Friday, December 11, 2009

Sick Days (January 2009)

I'm coming down with it, I just know it. Shit.

Everett's been sick all week. She's been walking around the apartment with the red nose and the rheumy eyes. The mouth hanging open so she looks like her IQ's dropped about 90 points. You know Everett's sick when she looks that awful and doesn't care. She ignores my medication combination dictates, instead calling Josh, who checks with his parents, who are in the medical profession, and follows the advice he calls back with. "Yes, I can take the NyQuil even though it's been only three hours since I took the Advil...Josh says it's ok and YES he checked with his parents!" And here I thought they had broken up. I guess she's still keeping him on staff for medical emergencies.

Everett's teachers have come in and out of my office all week. One even called me from her classroom last Friday. "Is Everett ok? How is she feeling? What are her symptoms, exactly? Oh, the poor thing!" People should give that much of a shit when I'm out sick.

Yes, back to me. I'm not feeling well, and that means for the duration, it's all about me.
I am the worst sick person in my family. Usually that designation is conferrred upon the grown men in the house, but actually Peter is pretty good. He lies around and naps, quietly reads on the corner of the couch, makes himself soup. He's so self-sufficient and calm about it that I often forget that he's sick at all and forget to be a little nicer to him than I usually am. "Why can't you go out and pick Zack up from his rehearsal for a change?? Oh. Oh. That's right, you're sick, I forgot, I'm sorry. So how are you feeling, anyway?"

I lie in bed, heave heavy sighs, and moan quietly. "Ohmigod, would you knock it off, you're ridiculous!" whoever is passing by will often shout out. "Could I have some more water pleeeease?" I cry weakly. "Are you eating out there? What are you having? Could I have a little of that, pleeeease? I can't find my asprin!"

Zack had Chicken Pox when he was in the first grade, and he was disgusting. I wrapped him up in an over-sized sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight around his head with the string. We ran the three blocks to the pediatrician, after office hours as instructed, as if I were harboring Typhoid Mary. The doctor visibly cringed as she let us in the door. She determined that he didn't have pox down his esophagus, or up or down or in anywhere else it is exceptionally dangerous to have them. Just all over every last square inch of his body. Nothing to do but oatmeal baths, Benadryl, and wait it out.

I told poor miserable little Zack that if he didn't scratch, he wouldn't get any scars. I am still amazed when I think back to how he was able to follow my one simple instruction. What willpower he demonstrated, just sitting on his little hands, watching tv, and determinedly not scratching. In one of life's more unfair turns, after he recovered, he was left sporting more than a couple of scars. After all that hard work not scratching. "It's not fair, Mom!" he said with tears welling up. I didn't scratch at all, and I still have promised me I wouldn't!" I felt terrible.

I had Chicken Pox when I was about eight or so. It was a pretty nasty case. I remember my mother calling everyone we knew to let them know, even the dentist. How embarassing. After two weeks of suffering, my little sister Kris came down with it. She had THREE, count 'em, THREE pox. No fever. No suffering. But she got to stay home and enjoy life until those three pox took their blessed time and dried up completely. "Now J," Mom said "Aren't you happy for your sister, that she was lucky enough not to get as sick as you were?" Uh, yeah, right....whatever.

Everett is a world-class sleeper when she's well, and when she's sick, she has been known to sleep twelve hours at a clip. Her personality takes an occasional cranky dip, "You're going to the supermarket? Could you please get some good stuff for a change? And could you please remember the Blistex this time? You always remember what Zack asks for. You never forget what he wants. Why do you always have to...." SLAM -- I'm out the door, sorry -- can't hear you. She's growing up to be as charming a sickie as I am.

The question, if indeed I am coming down with "it," will be whether to stay home in my misery in an empty apartment with no one to yell at, or go to work and spread the joy and the germs around.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fourth Lobster (August 2009)

I wouldn't go so far as to say that everyone should experience killing his or her own food, like some might suggest. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, one of my favorite books of recent memory, Michael Pollan follows his purchased steer to the slaughterhouse. He visits a self-sustaining farm in Virginia and beheads his own chicken. He hunts wild boar, and forages for wild mushrooms, which is more daunting than you would imagine. And did you know that mushrooms, as fungi, are more closely related to animals than to plants? I sure didn't.

I don't come from hunters. My North Carolina grandpa may have shot a rabbit or two, maybe a duck (shades of Elmer Fudd) but to hear my dad tell it, grandpa was more of a fisherman than a hunter. He'd come home with bass, or lake trout, his mouth just watering for my grandma to fry them up for him. And she would say to him, "That's wonderful dear, now take them right back outside and scale them and clean them and gut them, and then I'll get right to it."

My dad's family kept chickens in the back, and when he reached a certain age, probably younger than we pampered city-slickers would imagine, he was charged with going out and selecting and killing a chicken for dinner. An ax wasn't even part of this little backyard operation. No, killing a chicken for dinner on Driver Avenue in Durham involved catching one of them, wrapping your hand around its head, and swinging the whole feathered bundle a good strong couple of 360 degree turns. A little wrist action was necessary; if you didn't have the proper wrist action, the neck wouldn't snap properly and kill the chicken quickly and you'd be left with a brain-dead chicken that would run around the yard after you dropped it. Wouldn't that be a nice image to replay through your mind later as you settled down to supper that evening?

But I suppose it is fair to say that growing your own food and, yes, killing your own food, is character-building. While it isn't the line in the sand that I would use to separate a worthwhile person from one not deserving of my time, it's an experience maybe one shouldn't pass on if it comes up. As I get older, I find I am less likely to dismiss such ideas with an "ewwwww."

I had the opportunity in Wellfleet last week. We were all staying, even my dad, with Peter's sister Sharon and her husband, Danny. Everett wanted to have lobster before she returned to the city. You don't have to ask me twice if lobster is on the menu, and it was decided Tuesday would be the day.

"Fantastic!" I said. "Where do we want to go? Arnold's? Moby Dick's?"

"I was thinking we'd just buy some and cook them here," Danny said. "It's a whole lot cheaper."

Here. At home.

In a big pot of boiling water.

"Oh, uhh...great idea!"


We're gonna kill us some lobster.

Now, I realize it's sort of a yuppie dilemma, boiling a lobster alive. It's not the same as holding a chicken carcass in your hand, or shooting and skinning a rabbit. It's not as gross, and there's not the same central nervous system involved--no pain. They're just fish, after all.


I took Everett and Zack on a lobster boat tourist ride in Bar Harbor a few years ago. The guy hauled up the trap and showed us lobsters, showed us how to tell a male from a female. The female's tail wraps around more tightly under herself in order to protect her eggs. Females are also more likely than males to be spared by fishermen, and thrown back into the sea--to live on and raise more babies.

Which is how I think it should be, except for that eternal raising of babies part.

He also showed us how to tell if a lobster is right-handed or left-handed. The smaller pincher--if you look carefully, all lobsters have a larger and a smaller pincher--is the fine-motor pincher. ("What, is that the pincher he writes with?" I wanted to ask.) A lobster with a smaller right pincher is a right-handed lobster.

"Look! I have a right-handed lobster!" I announced at the restaurant that night. "I wonder what percentage of the lobster population is left-handed? Is it the same as humans? What do you think, kids??"

Blank stares. I realized right then that gender and handedness was more than I wanted to know about something I was getting ready to eat. Dad killed the chicken by putting his hand around its head--if I had been there, I wouldn't have asked which one he had slaughtered. Grandpa caught a fish and Grandma cooked it. I didn't need to know which pincher mama lobster used to check her eggs, or which pincher papa lobster would lead off with to avoid the lobster trap nestled in the bottom of the ocean.

It didn't stop me from eating lobster if the opportunity arose, no sir, but it did make me think a little bit each time, at least until the first couple of glasses of pinot grigio kicked in, that maybe I was a bit of a....hypocrite. But big deal, I'd tell myself, eating lobster was no worse than any number of sins I'd committed in the last year, and no worse that eating a hen that had been killed by an inept hand and spent a bit of time running around the grass like a....well, like a chicken with its head cut off.

But knowing a lobster is killed and cooked by dropping it in boiling water, and actually doing it are two different things. I had always bypassed even selecting my lobster out of the tank at the restaurants. That was way too "Hand of God" for me. "Just pick one for me please, and bring it out. ....Oh, and with extra melted butter, thanks."

All that was about to change. Danny's friend told him the best place to go to buy the lobsters, a place a few miles up in Truro. Some fisherman selling some out of his garage. Nice and tasty, and only $7.99 a pound.

"Say, that's the same as buying a nice sirloin," I rationalized to myself, trying desperately to find a common ground between buying a cellophane-wrapped pre-killed steak in the Stop 'n' Shop and boiling one of God's freshly-caught creatures alive. But that was about the only similarity I could muster up, unless you hauled a live steer up with a giant pulley and lowered it slowly into a giant vat of boiling oil, like something the Joker might do to Batman and Robin. "Holy Lobster Bib, Batman!"

Peter and my dad were enlisted to find the lobster place and make the purchase. I gave Everett a look and a toss of the head. "Go with them," I said. "Make sure they do it right." Off they went.
Sharon had quietly decided to not participate in the ritual slaughter. She didn't make a big showy stand about it, because she still had every intention of eating the results. But she sort of disappeared. I stayed in the kitchen to help. Danny clanked around under the counter and pulled out a big lobster pot. Big, but not huge. "Will that be big enough?" I asked.

"It'll be OK for four, I figure, then we'll use this pot for the other two," he said as he pulled out a smaller one. "I guess it'll be OK, I've never done this before."

What?? Oh dear.

I set the table to burn off nervous energy waiting for the lobster delivery. Danny worried over water levels and heat settings. "We're boiling, we're not steaming them," he said. "Boiling takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, the website said."

Hey! Web research is my job.

Peter and my dad and Everett returned with the lobsters. "It wasn't 'Commercial Street,'" Peter cranked, "it was 'Commercial Place'--we drove right past it!"

