying every square foot of wall and shelving. I still have a thousand of those comics stored under my bed, largely because she gave me a good deal on all the comics I bought with my allowance and then later, my minimum wage.

In later years, the store relocated down the street, and I moved to Chicago. I would go back to the hometown and visit the store, now getting a used copy of some non-fiction hardcover or an old Life magazine for a gift. The store was larger but still packed with old stuff for sale (and dust). Mad Ruthie (now I knew that wasn't her real name) even came to Chicago to work in book fairs that featured booksellers from near and far. She complained that the Chicago customers wanted to browse more than buy, but she still came to my neighborhood almost every year with a selection of merchandise. It was strange to see her out in the fresh air, sitting behind a flimsy cardtable instead of the heavy desk.

She quit smoking and lost weight when the doctor told her to, but she passed away due to lung cancer early this year. Her family told the local paper they would sell the store and the contents that also included thousands of pieces of sheet music, antique toys, pamphlets, movie star photos, graphic novels, and "spicy" paperbacks ("the kind that MEN like!"). One writer observed that this kind of store tends to go out of business now that eBay has made it easier to locate any collectors' item you might want to buy.

Mad Ruthie died eight months ago and I still think about her at odd times. In the store's basement, while browsing old magazines, you'd hear the floorboards creaking over your head and her laugh coming from upstairs, over a Fletcher Henderson tune chirping in the background. I'd usually find something surprising, something you'd hold up to a friend and say, "Look at this!" The last thing I got from the store was a 1968 album by Phyllis Diller titled "Born to Sing," featuring her version of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." The album cover shows Phyllis, apparently in her messy home, singing into a milk bottle, while a small boy sits bound and gagged in a chair behind her. I can't find its photo on Google (yet) but it's typical of what you'd find buried in the stacks at the store.

Luckily the occasion wasn't all about me

Lately a number of people I know have had friends or family die of old age. At times like this, one needs to say and do the right thing to show support and sympathy. Unfortunately, my good wishes are paired with a lack of grace.

At the funeral of Joe's mother, Joe asked me at the last minute if I would be one of the pallbearers. My brain thought, "That would be an honor indeed, because your mother was always generous and treated all her guests just like family. I would be proud to share a little in the burden of your family's grieving by helping carry your deceased mother's casket." While those were my thoughts, my mouth blurted, "That would be great!"

I ain't no Dr. Dolittle

When I moved to this neighborhood I noticed right away how many squirrels there are. Not an exact count, but I got the impression that they're everywhere, and it's fun to watch them twitch and scamper around, like me at my previous job.

On one of the first occasions that I was waiting for a train on the el platform near my new home, a squirrel climbed headfirst down a tree branch right next to me. He looked at me and waited. I didn't have any food. The squirrel moved on.

I decided that I'd never be caught off guard again, so I got the healthiest squirrel treats I could think of: a jar of unsalted peanuts. I put some in a baggie and kept it in my jacket pocket. The one time I saw a squirrel on the ground and remembered my peanuts, I threw him food and he ran behind a tree trunk.

Weeks went by, and I rediscovered the peanuts in my pocket while I was out one day. I ate them all and bought more. Now, months later, I'm eating these unsalted peanuts seven days a week. I guess if aliens ever want to capture me, they'll know how to lure me away after reading this.


I read something once about the nine Supreme Court justices having 110 years of combined experience on the Court, or some similar number. Duly impressed, I'm applying the same approach at work tomorrow. When my little ad-hoc committee has to make a report to the rest of the department, I'll mention that our committee members have a combined height of 29 feet 5 inches.