Tradition Requires The Holiday Story

December 1988 - "Please assemble in the Auditorium at 10:00 this morning for a Special Announcement" was the whole message from the two founding chairmen of the company. At 9:55, all of us from the west building shuffled through the narrow aisles, downstairs, and outside across the snowy alley, to the east building where the announcement would be. "Maybe we're getting Christmas bonuses" was the most common thing people said.

It took a long time for the whole company to trickle into the auditorium through the four doors at the corners of the big room. Finally the two chairmen, John and Jerry, took the stage, and we could see them discussing something quietly and smiling before turning on their microphones. The lights were dimmed and the white screen for projecting slides and movies descended behind John and Jerry.

John began by talking about how the company had come so far in ten short years, to become a worldwide competitor in the field, and how it was the result of so many people, working so hard. It was with a great sense of pride and accomplishment, therefore, to announce that the very building we were standing in would now be named after his co-founder Jerry! A slide onscreen showed a photo taken that morning, where a giant nameplate bearing Jerry's full name was being fastened above the main doors.

It was Jerry's turn to speak, and he couldn't suppress his grin. With great pleasure, he proclaimed that the company's west building would be named in honor of his co-founder John! Another slide showed the sign going up above the west building's doors. With that, we were thanked for attending, told to keep up the good work, and dismissed.

Sniff me

The magazine ad is for a men's cologne called Armani Code. A man and woman are pictured in an embrace, but the man is looking off in the distance. The ad has a fragrance strip imbedded under a tab on the page. On the tab it says, "Lift to discover," which makes me pause on the ad. I guess some phrases are better than others:

* Get a whiff of this!

* Pull 'n' snort

* Now, while no one's looking.

* Mahatma Gandhi would smell this if he were here today; be like Gandhi.

I'm so glad I came to Sunday school

They were teaching Sunday school to all us fourth and fifth graders, and the lesson was all about Rehoboam and Jeroboam and the whole Boam family. We kids were seated in folding chairs, facing the teacher, and the other teacher partners sat with us listening to the lesson. My mind had turned to mush near the start of the lecture, so I was startled awake by the sound of a cow mooing from the back of the room. The teacher, a woman of about 30, stopped and looked past us, and we all turned around to see Mr. Dell gripping his knees and bellowing like an animal.

Mr. Dell's wife was seated next to him and she gently put her arms around his shoulders. He turned and rolled out of his chair and started thrashing around on his back on the linoleum. He stopped moaning and just wriggled around; the adults started clearing chairs out of Mr. Dell's way. Paramedics came and took him away on a stretcher while we stared, and before leaving, Mrs. Dell explained that her husband suffered from epilepsy and apparently had forgotten to take his medication.

The teacher said a prayer for Mr. Dell and seemed shaken by the display, as we all were. Unfortunately, she resumed the lesson, same as before, except that now her eyes were bugged out. I admit that I didn't retain the meaning of the lesson, but then you only remember about two percent of what you learn anyway.

Overheard on the el

One high-school boy to another: "You know that election next week? Is it a presidential election? Cause if it is, do we get a day off? Cause I could use a day off man."

What is it about politicians and diners?

Dick Armey, former U.S. Congressman, granted an interview with National Public Radio (broadcast Oct. 16), in which he chose to take questions while sitting in "a Texas diner." Again, this was a radio interview, and the setting was irrelevant to the topics. Nevertheless, Armey believed his opinions were best heard with dishes clattering in the background. (Link)

In 2004, Dick Cheney was campaigning in Green Bay, Wisconsin at the Golden Basket Restaurant. According to the waitress, he brought and ate his own food (for safety's sake), but still felt the need to talk about terrorism where other people were paying for a hot meal. (Link)

On a related note, the 2005-2006 Congress typically met two or three days a week, and "is set to finish its tenure with the fewest number of days in session in our lifetimes, falling well below 100 days this year" according to a nonpartisan research institution. (Link)

You can already see the solution: When the House and Senate install facilities for short-order cooks on the floors of their chambers, legislators will be enticed to come back to work, overseeing federal spending over a nice meat loaf.

Mistaken identity

I was walking home from the grocery store when somebody honked at me from a parked car. Two short beeps from a Jaguar. As I got closer to the car, the glare from the windshield slid away to show a large black Labrador Retriever sitting in the driver's seat. When I got up to the car, I saw that he must've honked the horn with his chest by leaning forward. He realized I wasn't who he thought I was, and stared straight ahead like I wasn't there.