"How many 'Commercial' anythings did you think there would be, Peter?" I asked. You were in Truro, for heaven's sake, not Queens!"

There were brown paper bags. I was surprised, but what was I to expect, really? Tanks?

I reached in and pulled out a lobster and held it up. It had those thick rubber bands around its pinchers. I avoided taking note of which pincher was the larger one. I avoided looking to see if its tail was tightly wrapped up underneath itself.

"Oh right! Look! Rubber bands! Do we take these off before we kil--, I mean before we drop them in the boiling--, I mean....(huff) I take these off?" I asked Danny.

Everyone else had conveniently made him or herself scarce.

"Yes, the bands need to come off," Danny said. "Is the corn cooking?"

Is the corn cooking?? Am I supposed to be thinking about the corn, too? I've got enough on my mind here. I don't usually find myself on the road to a nervous breakdown simply from preparing an evening meal. But Sharon had the corn out on the grill and a salad already prepared. She had more than contributed her part and could guiltlessly stay away from main course preparation. "You don't want the corn ready," Danny said, "before the lobsters are."

Oh, 'Mr. Dinner Preparation Expert' all of a sudden.

"Everything doesn't have to be ready at the exact same time," I told Danny. "The lobster or the corn can sit around for a few minutes to wait for the other one, it will be all right."

"Oh, no," Danny said. "It all has to come out at the same time, or it won't be good!"

Sigh. This is why I get aggravated cooking with men. Especially ones who cook just once in a while, yet think they know everything oh so much better than I do when their turn comes up. Just get out of the way, please, and let me do it.

But I was the sous-chef here, and I wasn't going to stage a mutiny....particularly not in this case, because I was not at all certain I could step up to the plate and take over preparation of the main course. That's right....the lobster-killing.

The big pot was boiling.

It was time.

"OK, I think we're good to go here," Danny shouted, ridiculously, like we were at opposite ends of a big boat or something.

"OK," I shouted back, "here I come!" I came over with the first de-banded lobster. I held it way up and out in front of me, like one of Zack's particularly smelly socks I might carry to the hamper.

Sharon and Danny's Cape Cod kitchen is large by middle-class New York City standards, but small by any other standard. Maybe four or five steps tops from counter to stove. But that night it was the Appalachian Trail or the Penine Way. Days, it took, to carry across my first victim--er--lobster. The right-handed lobster...oops! I snuck a look, in spite of myself. She (oh gosh, did I check for that curled-under tail, too?) wasn't moving too much, wasn't struggling or anything. She probably was near-dead, wouldn't even know what hit her when she hit the boiling water. We all gotta eat, right? Beast killing beast, right? Hey, it's Darwin, it's survival of the fittest, it's's how life works.


"Here I come," I said, still shouting, as Danny, a beast, stood by the boiling pot holding the lid with the oven mitt on. I, another beast, held it over the pot. The lobster, beast number three in this little scenerio, the snowball in hell, writhed slowly in my hand.


I couldn't do it.

"I can't do it," I said. I shoved it into Danny's hand. "You'll have to do it. Sorry."

Danny dropped the first lobster into the pot, as I went back to bring over the next one and the next one. Three lobsters in the first pot. It looked full, I thought. I stood there with the fourth lobster in my hand.

"We can fit in another," Danny said.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "It looks pretty tight in th--"

Danny took the lobster and pressed it in and replaced the lid. Within seconds, he had the remaining two lobsters in the smaller pot.

"So how long are you cooking them?" Peter came over to ask. Oh sure, everyone comes out of the woodwork now that the dirty work is done. "The guy at the lobster place said ten-to-twelve minutes."

"The website said fifteen-to-twenty minutes if you're boiling them," Danny said.

"I think the bottom two lobsters in the big pot are boiling, but the two you shoved in on top of them are steaming, technically speaking," I postulated, as I took a big gulp of wine. I will postulate while drinking as long as I am in the safety of the home.

And then the lid moved.

I choked a bit on my pinot, and then it moved again. As Peter and Danny debated over lobster-cooking details neither one of them really knew anything about, I pointed while I had the lip of the wineglass still at my mouth. "What?" one or both of them said. I pointed again, with a bit more urgency. I couldn't even say it.

The fourth lobster was trying to climb out of the pot. It (he? she?) had knocked the lid halfway off the pot and one entire claw came out. It was actually making progress.

"Oh, shit!" Danny said, and flipped the lobster over and pressed down the lid, harder this time.

"Is dinner ready?" Sharon came in off the deck. "No, it's not ready," I said. "It's still trying to climb out of the pot!" She set her mouth in a line and returned to the deck.

Eventually dinner was ready, and we were all seated around the dinner table with honking big lobsters in front of us. Everett and Zack emerged from wherever they had been hiding to avoid the hullabaloo. Corn was brought out, butter was melted, extra napkins were brought to the table. It was darn good, the lobster. Danny had managed to cook them all perfectly. I don't know if you can attribute that so much to the fact that he figured it all out, or to the fact that perhaps lobster is "forgiving," and not that hard to cook. As long as it doesn't escape. But it was yummy, and they were so big that there was plenty left over. Everyone, at my instruction, put their plates on the big kitchen counter, and as I finished the bottle of pinot, I broke into everyone's leftover lobsters and picked and scraped and got enough meat out to combine and make a rockin' lobster salad for lunch the next day. As Sharon likes to say, "We're all family here."

"Is there something the matter with me?" I idly wondered and I cracked and picked and rummaged through the shells. "I watched a creature literally fight for its life, make a last-ditch effort to save itself from what has to be one of the worst ways on this earth to die. And then after watching it fail, watching it be pressed back into submission, I turned around ten minutes later and enjoyed the hell out of myself eating it with a side of corn. I can stand here and rip it apart with my bare hands to make a nice dainty salad for us to feast on the next day. What does that make me?"

I guess it makes me....human?

P.S. My dad had a hot dog.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

And Then He is a She

John's in heat.

I guess it's not so easy to tell a boy kitten from a girl kitten.

When Zack first found the cat, or the cat first found Zack, to be a little more precise, we took its scrawny little butt straight into Everett's empty room, to keep it isolated from Max and Minnie. "Do we know what it is? You look," I instructed my sister Kris, who happened to be there that evening. She took a quick look under the tail, not wanting to traumatize the poor thing more than it already was. "Looks like a boy to me," she said with a degree of certainty.

So whether or not, when I took John to the vet a couple of days later, the vet even actually looked herself to determine the gender, I don't remember. She might have just assumed we knew. She looked in his ears and eyes and squeezed John all up and down--she checked out everywhere.

Except know...down there.

Well, now that we had finally more or less agreed on the name John -- I stuck with it even through suggestions of J.D. (for John Doe) and Figgins (Kris stubbornly insisted on referring to the cat as "Figgins," since that was the last name of one of the ball players we were watching in the World Series that night. Sorry Sis, you don't get a vote from all the way in Brooklyn) -- John started acting sort of....strange. Sort of....un-John-like.

He started acting....more Jane-like.

No one's ever accused me of being the quickest one on the block in these matters. "John and Max are starting to act weird," I said to Peter one evening, "Like they have some alpha male domineering-thing going on. I think it's time to get John fixed." Peter was involved in his interminable online search for a used car and responded with a grunt. I shrugged and went to bed. The next morning I broached the subject again, "You know, Peter, they're at it again in there, Max is on top of John and biting the back of his neck and and being really aggressive and John is, like, just kind of laying there and taking it. He even looks like he's enjoying it a little."

Peter gave me one of those looks that Archie used to reserve for Edith right before he'd call her the "D" word.

"What?" I asked.

"You know what it is," he said.

"I do?" I asked.

"Sure you do."

"What? Tell me."

"John is a girl."


"Of course!"

"Ya think??"

I went back out into the living room. There was Max, on top of John. John was yowling, and rubbing himself -- herself? -- along the floor, with his -- I mean her -- behind stuck up in the air. Then Max tried to straddle her and...

"Hey. Hey!! Knock it off!"

What a hussy.

Max and Minnie joined the family a couple of years ago at the same time, and they were already neutered when they did. We had never had shenanigans like this in the house before. It was weird seeing Max act this way, and I think it's been weird for Max, too. It's like he's doing something from sense memory, like on MASH, when a soldier would wake up and Hawkeye would tell him they had to amputate his leg, and the kid would say "What do you mean? It's still there. I feel it."

They're trying really hard, when I'm not there to yell at them to stop, which means they're going at it the better part of the morning and into the afternoon every day. Until John, or Jane, or perhaps Jade -- new discussions are open, after all, and we haven't even told my sister yet -- is out of heat, and we can get her fixed. Or spayed, to be a little more precise.

Minnie, on the other hand, just watches from the back of the living room easy chair, or goes into the back bedroom to get a little shut eye.

She can't be bothered with that nonsense.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

But I'm Too Big

Peter and I managed to visit no less than four (OK, three and-a-half) car dealerships today without getting into one major argument.

Peter's Subaru was totalled last month, with Peter, Zack and me in it, by an idiot who barreled out of a gas station in Mystic Connecticut without, apparently, looking to the left. Why the hell would you want to look to your left when pulling out of a gas station onto a busy road? Looking to your left is overrated, isn't it?? It's much more fun to just shoot out blind and plow into the passenger side of the next car that happens innocently by!! It breaks up the day and gives you a great story for the dinner table that night!!!

OK, OK, sorry. That happened, and it's over. No one was hurt, which was a good thing. Peter got a nice settlement from the insurance company, which was a good thing. We got a rental car free for a month, which was a good thing. But all good things must come to an end, and our rental month did just that, so it was time this weekend to begin looking for a new one.

Actually, a couple of weeks ago was the time to begin looking, and I guess you say Peter did, in a matter of speaking, when his friend Jimmy attended a car auction for him. "Oh no, Peter!" I said, "Aren't those car auctions kind of risky? You don't know where those cars have come from, and if you win one and it's a hunk of junk, you're stuck."