Snowstorm on the highway of love

After spending a minute with Clyde, (not his real name) some of us felt we had met a boy in a man's body. He allegedly had a recent honorable discharge from the Army, and had a five o'clock shadow around the neck and jaw, but spoke in the manner of a wide-eyed little kid. This was at an office many years ago in which the staff was a mix of full- and part-time employees. Clyde was a part-timer with good work habits, who said "gee-whiz" more than everybody else combined.

It was winter and Clyde, like many of our staff, was compelled to economize by buying groceries in large quantity. This included the jumbo-size Vaseline that Clyde used as lip balm in the cold weather. He kept it in the backpack he brought on the bus to work. People made fun of the one-pound jar of Vaseline, among other odd things about Clyde.

Clyde thought the weather girl on channel 13 was really pretty, and sometimes talked about her in the break room. We didn't know it, but during those weeks Clyde was calling the weather girl at the TV station to try to set up a date.

The next thing we heard, Clyde had been apprehended by the police at a restaurant near our office. He had arranged to meet the channel 13 weather girl there but she had sent the cops in her place. The police searched Clyde's backpack and the tub of Vaseline inside apparently led them to suspect that Clyde's intentions weren't entirely wholesome.

The cops let him go, after they got to know him, judging him to be harmless. The only follow-up occurred some weeks later when I answered the office phone. It was the sportscaster from channel 13 (?!) asking if he could please speak with Mr. Clyde Johnson. It was strange to speak on the phone with a guy I'd seen on TV for years. Anyway, I brought Clyde to the front desk to take the call. Clyde's end of the conversation:

"Hello, this is Clyde Johnson... why hello Mr. Sykes! Yes!... uh-huh... (long interval)... Oh no, I never... No, I... Yes, I'm sorry... Yes, I will... No, I'll never call her again... Certainly I understand... Of course... Yes, I'm sorry to have been a bother... (voice an octave lower)... Good-bye."

False memory syndrome: The Steely Dan Funky Factory

It was on for just a few weeks one summer in the mid-1970s. The TV show started with a psychedelic fast-moving groovy cartoon of buildings and cars and rock stars and jazz musicians and young men with big droopy mustaches and women wearing oversize sunglasses as the announcer said, "It's the Steely Dan Funky Factory!" and the sounds of wild (fake?) applause started up. The opening theme was an instrumental swingin' version of "Do It Again" with the chorus punctuated by horns going "Waah!": "You go back (Waah!) Jack (Waah!) Do it again (Waahwaah!) Wheel turnin' round and round..."

The cartoon finished and dissolved into a view of an empty stage. The backdrop was a grid of squares all displaying the same design: caricatures of the faces of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The backdrop parted in the middle and you could see the silhouettes of Donald and Walter as they walked toward the camera and took their places on stage.

Donald and Walter welcomed the audience and said they had a great show tonight, with (in one show) special guests Tom Bosley (applause), child actress Jodie Foster (applause), and special musical guests Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (applause). The guests tended to be actors found on other ABC TV shows of that year (Clifton Davis, Tony Randall, Lee Majors) or musicians on the same ABC/Dunhill label as Steely Dan (Three Dog Night, B. B. King).

These opening remarks included some jokes, usually leading to an exchange of insults.
Walt: Hey Don, Mick Jagger called and says he wants his lips back. (laughter)
Don (pouting, waits for laughter to finish): Oh yeah? Well, Walt, Cher called and she wants her hair back. ("Ooooh" and laughter from the audience)

The rest of the show alternated between comedy skits and music. Steely Dan would perform a number from one of their three albums released up to that time, and the musical guest would do their own latest single. Some of the skits would include the guest stars, and a recurring sketch featured Donald and Walter as college roommates living in a cluttered but colorful apartment.

This false memory may seem ludicrous but they really were on American Bandstand around that time. (Link)

She will respect you for it

Young man! Is your girlfriend wondering why you haven't proposed marriage yet? Emulate the example of Brad Pitt, quoted in the October 2006 issue of Esquire: "Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able."

Ben Bernanke says

"Investors sent stocks modestly higher Friday after a speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke failed to deal with interest rates, soothing concerns about a possible resumption of rate hikes." --, August 25, 2006.