"Oh, Jimmy know the guy who runs the auction..." ...and Jimmy knows this and Jimmy knows that and whatever. In any case, Jimmy placed a bid on one car and it didn't win, so that was that and just as well, as far as I'm concerned.

Yesterday, Friday, was the first day without the rental car and Peter had to use public transportation. That was enough to get him all hopped up on Saturday morning to visit car dealerships. "Are you still sleeping??" he asked this morning. "Yes, well, sort of," I said. "If you lay there with your eyes closed," Peter said, "How can I know if you're listening to what I'm saying?"

Time to get up, evidently.

Peter wanted to go look at cars. I'm not sure how I figured into the whole thing, but I had no particular plans except to sleep in anyway, so up I got and out we went into the wilds of Westchester.

First stop, Pleasantville, to the Volkwagen dealer. Or, I should say, to Prestige Imports. Busy little place, and Pleasantville was a busy little town that early afternoon with all the young parents accomanying all their oh-so-cute little ones to the Halloween celebration in the middle of town. We had to be careful not to run over any three-foot-high witches or pirates or princesses or whatever they were all dressed like. I just took a second to reflect on the fact that I so don't miss doing that stuff anymore.

Prestige Imports was hopping. A salesman said he'd be right with us. Right after he put a sixty-something lady and her seventy-something husband in a Passat for a test drive. The lady plunked her giant pocketbook on the hood of the Passat to fish out her driver's license. The salesman cringed, though just a little. He took her license inside and the couple climbed in the car and off they went. "Oh hey," the salesman said as he came back outside, "they just took off?"

"Oh...yup, I just watched them go!" I said as I chomped on the pasta salad I'd just purchased from the 7-11 across the street. I pointed my plastic fork in the direction they had just gone.

The salesman showed us around a little bit and Peter settled on the GTI as the one he wanted to test drive. We had to wait for the old couple to get back with the plate, but they came back in short order and huffed off unpleasantly. We took the GTI for a spin up the Taconic. Turbo cars rattle me. Why do you have to go that fast that quickly and why does it have to make that unnerving race-car engine sound? We're not at Limerock, we're in Westchester, for Pete's Sake.

But it was a nice car. Peter enjoyed how it handled. It was "tight," though the clutch was a little "soft..."


The seats heated up. Paeter must have inadvertently turned them on when he was fiddling with all the knobs while barreling down the parkway, a practice I have never endorsed. While a sixty-something degree day is not really the time you want to have a hot ass, it's nice to know that option is there for you when you do.

There wasn't much to say once we brought it back. There wasn't much bargaining leverage, apparently. While Peter liked the car, he wasn't ready to make a commitment, and the salesman had other customers waiting, so we thanked him and off we went to the Hyundai dealer in While Plains.

A little place, it was, tucked away behind The Westchester Mall. "Hi there, how many cars can I sell you today, ha ha!" said the well groomed, well-doused-in-cologne salesman, Thomas, who hustled on out to greet us. "Ha ha, yes, you do have some great deals here." Peter said immediately, which didn't seem to me the thing you're supposed to say to salesman, at least not right off the bat. Aren't you supposed to toe a hard price line when you talking to salesmen? Well the prices were good, so I guess there was just no pretending they weren't.

Peter knew he was interested in the Elantra Touring car, but went down the line with Thomas, talking all that male car-talk. There was a little Mini-Cooper all the way at the end. A little blue one with white racing stripes on the hood (or "bonnet," I suppose,) and it even had the Union Jack printed on the door handles.

"Oh, a Mini-Cooper!" I exclaimed. "Oh yes!" Thomas chimed in. "Just came in yesterday. Nice, isn't it??" We all agreed it was nice and we all agreed that you see them everywhere now, and we all agreed it wasn't the car for us. "I've been told I'm too big for a Mini-Cooper." I informed Thomas, who wisely refrained from making any comment. "But they sure are cute," I said, and he agreed.

"Oops," I whispered to Peter, "I said the 'C-word.'" Paul had taken to rolling his eyes every time I referred to a car as "cute," even after I pointed out to him that the appearance of a car was as important, if not more so, to a man than it was to a woman. As a matter of fact, he had taken to snorting a little bemused snort every time I made any sort of comment or asked any sort of question about one of the cars, even if it was relatively intelligent. But we had been doing so well up to that point, I decided not to pursue it.

We took the Elantra out for a spin, this time with Thomas along for the ride. He offered me the front seat, but I opted for the back. Peter liked it well enough as we drove up 287 an exit or two, then around the residential roads of White Plains, before we headed back and the conversation segued from the realm of cars to the equally male-dominated realm of home electronics. Oh get me out of here. I tossed off one last reminder to Peter from the back seat that Asian cars were much cheaper to maintain than German cars, which Thomas clearly appreciated, and elaborated on. When we got back to the lot, Thomas opened the hood of the car, and said to me, "Oh you can look under here, too."

"I got news for ya, Thomas," I said, "Peter ain't gonna know any more than I do when he looks under here." Car salesmen always assume that the man knows oodles more about cars than the woman, and while oftentimes that might be the case, there are plenty of instances where the man and the woman are equally dumb.

Thomas gave Peter a "bottom-line" price for his reference, once Peter told him he wasn't going to make his decision today and was going to do a little more looking around. Another handshake and another business card for the wallet.

Southward down to Yonkers and Honda. The Central Avenue dealership is split into two areas and two separate buildings, flanking either side of a medical building on the east side of the road. We didn't know that and bumbled into the used car section. Oops, I mean the "pre-owned" section. They actually had some nice cars there and a two-year old "Fit," which was the Honda model Peter was interested in. I had never even heard of a Fit until that morning when he told me about it. "Well, that might be a good car for you," I said, "you do like having fits!"


Once the natty salesman informed us that the new car dealership was up the avenue a few yards, he wouldn't let us leave until he showed us both his little blue (and decidedly cute...whoops!) Fit. "You don't see these coming in much, people are hanging on to them, and they're just starting to go off-lease, but folks don't want to let them go and..." blah, blah, blah...."Look at the back seats!" The bottoms of the back seats go up, which is actually the first time I've ever seen that, and I emitted a little "ooh." The leg room and space all around on the inside was surprisingly adequate. Not luxurious, mind you, but roomy, all things considered. "Let me give you a bottom-line price before you go!" They don't let you go around here without giving you a bottom-line price. Even the used-Honda guy is competing against the new-Honda guy up the street.

"Oh wait," Peter said, peering back into the car, "it doesn't have a stick?" Peter likes a stick.

"No, no," said the salesman, "but it has a paddle-shift. It's good you know? "Cause you can sort of be doing some shifting, but it's automatic, so it's good in case anyone else in the family wants to drive it too." He gestured to me.

"Excuse me!" I said. "I happen to know how to drive a stick! As a matter of fact, I learned to drive on a pick-up truck, which is a much harder stick to use than the stick on some little piddly car!"

"Why do you always have to do that?" Peter asked as we left. I can't help it. Why do car guys always have to assume the woman is an incompetent idiot? I've been driving a stick since before that pisher was born.

The "new-Honda" guy up the street, Anthony, was a little desultory. He took us outside, then he disappeared for a few minutes. Then he came back out, but didn't have the right key. We couldn't test drive on a Saturday, "Just store policy," he shrugged. Well, OK. He invited Peter back the next day or Monday to take a drive. "If you are running late, just text me, and I will wait here for you!" He ran off to his desk to get his card.

"Does he know you don't know how to text?" I asked Peter.

"Ha ha ha!" laughed Anthony from across the dealership floor. "That was funny!"

Anthony came back with his business card, and we had a very pleasant conversation about how he taught his mother-in-law to text-message and how while I've texted for a while, Everett taught me how to use the auto-spell function. Ha ha ha.

"Can we go?" said Peter.

So, we went home, not really much closer to owning a car than we were when we left. Peter sometimes likes to consider these things carefully and methodically. So methodically, in fact, that eventually you want to shoot yourself in the head. On the other hand, he bought the last car, the Subaru, online. Sight unseen. It's a conundrum.

I'd still like a Cooper.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Big Bad John

So, his name is John. Peter says we're not keeping him.

Zack called the other day, mere seconds after I had hung up with my sister Kris and was slinging my pocketbook on my arm to go out and drive down to pick her up from the subway down the hill.

"Hello, Mom? I found a kitten. He's really skinny. Can I bring him home?"


Yes, shit. I'm sorry, but as a mom, and a mom with two cats in the house already, and a mom who has worked for years to not be a sap and not be a sucker, this is bad news. Because as good as I have gotten at looking the other way when passing the occasional stray ("Well, he looks healthy...well, he's scared and doesn't want to come near me anyway...well, someone appears to be feeding him...well, it's summer and it's warm, he'll be OK") something about the tone of Zack's voice led me to say, with little more than a micro-second's hesitation,

"OK, bring him home."

I had to pick up Kris. I had to pick up my dad. We were all supposed to be going out to dinner.

I mentally changed the plan as I turned to head out the door. I'd pick up Kris, I'd pick up Dad, but we'd come back here for Chinese takeout. Dad loves Chinese takeout. Extenuating circumstances. We'd be fine.

My phone rang again. Zack.

"Mom? There's a lady here who says you should really come to get me. She says it's too long a walk with the cat in my arms. Could you bring the carrier?"

What lady? Now there's some lady in the mix? Some lady telling me what I should "really" do?

"Where are you anyway, Zack?"

"I'm at the corner of Independence and...oh, you know...where the street gets really narrow right before it hits the park...I'm in front of this lady's house." He's a regular Rand McNally, my Zack.

OK. So I have Kris waiting, and I have Dad waiting. I have no time to argue. And I'm glad deep down, because I know what's going to happen once we get this cat in the house, and I know I'm going to use the rush I am in as an excuse later ("I had no time to think!") for Peter, who will undoubtedly be less than thrilled when he discovers we have a new kitty in the house--permanent, temporary, or otherwise. I open the hall closet, rummage around on the top shelf, pull a cat carrier onto my head, and rush out the door.

There he is, Zack, on the side of the narrow part of Independence. He's holding a dark gray tabby cat, and he and a middle-aged lady not much taller than he is both wave me down. I had to drive past them, past the narrow part of the road to pull my big van over.

The lady was smiling. Zack looked a little stressed and quite relieved to see me, as making small talk and answering nosy questions from friendly, well-meaning, middle-aged ladies has never been one of his things.

"Hi, how are you?" I extended my hand as I approached her. Thanks so much for staying with Zack. I'm J."

"I'm Barbara," she said, "Barb."

"Hi Barbara, I mean, Barb." Oops, that sounded a little sarcastic. I was just a little frazzled and rushed. But Barbara Barb didn't seem to notice.

The cat was indeed skinny, as Zack had claimed. "He's about six months old, I'm guessing," said Barbara Barb. I thought for a minute she was talking about Zack... Oh, the cat.

Of course.

"Oh, he's a sweet little cat," I said. "Hey, Zack, how are you?"

"Fine," said Zack. "Mom, can we take him home?"

"He's a good cat, said Barbara Barb. Very calm. We've been standing out here with him for ten minutes, and he's been nothing but a good kitty."

Mom," asked Zack, "can we take him home?"

"You sure you don't recognize him?" I asked her. "Zack found him in front of your yard. Is it possible he might be a neighbor's cat or anything?"

"No, I've never seen him before," she said. "But he's a good cat, I can tell. I'd take him in myself, only I already have four."

Of course.

Well, there was not much else to do. I thanked Barbara Barb again for her help, or maybe just for her budinskiness. We put the cat in the carrier. ("Watch his tail!" she said. Hey, I know these things. I've had cats all my life.) Zack and I put the carrier in the van and climbed in. "We're going down the hill to pick up Aunt Kris at the subway station," I informed him. "Then we'll drop you and the cat home, and go up to pick up Grandpa. Go straight into Everett's (emptied-out) room. Whatever you do, DO NOT let the cat out in the living room. DO NOT try to do anything fancy with him before we get back. DO NOT introduce him to Max and Minnie!" Max and Minnie, the other cats.

We picked up Kris at the curb near the subway. "Hey, get on in, we have a cat here, change of plans," I spouted as she entered the van. Kris is a cat person. Kris is also a lot things you wouldn't associate with a "cat person," including a quick-witted cynical rock artist, but she is a big softie down under. When our old cat Albert was on his last legs, she called me every day to check on him. It took her a full week to call to check on me after I had my foot surgery.

"Oh what?? Oh hey, kitty, kitty, kitty! Oh...hey, Zack. How did all this happen?"

I gave Kris the Reader's Digest version, and as I did, decided that it made much more sense to just go straight to pick up Dad as it did to take Zack and the cat home first. So we drove to Dad's, I waited in the van with the cat while Kris and Zack went up to bring Dad down on his scooter. We introduced Dad to the cat once they got back down, ("I didn't tell him, so it would be a surprise," said Kris. Like Dad needs surprises in his life.)

Once home, we put the cat in Everett's room, as planned. We got in quickly enough that Max the Cat didn't even notice. Minnie, however, did, but after some quick machinations while clunking through with the carrier, we were safely in the room. We gave him some food and water but he barely sniffed it and sat there quietly. "I think the poor thing's a little stunned," I said, and Kris agreed. We left him alone.

Kris and I then drove over to " Chinese restaurant on Johnson Avenue, the one that doesn't deliver , but conveniently has a wine store located a few doors down. Some wine was in order. While our food was being prepared, we walked a couple of blocks down to Riverdale Avenue to the vet to see if they were still open. They were. Wow, what a nice big plasma TV they had in the waiting area. And it was on the Food Network, too!

I complemented the guy at the desk on his choice of viewing, and asked to make an appointment for the stray cat my son just picked up. He had me on the computer already from Max and Minnie, though it had been a while since we'd had either one of them in, hence my surprise at the plasma TV. "Cat's name?" he asked.

"Hmmmm. John Doe, I guess. Or maybe Jane Doe. We haven't been intimate yet, ha ha."

My appointment was unlaughingly made for the following day. I would bring him in after work.
"Now let me call Peter so he doesn't have another heart attack when he gets home," I said to Kris as we walked back up to the Chinese place.

"Hello, Peter? On your way home? Oh good. Kris and Grandpa are here and we're picking up some Chinese. Yup. Yup, got some General Tso's chicken, yup. Oh, and just so you know, we have a cat here too. Zack picked up a cat on the way, I know. I know. He called in the middle of my running around and he was upset because he was so skinny, and he sure is skinny, so he's in Everett's room eating and resting, and I made an appointment at the vet just now, just to make sure he's OK, and then we can figure out what to do, so...yeah, so when will you be home? OK, see you in a bit." Click.

Kris and I were setting out the food and the plates as Peter came in. Zack ran over to him.


"No, Zack, no. We don't need a third cat. Do we?" Peter shot me one of those pointed, meaningful looks.

"Huh?? Oh I'm sorry, I was scooping out the rice, I didn't hear you. Well go at least meet the cat then come out and eat."

We ate, and I left with Kris and Dad to take Dad home and drop Kris back down at the subway.

"What do you thnk is going to happen with Kitty?" asked Kris. "Do you think you'll end up keeping him?"

"Well, Peter's the biggest softie of them all, when you get right down to it," I said. "He'll put on the biggest show about not keeping him, and 'we don't have room,' and all of that. But he has trouble even throwing a house plant away. So we'll see. On the other hand, we really don't need a third cat."

But third cat, first cat, or otherwise, once the cat's in the house, I am pretty much a goner. "We're not keeping that cat, you know that, right?" Peter said when Zack was in the other room. "Fine," I said, "just fine," and got all weepy. Damn it. I hate getting all weepy. "Then just cancel the vet." I said, "What's the point? I'll just take the cat down to the ASPCA after work tomorrow."

"Well wait, they must have no-kill animal shelters somewhere," Peter said. "Maybe up by Kathy." Kathy, who lives an hour and a half away. "Peter, I don't have time to be ferrying a cat around to upstate New York. And every time I look in that room or touch that cat, never mind put him in my car, I am going to be that much more attached to him, so why don't you decide what to do with him and just do it and keep me out of it. I have my period anyway, and I can't talk about this any more tonight!" I flounced off into the bedroom. Yes, I played the period card. It's my card, and I'll play it if I want to.

A little while later, I poked my head in Everett's room just to check on the cat one last time before I went to sleep. Who was in there but Peter, sitting on the bed and scratching him behind the ears. "I thought he needed a little company...."

Poor Peter.

We decided over the phone from our offices the next morning that I would keep the vet appointment, just to make sure the cat was in good health. "Oh, I thought maybe you would leave him with the vet," said Peter. "No, Peter, you don't just leave animals at the vet, that's not what a vet is for...I'll make sure he's OK, and then we'll put some photos up around the neighborhood. He's not a feral cat. He must have belonged to someone at some point. If no one claims him, then we'll try to find him a home. Sound like a plan?"

"We still agree we don't need a third cat....right?" asked Peter.

"I agree we don't need a third cat. Oh, and we're going to call him 'John' in the meantime."

Poor Peter.

Lovely Everett arrived on the scene in the middle of the John drama, home from college for the weekend. "Can you pick me up from the subway?" she text-messaged me, "I'll go to the vet with you."

It was several minutes before she was able to get a good look at him. We had to get up the hill, park the van, get inside the vet's outer office and into the inner office before we could open the carrier and let John poke his head out. "Oh! He's sooo cuuute!" she cried, as she whipped out her camera phone and snapped a shot. The little bat-eared, roman-nosed kitty puss was prominently featured on her Facebook wall within minutes.

The vet came in and gave John a going over. She ran a fine tooth comb over his back, and found "some evidence" of fleas. She looked at his stool sample and found "some evidence" of worms. None of which was a surprise in a cat that had obviously spent an extended amount of time on the streets. "We can treat the fleas with a pill here, which you can follow up with a bath at home," she said. "Great," I joked, "nothing I like better than giving a cat a bath!" The worms could also be easily treated, and then she started talking about the shots.

"Um, I should to tell you that we aren't sure what exactly we'll be doing with this cat," I said. I want to get him fixed up, so to speak, but I want to keep my monetary investment down to a dull roar, if you can take that into account when you're deciding what to do to him?" But what was I talking about? Why indeed were we there, if not to get him taken care of?

Before the vet did any of the things the was suggesting, she gave him an exam--looked in John's ears, looked in his eyes. Squeezed his belly.

"Uh oh. I feel something in there," she said.

It could be the worms, but it felt "too round" for that. It could be his bladder, but it felt "too hard" for that. She wasn't sure, she said, but it could well be a tumor.

Damn. My eyes started to sting, for this little cat I didn't even know twenty-four hours ago. But I pushed my pragmatic self back to the forefront. "Perhaps we should do an x-ray before we do the shots and the meds and any of the other things you were suggesting?" I looked to Everett, who nodded in agreement. Thank goodness Zack wasn't here.

Yes, indeed, the vet agreed. She took John in the back, and Everett and I went out to wait in the outer area. "I don't know, Everett. If it is a tumor, we'll probably have to make a tough decision right here and now, you know?" She knew. I walked down the street to add money to my parking meter. This was taking longer than I'd planned on. I steeled myself for the tough decision. We'd just have to put poor little John to sleep, right here and now, if it was a tumor. No operations. No chemo. No crazy amounts of money. It would be ridiculous.

"Good news!" said the vet, when she emerged a few minutes later. "It wasn't a tumor! He'd just been holding off from urinating for so long that it was his bladder, which was just that full. I expressed him. He should be fine. I'll give him his shots and the worming medicine, and I'll give you some more to give him at home and then I'll bring him back out."

"I have the bill here, whenever you're ready to settle," said the guy at the counter.