"Do you think this tie is too wide?" -- Ben Bernanke in men's apparel at Filene's Basement. Result: Silk exports decline from countries throughout Asia.

"I think I'll have the Big Steak Omelette with extra bacon." -- Ben Bernanke at the International House of Pancakes on Wednesday. Outcome: Beef and pork futures opened moderately higher on Thursday.

"I finally heard that 'Hey Ya' song today; that is one peppy tune." -- Ben Bernanke in the car pool after work. Effect: OutKast's label's parent company, Sony, sees its stock drop five points.

"Does this chain saw cut through living human flesh without a lot of splatter?" -- Ben Bernanke at Home Depot on Friday night. Upshot: Black and Decker higher by 3.56 on the New York Stock Exchange.

"So, Dr. X, this is the pill that will transform me into a flying werewolf with death-ray-eyes who wears silver lederhosen?" -- Ben Bernanke at a secret underground laboratory in upstate New York. Repercussion: Pfizer Pharmaceutical up 6.25 on the Big Board. Acme Textiles unchanged.

"I guess I just want to be loved for who I am." -- Ben Bernanke at the latest meeting of the Federal Reserve Board. Reaction: Big hugs all around.

Just to get out of the house and meet new cats

What's so fun about volunteering to help with the cleaning at the stray cat shelter? It's not the cleaning so much as playing with the cats afterwards. You can take a toy tied to a string on the end of stick and swing it around like a fishing pole, but if you do it at a retirement home, the residents never want to play along. Do the same thing in the cat shelter's adoption room, and there's always a few cats eager to run and jump.

My designated field of cleanup involves the litter pans, which requires me to wear latex gloves. What I didn't expect was that even on my first day, once you snap on a pair of gloves, you look as if you know what you're doing. Could be brain surgery, could be scrubbing plastic bins with bleach and water, but you look ready for serious work.

All the people at the shelter are hard workers and easy to get along with, and they all probably get a sense of accomplishment for everything they do. I was surprised to feel the same for the short time I'm there each week. The result of cleanup is easy to see, while at my weekday job, we might work for weeks before seeing any progress. At the shelter, when you carry the clean litter pans back to the cats and they look up and say, "Hey, good job McCluskey, thanks," that's just the cherry on top.

The best urban school district in the nation

From the July 12 Chicago Sun-Times (I've italicized my favorite part):
'Historic' school test results

Chicago public school students produced stunning, double-digit gains on their state reading and math tests this year -- results Mayor Daley hailed Tuesday as "historic'' but others said could be illusory.

The jump in eighth-grade math -- once the hardest test to pass -- was astronomical, from roughly 33 percent passing to 66 percent. However, that increase came after state officials lowered the passing score from the 67th to the 38th percentile.

Daley and his school team touted Chicago's results -- based on preliminary data -- as "historic,'' an "all-time high,'' and "the largest one-time jump in test scores that we have ever seen.''

"With these results, it's clear we are on our way to becoming the best urban school district in the nation," said Daley.
Article by Rosalind Rossi and Kate N. Grossman.

Boxers or briefs?

Boxers under the briefs, because the ladies like how it makes me walk.

Death by cliche

I know you're not supposed to "speak ill of the dead" but I never heard of this relative until he died of "head trauma" after crashing his motorcycle. He didn't wear a helmet, although somehow, thousands of others manage. At the funeral, the casket was open to show off the Harley Davidson jacket he wore.

A lot of the mourners were obviously, judging from the apparel, Harley Davidson riders, and sure enough, the minister assured them that "If Jesus were among us today, he would be a Harley rider." That kind of celebrity endorsement is hard to beat, although I understand the Buddha is a Kawasaki man.

If a guy chooses to organize his identity around the brand name of a maker of transportation, you're not supposed to ridicule that because it would be like making fun of his religion. So don't you sass me about my subway car, because I'll tell you what, the Transit America-built 27-tonner with the four GE motors, each with 110 horsepower, is the meanest, most powerful machine on the rails around these parts. Yep.

Frontier medicine

I've been watching DVDs of the HBO series Deadwood and just got to the part where one of the characters is suffering from kidney stones. Given that the story is set in South Dakota in 1877, there's a lot of suffering and I was squirming and grimacing through the whole thing. I can't remember ever seeing a TV character peeing blood before this, unless maybe there was an episode of Gilligan's Island that I forgot about.