I'm not going to tell you how much it was. Peter might read this. But let's just say, when she heard the amount, Everett said, "Screw putting up pictures around the neighborhood! He's our cat now!"

We washed John that night. Everett and I took him in the bathtub, and Zack and Peter squeezed in the room to "help." If he looked skinny before, you should have seen him wet. I handed him to Peter, who had a towel open at the ready. He took him as if he were receiving a newborn at the hospital. "Aww...he's shivering. Aww...what a good boy. OK everyone, stand back, you're making him nervous."

Poor Peter.

It's still not official, a few days later. Peter still says we have to find John a home. And if we could find a friend who wanted him, we'd all probably be OK with that. But it's hard to find anyone who wants a cat. People who want a cat tend to already have a cat.

I tell Zack it will be helpful to his cause if he doesn't ask Peter "Can we keep him? Can we keep him?" every five minutes.

"Leave Daddy alone," I whisper to Zack. "Daddy will come around in his own time."

If indeed, he hasn't already.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

What Goes Around (March 2009)

I have a new parking spot! You wouldn't believe the politics attached to these things around here. You gotta have the right friends.

We live in a two-building co-op that used to be a four-building co-op until the corporation spilt in a fit of rancor years and years ago. You can still find an old timer or two doddering around who remembers this with such vehemence it's like it happened yesterday, this falling-out. Whatever it was. I've never been able to listen to an explanation of it beyond the second or third sentence, it's so boring. It involved the shared parking lot, need I say more? And who cares now, anyhow? They're like the Hatfields and the McCoys, these little old folks.

We moved into the co-op (Section ONE) when I was pregnant with Zack. We had to meet with the committee....oh, what was the committee called? The one that vets you to determine whether or not you are fit you are fit to be one of their neighbors? Peter and I had our meeting one evening and brought along sweet little Everett, four years old, to up our cuteness factor. I lumbered in. Actually, I was fortunate enough in both my pregnancies to not get very big. I did very little lumbering, and I could always manage, all the way through my ninth month, to bend over and tie my shoes. When I was seven and a half months along with Everett, I was still skinny enough that the Ob/Gyn did another sonogram, just to make sure somebody was still home in there. But for the purpose of the meeting with the committee, I wanted to play the part well. We had it on "good advice" that they were specifically looking to lower the median age of the buildings' residents to something below the 79 or 80 years old it seemed to be. So, I kept my hands on my belly, occasionally puffed a bit of hair off of my forehead, and tried to look as 'uncomfortable-but-happy-as-hell-to-be-here' as possible. I, in a word, lumbered.

We passed muster, and soon were residents....sorry... "cooperators." An ironic term, since some of these folks turned out to be among the surliest people I had ever met in my life. The oldest ones, and there were some ancient folks back in that day, had been there since the co-op had formed, some forty years before. "I am an original cooperator!" they were wont to bellow in more disagreeable moments. As if being an "original cooperator" meant they owned their shares more than you did.

Once in, we immediately put ourselves on the list for a three-bedroom apartment, which was the only way to obtain one. You never got a three-bedroom coming in from the outside; you had to get a two-bedroom first, and wait your turn. It could be a long wait because basically you were waiting for people to die. If you were picky, if you wanted a high floor or a river view, the wait was longer still. We just wanted the extra room. We could have been looking out over the dumpsters in the back for all we cared.

A few months after Zack introduced himself to the world, we got lucky and somebody died. We found ourselves in a new, bigger, apartment. Across in the other building of our two-building co-op (Section ONE). But same difference. And a nice enough view, after all. We overlooked the garden in the middle, and could actually see a sliver of river through the trees in the winter. I'd miss my little Alzheimery neighbor lady who asked me seventeen times a day what time it was and whether or not the mailman had come yet, but you gotta do what you gotta do. And guess what? We had a little Alzheimery neighbor lady in our new building! She had her name on a piece of paper taped to her door, so she could put her garbage in the chute down the hall and make it back to the right apartment.

We weren't the only young family in this building, either, and we were greeted with almost desperate joy by Lena and Mike and their two kids who were the same age as ours, and by Joanie and John and their two, also in the same age neighborhood. Allies!

"You know what?" Lena and Joanie and I would observe over coffee in the morning or wine at night, "The playground here sucks!" Our kids were prime playground age, or approaching it. And the little enclosed playground area for our buildings was woefully inadequate. It had old, space-agey looking equipment from the 60s that couldn't have been up to current safety standards. There was peeling paint. ("It's probably lead paint, too!" Oohs and ahhs and concerned nods.) We decided we needed to appeal to the co-op board to update the playground. Not only did we need it to be safer for our kids, but we could also make the point that it would be a good selling point for prospective buyers, who might be pickier than we had been, and want a place for their kids to play that didn't look like downtown Beirut.

The co-op board members, not one of whom was under seventy, took great pride in keeping operating costs low. The monthly maintenance hadn't been raised in years and years, a fact they were proud of. A fact which worried more than a few younger cooperators who were more forward-thinking, and knew that something had to give somewhere down the line. But the oldies were in charge, and were voted in year after year, and they made the decisions. And they didn't want to raise the maintenance since what did they care about the state of the co-op ten years in the future? They'd all be dead.

Keeping operating costs low, of course, meant performing only bare-minimum upkeep on the buildings. The outside of the buildings looked all right, and the insides were kept up well enough to pass the casual muster of most residents. The playground was another story. Not that the playground was a factor in the structural well-being of the buildings, but it was a vital part of the premises, and it was ill-maintained, out-dated, and falling down. Bench slats were loose. Since the old-timers on the board had raised their kids already, renovating the playground just wasn't on their agenda. Lena, Joanie and I, we had to make it our issue.

We went to a co-op board meeting. The co-op board president, Grandpa Munster, let us speak. Heard our concern. And promised the board would discuss it, and get back to us. OK. They listened to us, we told each other. We'll give them a couple of weeks, and see what they say.

They said....nothing. The three of us answered the lack of response with a strongly-worded letter to the board, which we intended to make sure they addressed before the next meeting. They didn't.

OK, OK....the three of us gathered ourselves. What would be our next strategy? We were certainly more clever than this stale old board, we could certainly come up with something to force their hand. Let's kick it up a notch.

Lead. The lead paint. We had mentioned that as one of our issues. We had other concerns, too. The size of openings in the apparatuses. A child could get his head stuck, his finger stuck. We went down with our cameras and took all sorts of photos, demonstrating the shortcomings of the equipment, its dangers. We ran around with our cameras out there and documented everything.

We called in a company at our expense to test the surfaces for lead. I had the unique pleasure of taking the....lead guy?....around the playground that morning while he took all his samples. A couple of the board members glared daggers out their apartment windows. They knew we were stirring up trouble. Surprisingly, there was not an appreciable amount of lead in the playground paint.

No lead. Rats.

"A petition! We have to circulate a petition!" Lena insisted. I wasn't so sure about this. "What if no one will sign it? What if we look like a bunch of dopes? What if...."

We wrote up a petition. We stood in the playground and got passers-by on their way home from work. We got a lot of the little old ladies, who, much to our delight, were more than happy to sign. Turns out they didn't particularly like the old farts on the board, either. Stories from generations ago kept popping up. "Don't you remember the time that darn Herman wouldn't let you repaint your apartment door, Irma?" They've got long memories, these old folks. But most of them were on our side. With us to the point that there was an unprecedented turnout of little old ladies at the next co-op board meeting to see just what they planned to do for the "sweet little kids."

Grandpa Munster was not happy. He brought up liability. How if a cooperator's child had a little visitor over, then the visitor should not get to play on any new playground equipment to avoid possible injury and potential lawsuits. Which, of course, made no sense, since there was no such restriction currently, and the current equipment was an accident waiting to happen. "Hey," he continued, "perhaps the board should discuss the possibility of banning child visitors from the entire property, inside and out??" The rest of the board harrumphed in unity. They were grasping at straws and getting more and more ridiculous. I pointed out that a visiting old fart was much more likely to break a hip on the front steps, so we should probably ban visitors all together, shouldn't we??

These folks just weren't that bright. And mean. Not a good combination.

But with the encouraging little old lady turnout and crowd sentiment clearly in our favor, the board reluctantly agreed to form Lena, Joanie and me into an ad-hoc committee to scour playground catalogs and weigh our options. They gave us a budget of $10,000 to keep in mind as we did our research. Not a hell of a lot, but it was a start.

They commissioned Jack Link to keep an eye on us. Jack Link, the perpetual short-straw puller on the board. He always got stuck with the fun jobs, like informing people they wouldn't be getting their security deposit back, calling old ladies to tell them there's been a complaint about their cat yowling, and.....well, having to deal with Lena, Joanie and me. He was also voted "Most likely to bellow "I am an original cooperator!"

The three of us discussed what was needed, rifled through the catalogs, found what looked like just the thing that would make all sides happy, and submitted it to Jack. Jack brought it back to the board.

Much to our innocent delight, we came home one afternoon to find our little playground locked up tight, and much of the old equipment removed. Within a couple of days, it was all gone, and the surface had been ripped up and replaced with a fresh layer of blacktop. We rejoiced. We'd have a new playground before we knew it! And then...


Word leaked out that we weren't going to get a new playground. The board had decided they couldn't afford it after all. But "in the interest of the safety of our children," they had removed the old equipment, and paved the surface.

And kept the playground locked. So there was no place now for the kids to even run around.

Mean, I'm telling you. They were just plain mean.

And cheap.

Not-that-bright, mean, and cheap.

Lena and Joanie and I didn't know what to do next. What could we do? Our kids began riding their tricycles and playing in the old-timers' sitting area. There was no place else to play. The nice old ladies were gracious at first, but each time one had her foot run over by a scooter or was knocked in the head by an errant frisbee, the goodwill dwindled a little more.

Then it was summer. Board activity was suspended in the summer, and we three went off on various vacations with our families.

"Gosh," I wondered lazily to myself as I dozed by the pond in Cape Cod, "Wouldn't taking away a building amenity that was there when you signed your co-op contract, taking it away and not replacing it, wouldn't that be a breach of the contract? There was something there that was part of what you paid for, part of the package, and now it's gone. Can they do that?" I asked Peter and our summer friends what they thought. No one knew the answer, but all agreed it was a pretty good question.

I knew just what I was going to do, and I was going to do it immediately. I wrote a letter to the Q & A column in the New York Times weekend real estate section. Amazingly enough, it appeared in the following week's column. And with clarity achieved only by hindsight, I realized what a bone-headed mistake I had just made. Speaking of 'not-too-bright.' Why find out the answer to something privately, when you can do it in front of millions of readers, including certainly members of our co-op board? The board, wrote the Times' columnist, indeed had no obligation to replace the playground, though he agreed with my Cape Cod friends that it was a good question (my small consolation.) He went on to say that the best way to get our playground was to use our power of the vote to ring out the old members and ring in new ones. Perhaps run for office myself.

Gee, thanks.

A true strategic bumble on my part. I'm sure glad Lena and Joanie were four hundred miles away.

But wait! When we all returned home, what did we find, but new playground equipment, under construction! What gives? I found out from one of our elderly "moles" that my letter in the Times had shaken them up.

"Shaken them up?" I asked. "Shaken them up? But I did them a favor! I basically clarified for them, in a major national newspaper no less, that we had no recourse, legal or otherwise, to challenge their position on the playground.....They won!"

"All they saw was the suggestion that one of you girls run for office yourself. They were scared to death that one of you girls might think it's a good idea and do it, and make their lives a living hell!"

As if the thought had never crossed our minds, however briefly. As if Lena, Joanie, or myself could not have come up with this idea on our own. I guess when you're simple and small-minded, you think everyone else is that way, as well. But whatever, we achieved our goal, our quest for the grail, bass-ackward. Which is usually the way things are achieved when I'm involved.

Hey, we all have our personal style.

That was years ago. Lena's kids, and Joanie's and mine are all teenagers now. They enjoyed the playground for a surprisingly short time, then left it for good. More young families have moved in, and they enjoy the playground. Now they're lobbying for updates and improvements. We nod sagely and wish them luck in their endeavors. Been there, done that. Draw up a petition, we'll sign it.

Most of that board has passed away. Cigar-chomping Grandpa Munster died about five years ago. Jack Link, a year or two after. I almost miss the bile they used to stir up in me, to be honest. They've been replaced over the years by younger cooperators, ones who haven't yet outlived their investment in the property, and have made hard decisions regarding raising monthly maintenance and imposing assessments for building improvements. Only one little old board member remains, Estelle.

Estelle heads the parking committee. Never cracks a smile. I'm afraid of Estelle.

I came home one day after work to a voicemail from Estelle, announcing that a parking spot right in front of the entrance to our building has come open. Would I like it? I wasn't on any waiting list, hadn't asked for any parking spot other than the one I already had, wasn't looking for any favors. She called me. I took it.

I guess now....I'm one of them?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fourth Down and Prom To Go (June '09)

It's prom night. And the past two hours of my life could not have been more manic if Mack Sennett had directed it.

Last weekend, Everett decided that she really must have her dress shortened. I tried to warn her off of this, if there even proved to be time enough to carry it off between Monday and Wednesday. She knew what she had--a beautiful long black dress, and you never know what might happen when you get something altered, especially at a place you don't really know. We don't get things altered much. We're jes' folks.

But the long black dress, which had been a long teal dress before it was exchanged, was no longer going to stand out as much as she had hoped. One of the reasons she got it was because most of the girls were planning to wear cute little babydoll numbers. So Everett was of a mind to make an entrance like Angelina Jolie. Then, in their pack mentality, the other girls decided to "go long" too. This, of course, foiled Everett's plans, hence the last minute search for a tailor.

The dress came out all right. The tailor did it quickly, and Everett picked it up the following day. At least I thought it came out all right.

"It's a little bit longer than I wanted it," she griped, walking out in the dress and her socks. "They probably did that Everett, because while you can shorten a long dress, you can't lengthen a short dress. Better to err on the side of too long."

"But there's no time to fix it now, they should have made it shorter!" I reminded her that the tailor did the dress for her in one day, and had it ready on the eve of the prom.

"It also makes me look fat," she frowned, turning sideways. "Oh Everett, it does not!" I sighed. "This is the same exact dress you bought, only now it comes down to your knees instead of your ankles."

Trouper that she is, she worked her mind games on herself and made herself like the dress again within the space of five or ten minutes. "Don't worry, I'm ok with it now," she called in from her bedroom.

What a relief.

No, really.

She was annoyed with Josh, though. She "let" Josh go to the tux place by himself and pick out his own vest, which was a promotion from last year, when she dogged him every step of the way. She told him he could select what he wanted, but that "light blue might be good." Josh, unfortunately, didn't catch the medicine-ball sized hint, went off on a slight tangent and picked dark blue. "Mailbox blue, do you believe it??" Everett huffed. She rolled her eyes to the heavens, "Why do I let him go out and do anything??"

Hair. Up? Down? Sideways? Long and loose? An updo? She'd look nice with it any way...

Prom Day!

All the seniors at school were allowed to leave after third period, either after being signed out by a parent or signing themselves out if they were eighteen. Like a vast herd of cattle, they all stormed the main office to sign the book, with the secretaries manning the counter. "Out! Everybody out already!" Blanca hollered to keep things moving so we could all get back to normal.

Everett went to the catering hall with Sue, the student affairs coordinator, to do a last minute check of the place. She was pleased when she called me at my desk to report back that the place looked beautiful, and that it was a good thing she went, so she could make a last-minute shuffle of a few of the place settings. She had already done the seating arrangements herself. "Sue," I had warned, "you're giving Everett waaaay to much power. She's like the hand of God, for Pete's Sake!"

"Sue is going to drop me off at the salon, Mom, can you come over and pay?"

"Um, Everett, I'm at work," I reminded her. "I can't go over there now."

"Hunh. We'll do you know when you can come over?"

"Yes, I can come over at four, when I get off. When do you think you'll be done?"

"About four."

OK then.

I got there about four as the rain started to fall. Rain for the prom. Bummer. Everett was nowhere near done, nor was her friend Nikki, though at least Nikki was no worry of mine. Zack called to tell me he had brought a couple of pals home.

"Oh no...noooo, no!" I said. "You and your buddies have to get out. You thirteen year old nitwits cannot be there while your sister is getting dressed for the Prom!" I told him to get some money out of the jar in the kitchen. "You guys go out and get some pizza and stay away for a while. You can make one face at your sister through the beauty parlor window, but that's it!"

"So, I guess you'll still be ok to get there by 5:30," I was thinking out loud. "No, it's 5:15," Everett said. "I thought it was 5:30, but it was 5:15. Oh, and I told Josh we'd pick him up."

What?? OK, time to kick it into gear a little. "Where is Josh?" I asked.

Home taking a nap was where Josh was. Men, you gotta love 'em. I guess. "OK Everett, call Josh and make sure he's up." She called. "He's up Mom, he wants to know what time he should start getting ready." Start getting ready. Men, you gotta love 'em. At least you gotta try. "I think you should tell Josh he should start getting ready now, Honey, because I am going to run up there and pick him up in fifteen minutes!"

As the beautician spackled on the final coating of eyeshadow, I asked Everett if she had gotten her panty hose. She grimaced. One fifty-yard dash to the drugstore and back later, I presented her with three pairs, pick your color. We paid and tipped the salon ladies and jumped in the van for the quick ride home in the now-driving rain, I dropped Everett off, and flew up the highway to get Josh.

I screeched to a halt in front of his house. He ambled on out, and looked quite handsome, I must say. And the vest looked fine to me. "You look beautiful Josh, now get in!"

"We're on our way back, Everett, come downstairs, we're late, and please bring my camera!" I phoned as I raced back down. All the students would be congregating under the arcade of the school to keep out of the rain. I wanted to get a few shots; I had been looking forward to it all day. Perfect timing as she runs into Frank the Tutor, going in the building as she's rushing out. "Bella! Bella! Bella! You're beautiful!" He gives her a giant bear hug in his expansive Italian fashion, and turns to give me a big wave and Josh the evil eye as he goes inside.

She looked so pretty. Josh snapped to and remembered his manners, jumping out to help her in the car. Was Everett actually blushing? I think she was, for a second.

"Do you have my camera?" I asked. "Thanks, let me just check it quickly...." Click. Click. Click. Oh no. Oh no. Damn. I forgot to take the other battery out of the charger and switch it. I'm such an idiot. I had been looking forward all day to taking the pictures before they left in the limo. I had thought there would be time after work to go upstairs, get the camera, get my act together, and help Everett get ready. But the salon visit had taken too long, then the time it took to get Josh. The rain.

There was no time to do anything about it now.

"You're not crying, are you Mom?" Everett asked as we waited at a red light on the way to the school. "No, no, don't be ridiculous," I said, but I was, actually. Streaming and wiping as I drove. "Oh don't Mom, please! There will be plenty of people taking pictures, and they'll be posted on Facebook, and Megs will definitely take pictures of me and Josh, and we'll get the best one, and we'll put it in a frame for you, and it will be ok....please don't cry."

I pulled it together. To lighten the mood a little, she turned around and announced to Josh, "I look like a hooker and you look like a nerd!"

"Works for me," he deadpanned.

There were the kids, all dressed up. There were the parents, taking pictures. ("I will not start crying again!" I steeled myself.) They looked so nice. "Don't go, come on, Mom, come on in for a few minutes."

The kids exchanged their corsages and boutinerres. Awwww. We all mingled companionably for a few minutes. The limos idled by quietly.

"Oh my gosh!" Everett's hands flew up to her cheeks.

"What, what??" Josh asked. Heads turned.

"I forgot the money for the limo driver! I left it on Dad's table!"