Video links

Video #1: From a 1988 Late Night with David Letterman, in which Sonny and Cher reunite to sing "I Got You Babe." This is best appreciated by those who saw the two as a married couple in the 1960s and 1970s and were surprised to see them reunite just this once. Clearly it meant a lot to Sonny, and when Cher saw it in his eyes during the song, she concentrated on not breaking down, she'd recall in a book later. (Link)

Video #2: Again from the Letterman show, around 1984, in which Bob Dylan does "Jokerman" in a faster, rockier arrangement than on his Infidels album of that year. (Link)

Video #3: Woody Allen had a TV variety special in 1969 and interviewed Reverend Billy Graham. Woody and the Reverend discuss the relevance of the Ten Commandments for Young People Today, and Woody behaves with a mix of respect and irreverence. At the webpage for the show, click on the link for "Part Three." (Link)

Flying around in her print dress

I checked out a recent anthology of science fiction to see what's new with the genre: Nebula Awards Showcase 2005. In the introductions to each story, the authors' previous literary awards are listed (more than thirty different awards are mentioned in the book). Does that mean you're going to like all the stories?

Maybe not. The first story in the book had the irritating recurrence of the verbs "was all" or "all" in place of the verb "had." Examples: (1) "The village of Penoquot Landing on Mount Airey was all carefully preserved clapboard and widow's walks." (2) "His custom-built Locomobile, all brass and polish and exhaust..." (3) "The Cabin itself was all odd angles..." I was all to quit before finishing.

My highest expectations were for the Harlan Ellison story, but it was apparently just a lengthy version of an old joke, funny to a generation that precedes me.

The highlight was Carol Emshwiller's short story "Grandma," in which a girl reminisces about her grandmother, a retired superhero who used to be able to fly:
She tried to fly, as she used to do. She did fly. For my sake. She skimmed along just barely above the sage and bitterbrush, her feet snagging at the taller ones. That was all the lift she could get. I could see, by the way she leaned and flopped like a dolphin, that she was trying to get higher... The way she flew was kind of like the way she rides a bicycle. All wobbly. Veering off from side to side, up and down, too. I knew she would crack up. And she looked funny flying around in her print dress.

Men's apparel

I'm invited to a birthday party next month but I think it's going to have a formal dress code, so if anyone in Chicago has a clip-on ascot I could borrow, please let me know (any color but blue).

Dress up

There's a musical in town called Wicked, and it's based on the witch characters from The Wizard of Oz. The producers of Wicked promoted the show last week by offering free tickets to people if they would dress up like witches and show up at the landmark Water Tower downtown. I saw this crowd and was grateful that the producers of Urinetown, The Musical didn't try a similar promotion.

Ear candy

Some retailers are very deliberate about the music they choose to play in their stores, according to a New Yorker article from earlier this year. Maybe the Hershey's candy store near Michigan Avenue is one of those retailers. A few weeks ago they were playing what sounded like the dance remix of an old candy commercial. It was the sound of torture.

Sometimes you feel like-a-nut
(Bam Bam BAM!!)
Sometimes you don't
Almond-mond-mond-mond Joy's got nuts
(Bam Bam BAM!!)
Mounds don't...

It wiped my mind clean of whatever purpose I had for going there, so I had to leave. But jeepers the place smells good.

Human resources

From the short story "The Juice of an Orange" by P.G. Wodehouse, in which a movie studio head, Mr. Schnellenhamer, raises an issue with his cohort, Mr. Levitsky:

"Something'll have to be done about this Mulliner," he said. "I don't like the way he's acting. Did you notice him at the conference yesterday?"

"Not specially. What did he do?"

"Well, listen," said Mr. Schnellenhamer, "he didn't give me the idea of willing service and selfless co-operation. Every time I said anything, it seemed to me he did something funny with the corner of his mouth. Drew it up in a twisted way that looked kind of... what's that word beginning with an 's'?"


"No, a snickle is a thing you cut corn with. Ah, I've got it. Sardinic. Every time I spoke he looked sardinic."

Mr. Levitsky was out of his depth.

"Like a sardine, you mean?"

And I can talk about analysis of variance!