One more mad dash home in the rain. I called Zack. Back from his pizza, alone at home. I guess I had scared off the other two. "Please bring down the envelope with the money, Zack! And while you're at it, please see if you can find the camera battery in the's black, and about the size of a pack of cigarettes."

Zack came down with the envelope and the A/C adapter and cord to my netbook, something that didn't look anything whatsoever like the camera battery charger or a pack of cigarettes. Oh well, photos were just not meant to be this evening.

But that's OK. They're off under the stars now. It's stopped raining.

They'll have the night of their lives.

And I'll have a glass of wine.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Feel the Fear

Have you ever sat in a busy city playground with dozens of preschoolers running all around? Dashing through the sprinkler, flying down the slide, fighting over shovels in the sandbox. The noise can reach a pitch sometimes--not so much a volume, but a pitch--that can drive you to distraction. To distraction, or to the "Happy Place," that zone you could remove yourself to, if only you weren't a Mom with a kid to keep an eye on.

That headache-inducing drone was no match for my Everett. I remember one afternoon in the playground a long, long time ago, Everett tripped and fell on her knee. She got up, looked down, and let out a screech that brought the entire assemblage to a momentary standstill, like in those old EF Hutton commercials. It was quite an accomplishment when in any random thirty-second period a child could fall and scream or cry over a minor bump or scrape.

Everett's scrape and accompanying droplet of blood was no worse than any other injury incurred by any other child that afternoon. She didn't even cry, either...until she got up and looked at her knee and saw the red.

The shriek had me diving into my pocketbook to look for a band-aid, a tissue, something, even though I knew I was just doing it for show. I was never one of those "good" moms who had wet naps, carried a mini first aid kit in my bag, and always had a water bottle and a ziplock bag of Pepperidge Farm goldfish.

After the initial few seconds of the freeze-frame, a playground dad came over with a tissue. As I gratefully reached for it, Everett screamed even louder and scared him away. Another mom came over who hadn't seen the simple fall and wondered, from the intensity of the ruckus Everett was creating, if perhaps she hadn't broken a bone.

"No, no," I said. "She was just walking along and she tripped."

She wouldn't let up with the consistent, high-pitched wail. After a minute or so more of trying to calm her down, I stood up, tucked her under my arm like a rolled-up towel, and walked the three blocks home with her.

Everett doesn't like blood, I discovered that day. Really doesn't like blood.

Everett doesn't like needles, either.

We were in the pediatrician's office for a routine check-up. Everett must have been about five years old. We met with the nurse beforehand for those things the nurse does--the hearing test, the height and weight check, the eye test, the blood test.

The blood test??

"It's easy, Everett, it's just a tiny poke on your finger," said the nurse. Everett was sitting on my lap, and I could feel the rumble from deep down inside her. Like when you walk down the sidewalk and the subway passes underneath. I tried to hold her without holding her. I figured if I just rested my hands lightly on her arms, she might remain calm long enough to get through it. The nurse took Everett's hand in hers, isolated that one finger, and started toward it with the lancet.

It's amazing how strong a five year old girl is. Or can be, if driven by a strong enough aversion. Five seconds after I had rested my hands gently on Everett's arms, I had her in a full-nelson. She squirmed and hollered. The nurse, still holding Everett's hand in one of hers, and the lancet in the other, was temporarily frozen. Everett's shrieks just had that effect on people. Even pediatric nurses, apparently.

"Do it! Do it!" I shouted, as I struggled to keep her in my lap. Now was no time to be stunned into inactivity. I had slipped off the edge of the chair and was now on my knees. Everett had managed to get her feet on the floor, and there was no telling how much longer she could be contained. The nurse regained her senses, tightened her grip on Everett's hand, and gave her finger a poke.

And Everett fainted.

Well, swooned might be a fairer description. She didn't pass out cold, but she stopped screaming, stopped struggling, and fell limp between my arms. The nurse took the opportunity to squeeze the blood into those stupid tiny vials.

In walked Dr. Strassman (or "Dr. Scratchman," as Everett always pronounced it.) "What's all the hub bub?" she asked as she opened the door, then looked down at the three of us on the floor. "Everett! Honey! What happened? You're as white as a sheet!"

"Hi Barbara," I said, as Everett came around and I began to haul us back onto the chair. "Everett doesn't like needles."

"No kidding," she said.

It wasn't the first time Everett had torn up the pediatrician's office. A deer tick lodged itself into her's scalp one time, and I couldn't get it out. Well, I had actually managed to do exactly what the books tell you not to do, which was pull off the tick's blood-gorged body, and leave the head buried under the skin. If you don't get out the head too, you haven't solved the problem. It needed a steadier hand than mine, and better tools than the eyebrow tweezers from my makeup bag, so I brought Everett in to the office.

Dr. Hernandez was on duty that day. He was the "new guy," who had joined the partnership with Dr. Strassman and her female partner a couple of years before. Dr. Hernandez was young, but bald, bearded and rotund. He curled up the ends of his moustache with wax, had little rubber figures of Goofy and Big Bird curled around his stethoscope, and worked very hard at cultivating a jolly demeanor to put the kids at ease.

Everett hated him.

We'd been to Dr. Hernandez before for one reason or another when Dr. Strassman wasn't there, and Everett had developed the habit of smiling happily in the exam room while we waited, then screaming long and loud once he came in, ceasing only when we'd finished and Dr. H had made his exit. He'd dance those little figurines in front of her face, "Oh look at Goofy! Goofy says 'Hello Everett!' Oh, now look! Here comes Big Bird!" Everett never bought what Dr. Hernandez was selling.

Dr. Hernandez thought it shouldn't be too hard to get that deer tick head out of her scalp. He took out some instruments--a long forceps, a scissors-looking thing, and some tweezers. He clinked those around as she sat on the exam table and eyed him warily.

"This will be sooo easy, Everett," he said, too enthusiastically. "You'll lie here and Mom will help me, and we'll be done in a few seconds."

After a couple of minutes, I was drenched in sweat. I had my full body weight thrown on Everett atop that table, as Dr. H fumbled on her head with those tools. "Well, this isn't working," Dr. H said as he threw down his tweezers. "We'll need some more help here." A nurse was called in, who, along with me--after Dr. H and I had caught our breath--threw her full body weight on top of Everett too. Everett bucked, yelled, twisted around, and knocked the three of us grown ups repeatedly into each other and into the walls of the tiny room.

Dr. Hernandez gave up after a few more minutes of fruitless digging. "You know what?" he said with an aggravated edge to his voice. "It'll be fine. Keep an eye on it so it doesn't get infected. Put some of this on it for a few days," as he handed me a tube of goop. "If she gets any weird symptoms, call me." He left the room.

And I had to practically carry Everett home in a basket.

Girls all want to get their ears pierced eventually, and Everett was no exception. When she was ten or eleven, she started expressing this desire in earnest. I was fine with it, though Peter was not. He thought she was too young, he thought it was unnecessary, he thought this, he thought that. I went along with him the first couple of years when Everett asked periodically. I felt it was something that had to be OK, not only with me, but with Peter, as well.

Though by the time she was thirteen, enough was enough. We were up in P'son one weekend, and Everett's friend Annika had joined us. Everett was pressing me again on the issue. I went to Peter and told him I believed it was time Everett should be allowed to get her ears pierced already if she wanted to. I wanted him to be on board, but enough already.

"We're leaving to get Everett's ears pierced, Peter," I announced as the two girls and I walked past him as he ate his sandwich at the kitchen table. I slowed down to a cartoonish pace as the girls sped out the door. "If you have anything to say, speak I go.....we're going...." Peter's silence signaled his tacit approval.

In the car during the twenty minute ride to the mall, Everett suddenly remembered that getting her ears pierced involved an encounter with a needle.

"How much does it hurt to get your ears pierced, Mom?" she asked.

"Oh, not too much, Honey," I said. It just hurts for a second, a nano-second, really. It's over before you know it."

She pondered over this for a few moments. "So you weren't scared when you got your ears pierced?"

"Not particularly, no," I said. "I was more excited, I guess." I remembered the faceted gold posts I had when I got my ears done back in high school. I was even older than Everett was, maybe fifteen. My father held out against it for longer than Peter did.

She thought a couple of minutes more. "Will you get your ears pierced, too?"

Huh? "What do you mean, Honey?" I asked, "I already have my ears pierced."

"I know," she said, "Would you get second holes before I do mine?"

"Oh, Honey," I said, "I don't really want second holes. I only wear earrings now and again as it is. I really don't need a second set of holes for another set to not wear...."

"Well, one then, maybe? Could you get a second hole in one ear, maybe? That's kind of cool. Why not do that? Oh please, Mom, please? Then I can watch you go first and I won't be so nervous. Please?"

Oh...all right.

We went to the earring stand at the mall. Ear piercing free with earring purchase. The same racket it's always been. You have to buy 14-carat posts, too, or risk infection. I've never been sure that that's not a racket, as well.

We searched through the selection. When you're getting a piercing, there isn't a whole lot to choose from really. You start out with the tiny gold balls, and how many of those can there be from which to choose?

As I had promised, I went first. I climbed on the stool as the earring girl loaded up the gold post. It's not quite technically a needle they use when you get your ears pierced professionally. What they do is load the earring into some sort of...gun, for lack of a better word. I've never looked at it too closely, but they load the earring into the gun, and hold it to your ear lobe after they've swabbed it off with alcohol, and you hold still for a few seconds, hold your breath, and....

Boom. Pierced ear.

I didn't flinch, I didn't blink. I sat there with a big grin on my face as Everett stared at me intently. "What do you think, Honey? How does it look?" She thought it looked fine, though she looked a little serious, so I didn't dawdle. "Climb on up, Everett. Your turn!"

"Everett. Climb on up now. Your turn."

"Everett," said Annika, who already had three or four holes in each of her ears, "C'mon! Aren't you excited?"

"Yes, it's your turn now," said the big girl with the nose ring who was manager of the stand and chief piercer.

Everett shook her head. "I think I'll wait."