New neighbors moved in across the hall; the man and woman are graduate students and nice folks. Her studies have concentrated on German philosophers and now she's writing a dissertation about the intersection of love, existentialism, and art. So at least we'll have something to talk about in the hallway.

Our Privacy Policy

At City of Bigness, your privacy is important to us.

We sometimes collect information about you from your family, friends, and enemies. While we may disbelieve some portion of the information collected, we reserve the right to hold it against you all the same. In the vast majority of cases, information about you is provided to us voluntarily. If at any time you would prefer that we not collect information about you, please let us know, and we'll throw it all away.

At random times throughout the year, we will send you Updates to our Privacy Policy, giving you an opportunity to "opt out" of the information gathering we conduct on you and your loved ones. As we update our "opt out" procedures every so often, you will want to read the Update Notices carefully. Failure to "opt out" after any update of our Privacy Policy or update of our "opt out" procedures qualifies as consent to "opt in" to information gathering on you, your loved ones, and the ones you profess to love.

If at any time you wish to provide us with an update of your personal information, simply pick up a telephone anywhere in the continental United States and state your updated information clearly without dialing a number.

We will not share any of your personal information unless we are asked politely by a man with a deep voice. Your personal information will never be shared with anyone who speaks in a falsetto, or pretends to speak in a falsetto.

Like many websites, we use "cookies" to identify you whenever you visit City of Bigness. These cookies provide you with many benefits, such as a clearer, smoother complexion, and the ability to pick out a good movie based only on reading newspaper ads. These cookies, when stored on your browser, tell us about your activities between visits to City of Bigness. Which reminds us, why haven't you called your mother? And that car's oil isn't going to change itself. Just a moment, we're about to update our "opt out" procedures, as mentioned in paragraph three. As of May 15, in order to "opt out" of City of Bigness personal information gathering, you must chant "Update opt out!" ten times fast, without making a mistake. Your cooperation is appreciated.

The Seven Dwarfs of Grief








No paper trail, of course

I went to the cash machine and made a withdrawal from checking. The machine was manufactured by the Diebold company, so after I got my cash the screen read, "Confirmation Message - You have just cast two more votes for George W. Bush, Republican, for President, 2004. Thank you for voting." I gotta change banks.

Pets never lie

While I'm making supper, one of the cats hops up to the counter and then to the top of the refrigerator. She likes to look down on me while I'm getting the food together. I'm busy for a minute and when I look up, the purring cat has this look of complete devotion, looking straight at me. This is why people have pets: because pets don't lie, and their affection is simple and genuine. I step toward the refrigerator to pet the cat, and she shifts her head to the side; I'm now blocking her view, apparently. I turn around and there's some chopped sausage on a plate, to go with the pasta I'm boiling. I step back to confirm... She's purring at the sausage bits with a look of love.

That and the chafing

Twice this week I've encountered people who discuss riding down a "zipline" in Costa Rica. One of my friends from work will go later this year. I had never heard of this. When she first mentioned it I thought it meant they insert a hook in the seat of your pants and dangle you over a ravine. Actually, you get strapped in a harness and hang from a cable strung horizontally through a rain forest. The cable gently slopes down, so you ride in this harness down through the forest.

How fast do you go? Twenty miles per hour? Fifty? One hundred? Do you hit any birds? How far does it go? How long does it take? Do you feel like you have to go to the bathroom halfway through the ride? What are your options at that point? Can you stop sliding? What if somebody comes along behind you at 100 mph and you're stopped, admiring the view?

Imagine you're not on the zipline but hiking through the rain forest and overhead, every five minutes, you hear the steady shriek of somebody whooshing down a zipline at high speed. The Doppler effect lends a high pitch to their scream as they approach, and after they pass, screaming loudest, the pitch of their scream lowers.

How do you stop? Is the lower end of the cable tied to a big tree, with bark worn away from the impact of so many high-velocity tourists? Is the tree leaning away from the cable after so many collisions? Maybe the cable's end is suspended so you just go flying off and land in a pile of fellow travelers. Maybe the cable gradually approaches the ground so you have to start pedaling your legs before you land, like a Fred-Flintstone-powered plane.

This is why I never travel anywhere. One minute you're in Italy touring St. Peter's Basilica and the next minute you're giving in to peer pressure and riding a zipline through a grotto full of dead popes.

Trust your chicken

In the grocery store's produce department, a promotional sign showed a guy holding an apple next to his head. The sign's text: "Gerald says, 'I tried this and it was great!'" Gerald looked apologetic, as if he was about to ask the photographer an embarrassing question. Gerald looked like he had never posed with produce before. I would look uncomfortable too, in that situation. (The sign's caption included a description of why that particular kind of apple was great.)

One aisle over, there was a flat-screen TV with a video of a chef in a kitchen. I swear he said, "Before roasting, you have to trust your chicken." That's what made me look up at the screen, where, of course, the chef was trussing the chicken with special twine to ensure that the bird would be cooked uniformly all over.

Nat "King" Cole's lost song

Undemonstrative, that's what you are
Semi-secretive though near or far
Like a perfume shpritz that clings to me
How the thought of you does things to me
Never before has someone been more

Quiet and withdrawn in every way
Stifling a yawn, all night and day
That's why it's so positive
That someone so undemonstrative
Thinks that I am undemonstrative too

No never before
has someone been more

Shy and reticent in every way
Mum and diffident, that's how you'll stay
Strange to be so talkative
That someone so undemonstrative
Thinks that I am undemonstrative too


Donald Fagen and his band played a great show with force and precision at the Chicago Theatre last night, leaving the crowd wanting more. I especially liked the way Donald stretched out the line from The Nightfly, "I wait all n-i-i-i-ght for calls... like... these."

Almost every familiar song had new solos, but the surprise came on Third World Man, when the two guitarists, Jon Herington and Wayne Krantz, copied Larry Carlton's weepy guitar solo straight off the Gaucho album. I took this as a gesture of respect to Mr. Carlton. The mix of Donald's and the backup vocals was beautiful on this one too.

On the new song What I Do, guest musician Howard Levy was imported from his (almost simultaneous) show at the Green Mill jazz club to play solo harmonica, doing an excellent job just as he did on the Morph the Cat CD.

The set list included songs from The Nightfly (Green Flower Street, The Nightfly, New Frontier, The Goodbye Look), Kamakiriad (Teahouse on the Tracks), Morph the Cat (Brite Nightgown, What I Do, Mary Shut the Garden Door), Steely Dan songs (Home at Last, Black Cow, FM, Third World Man), and two covers: Jack Teagarden's Misery and the Blues and Chuck Berry's Viva Viva Rock & Roll.

A win-win for family values

"We have over 100,000 women and over one million men incarcerated in state and federal prisons across the country. While they are in our custody, we have the opportunity to pair these men and women into the life-affirming and stabilizing institution of marriage. Many will be willing. We will grant these newlyweds a temporary amount of time and privacy within prison walls. Shortly, they will bring the blessing of new life to earth in the form of thousands of babies every year. Please understand, we realize the mothers and fathers won't be available for the responsibilities of parenthood, but the government will be ready. The newborns will be pro-actively detained in humane nursery-cells because of their criminal ancestry. Of course, anyone who would oppose this plan is guilty not only of opposing the Culture of Life, but guilty of being soft on crime."

-- A congressman, next year

George Miller

"At my age, I may not always be able to satisfy a woman, but with my attitude, I can always get her out of the mood." -- George Miller (died 3/5/2003), on Late Night with David Letterman, around 1986

Heard at work

"She's a vegetarian of some kind. I know there are terms for the different kinds of diets... She's either macrobiotic, or what other kind?"


Sentimental fool

One of our co-workers left the company to take on a new job as an epidemiologist. We all had a going-away party for her, and we passed around a farewell card to sign. I didn't know her that well, so I hope she took it in the intended spirit when I wrote, "Good luck Wendy; whenever I think of epidemiology, I'll think of you."

Don't know any better

One economic indicator from back in my hometown: The wife in a family of four has gotten a job at the local jail, working as a guard. The husband talked about her first week on the job, how as she walked past the cells, the inmates behaved like animals, flinging urine, feces, and every other possible kind of bodily fluid or substance at her. The husband's voice assumed a hushed tone as he finished: "... and after twenty-five years, she gets a pension!"

Before this, it was already depressing to drive down the main drag and remember how it used to be, with big business and colorful neon at night, replaced nowadays by "Everything Under a Dollar!" stores, and Rent-a-Centers with painted wooden signs out front instead of costly illuminated signs. The city has changed since the manufacturing and heavy industry left, but there will always be the opportunities of the service economy for that family of four; they're too young to remember what I saw.

Every life needs a little drama now and then

Refinance My Mortgage or Die Tryin'

Get Shiny, Healthy Hair or Die Tryin'

Plant Those Rose Bushes or Die Tryin'

Finish the New Readers' Digest or Die Tryin'

Caulk the Bathtub or Die Tryin'

Again with the etiquette concerns

There were three of us waiting on the platform for the train. The short grey-haired man in old clothes asked the woman "Does this train go to Howard Street?" She didn't answer, but picked up her suitcase and came over to stand right next to me. This offended the man; he started pacing back and forth, pointing at the woman and bellowing all kinds of unpleasant concepts and propositions. Then he came over to me and asked if the train went to Howard; I said yes.

This didn't cheer him up; he continued with the vague threats to the woman and me. Standing a foot taller than him, I wasn't that worried, and at one point I paraphrased the Ratzo Rizzo character from Midnight Cowboy, saying something like, "Hey, I'm standin' heah!" while shrugging.

He called us "honkies" more than once, but he looked white to me. One clue is that between threats he revealed that he owns a spacious estate in Puerto Rico with a balcony "where you can look down and see a long ways." I wished I had been there instead.

The train came, we got on, and Mr. Personality asked yet another person if this was the train that went to Howard. Receiving the affirmative answer, he chewed out invisible people until he got off at Howard.

I keep wondering if there was something I should've said to the guy while waiting on the platform:

(1) "B-i-i-i-g hug!" with arms opened wide.

(2) "You know, elevator shoes would do wonders for your self-esteem."

(3) "Do me a favor. Just kick my ass, okay? Kick this ass for a man, that's all. Kick my ass. Enjoy. Come on. I'm not asking, I'm telling with this. Kick my ass." (The Artie Fufkin quote from This is Spinal Tap)

Parental notification

A co-worker says that when she was ten years old (in 1985), she wanted to perform in the school talent show by singing "Like a Virgin" because she really liked that song. When she told her parents what she planned to do, they told her that nice girls her age didn't sing that particular song and she had to choose another one.

Is this level of harassment normal?

Last month a guy from my bank called and talked all about how he wanted to advise me on how to manage my money, and after listening a while, I said, no thanks, but thank you for calling, and I thought that was the end of it. Today he called back to "follow up" and to schedule a meeting in which he could advise me on how to manage my money, and I could tell that he was instructed not to give up until after the third refusal. Jeez, now I know why they call it Chase Bank.

Together again

We could've used name tags at my great-aunt's funeral this weekend, because there are so many relatives we haven't seen in years. Actually, the confusion is not that bad because my family tends to use the same first names across generations, so it was pretty safe to call all the guys Jim.

The service had a lot of hymns to sing, and I started to wonder whether I was anywhere close to being in tune, and I considered closing one ear with my finger so I could hear my own voice, and then thought that was probably a little too We Are the World for a funeral service, which led to a case of suppressed chuckles, which I'm sure are very common at funerals, or at least I hope so.


In his final years, my grandpa lived in a nursing home where he shared a room with a nice guy named Barney. Grandpa admitted that he played little tricks on Barney. Grandpa put his Swedish-language newspaper on Barney's side of the room in place of the local paper Barney usually read. Grandpa would chuckle when his roommate picked up the paper, blinking and squinting, apparently thinking his eyes were getting worse.

Freshman year in college, my roommate Jaco and I never tormented each other, but it was a learning experience. Jaco knew all about jazz, not rock. He heard my Rolling Stones' Some Girls album but assumed it was the Beatles. Still, he could identify a saxophone player just by hearing him play a bit of a solo on another of my albums, while I had to look up the liner notes to check who was playing.

Jaco was black (still is) and used Afro Sheen, unlike me. Once I picked up my comb and it slipped right out of my fingers, because Jaco had borrowed it to get his hair ready. Another afternoon I was studying alone in our dorm room with the door closed, the better to hear my radio and not the REO Speedwagon from the massive stereo down the hall. When it was time to go downstairs for supper, I couldn't get a grip on the doorknob because it was too slippery. That damn Afro Sheen again. I finally used a careful two-handed grip to turn the doorknob and get out.