No amount of cajoling could convince her otherwise. Annika tried. The big girl with the nose ring tried. I didn't try particularly hard. Who was I to talk Everett into poking a hole in her head (as my father described it back in the day) if she didn't want to? Though I felt a little bad that she was too scared to do something she clearly wanted so badly to do.

We returned back home to the P'son house. Peter noticed my second hole and I explained why I had it. "Very fashion-forward," he commented. "So,where's Everett's earrings?" He was wise enough not to laugh too loudly when I told him the rest of the story.

The next morning, after a giggly night and undoubtedly much cajoling on Annika's part, Everett asked to return to the mall. She wanted to give it another try. After lunch, we drove back down, though this time we bypassed the big girl at the earring stand, who I wasn't sure would be as accommodating this time after yesterdays aborted attempt, and went to the girly accessories store way down at one end, next to Macy's.

There was a girl ahead of us, a little younger than Everett. Everett picked out her earrings, then watched the girl carefully as they pierced her ears, while I signed the forms that said I wouldn't sue if Everett's ears turned gangrene and fell off. No hard feelings.

She did better this time. She actually climbed up on to the stool before she decided she really didn't want to do it.

"Yes you do, Everett. Yes, you do," said Annika.

"Yeah, c'mon Honey, second time's a charm. You're up here already, you can do it," even I chimed in. I didn't care if she got her ears pierced or not; I just didn't want her to not do it because of fear.

The girl fumbled getting the earring loaded in the gun. I willed her to hurry up. Annika and I were on either side of Everett, cheering her on, keeping her on that stool. The girl got it together, swabbed Erin's ear lobe and...

Boom. Pierced ear.

Everett blinked hard and jumped noticeably. Then she opened her eyes. She heaved a sigh, smiled, and started to get down off the school. "One more ear to go," we reminded her. Her face clouded once more. "You can't leave with just one ear done, can you?" asked the girl.

Before Everett had the chance to say that yes perhaps she could, and thank you very much, the girl had the other earring in. Case closed.

I let my second hole close. It just wasn't me.

Everett still rocks an extensive earring wardrobe.

Everett's in college now. It's her first weekend home, and boy was it exciting to see her. We talked about her classes, we talked about her roommate and her new friends in the dorm, we talked about the school cafeteria and the telemarketing job she's going after to make a few extra bucks. She came with me to see my dad, and the three of us did a bookstore run and had a nice lunch. Having fulfilled all her familial obligations, she was preparing earlier this evening to meet up with some girlfriends, go out for a little sushi, and see what trouble they could stir up.

She came into my room to use my big mirror to put on her make-up. It's still kind of warm, so she had on some cutoff shorts and a little tank top to take advantage of the few warm evenings left in the waning days of summer. She had her back to me as she applied her mascara, and told me of her plans for the evening.

Her long hair was down, flopping around across her back, as she leaned forward, mouth open, tilting her head first to one side then to the other, as she stroked the mascara wand across her lashes. I saw something on her left shoulder as her blond hair swept briefly past it.

"What's that on you shoulder, Erin?" I asked.

She hesitated for a micro-second, if at all.

"It's a tattoo," she said.

"Already?" I said. I knew you had it in your mind to get one, but I didn't think you could before you were eighteen. Can I see it?"

"I got it on South Street," she said as she sat down on the bed next to me. "It was an OK place. It was clean, I saw the license on the wall, and the guy was really nice. He did a good job, don't you think? Are you mad?"

If it was an "OK place," I'm not sure why the proprietor would give a teenager a tattoo without first checking ID. "I guess he thought I was over eighteen," Erverett said. I don't know about that. Perhaps times are tough, and he wanted to make his fifty bucks, which is what Everett said she paid for it. I looked at it. A butterfly. It looked clean, it didn't look irritated or infected. It was pretty well done, it seemed, as these things go.

"Are you mad?" she asked again. She really wanted to know. Everett hasn't worried about whether or not I was mad in at least a year and a half.

"No. I'm not mad. I mean, what's the point of being mad? It's done, right? I just hope you're as thrilled with it when you're seventy as you are today."

Everett gave me an eye roll at that last slightly gratuitous comment. I couldn't help it. My dad, and Peter, drew the line at pierced ears. I guess my line is drawn at tattoos. And Peter doesn't even know about the tattoo yet.

"Are you going to tell Dad?" Everett asked, as if she were reading my mind.

"Yeah, I have to tell your dad, of course," I said. "But I'll wait until after you're back at school."

But then, I wondered, a few minutes later. "Hey, Everett," I shouted into the other room. "How did you have the nerve to go in there to get that tattoo with the needles and all? Didn't it hurt?"

"Just a little, not much," she said.

"But weren't you afraid?" I asked.

"Not any more," she called back in. "I'm not afraid of needles any more."

Great, I guess.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Complaint Department

Office of "Stop The World, I Wanna Get Off." How may I direct your call?

Hi, yes, Good Morning. My daughter has just started college, and I...

Hold please.....

.....Good Morning, Elapsed Time Department. How may I help you?

Hi, yes, Good Morning. I'd like to file a complaint. Is this who I speak to?

I'm sorry you're unhappy. What is the nature of your complaint?

Well, as I was starting to tell the first person, my daughter has just started college, and there must be a discrepancy somewhere. It's simply not possible as I am only twenty-one years old.

May I have your name and social security number, please?

Huh? Oh yes, yes of course. It's JP, and my social security number is 267-0980-423. See, my problem is....

Hold a moment, please.

Yes, I'll hold, thank you.....

.....Ma'am, it says here you were born in 1961.

Yes, that's right.

Well, if you were born in 1961, I'm afraid you aren't twenty-one years old.

Oh but yes, yes, I am. Just last week, all my friends from the movie theater where I sell tickets threw me a big surprise party for my birthday. It was fabulous! It didn't break up until 5 AM. What a great crew!

Yes, Ma'am, I'm sure it was fabulous, but the computer says you were born in 1961......

Oh...well...maybe you're right. Maybe I did the math wrong. I'm twenty-five, that's right. Yes, now that I think about it, last week, Peter and I just got back from two months backpacking around Europe. We quit our jobs, we hated our jobs. It's just the two of us, so we figured when would be better? The economy is so good right now, we'll find new and better jobs in no time. It was a great trip, except for the day the hostel owner's Dalmatian bit Peter.

Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you aren't twenty-five. And if you are out of a job right now, you won't be finding one any time soon.

What? The economy is booming, no? It isn't? Oh wait! You're right again....last week, I got married. It was outside, and the weather was beautiful. All our family and friends were there, and there was great food and dancing and wine.....that's right, I'm twenty-seven, I'm sorry. Is there a form I can fill out online, because it's still virtually impossible that at twenty-seven I have a daughter in her first year at.....

Yes, it would be virtually impossible Ma'am, as you say, for you to have a college-age daughter at twenty-seven. But the fact of the matter is, you aren't twenty-seven, you are....

Twenty-nine! Forgive me! I'm twenty-nine, that's it. I just had my daughter. Right under the wire before turning thirty. But how could my newborn daughter be in college, ha ha ha. That's completely implausible.

You said it, Ma'am, That IS completely implausible. Your daughter's not a newborn, she's eightee....

She's four! She just got a new baby brother. She's not eighteen, don't be ridiculous. She just started nursery school.

Ma'am, I'm sorry, but the computer doesn't lie. Your daughter is eighteen, and your son is thir......

My son is "thir...nothing!" He's five. He's starting kindergarten this week. I'm so relieved he doesn't have the same teacher his sister did. She was so outgoing, and such a good student, that the teacher wouldn't be able to help comparing him to her, and I've read the parenting books, that's a hard thing for a younger sibling to follow in the footsteps of a....

Yes indeed, I've heard that, too. But it seems he's coped all right, it says right here he's in Grade...

Six! Of course, of course, he's in Grade Six! In the same school with his sister at last. She's doing so well now in Grade Eleven. She had a couple of years there where she was doggin' it...ha ha, you know how incorrigible those teenagers can be sometimes. She cut some classes, failed a couple of Regents Exams, but she's really come around. She's doing really well, trying really hard, and we're getting ready to visit some colleges. It's kind of stressful, and a lot of work, but it's an exciting time.

Oh, I know it is, I know it is. I went through it with MY daughter a couple of years ago. She's at Phillips University.

Phillips University?

That's right.

MY daughter is at Phillips University. What's your daughter's major?

It's Journalism...for the time being. You know, things change. Sometimes they change their minds. Things change. What's your daughter's major?

She's in Psychology right now. She likes to give advice, solicited or unsolicited, and I guess she wants to be able to put out a shingle and get paid to do it, ha ha!

Ha ha, yes. Truth be told, we just curse the passage of time, send them out in the world, cross our fingers, and hope we did a good job, don't we, Ma'am?

Yes, I suppose we do....

And then we can perhaps revisit our own lives a little.

Yes, I guess we can. know now that you are actually forty s.......

.....Thank you SO much! You have been quite helpful and I appreciate your clearing up this matter for me. May I ask you another question?

Of course, Ma'am.

My work day is starting up again, and it just seems to last FOREVER....

....I'm sorry, Ma'am. For that you want the Frozen In Time Department. Please hold while I transfer your call.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Supermarket Sweep

"Please Dad, please. Don't take your money roll out and just sit there and hold it in your hand. When it's time to pay for the groceries, I'll get the money from you then."

My dad will sit on his mobility scooter inside the doors of the supermarket and wait, cash in hand, for me to emerge from an aisle, ready to go to the checkout. This is better than what he used to do, which was fumble with his money outside before we even got into the store. Winter, summer. Wind, drizzle, snow flurries. Always the whole wad. Like Daddy Warbucks. Like we were buying out the store or something.

"Dad, Dad, your money is going to blow away."

"Dad, Dad, please don't do that. Someone will grab your money and run off."

"Dad, Dad, it's OK. I can get the money from you after."

My Dad likes to do the grocery shopping with me. I used to just drive him. I'd park, and he'd go in and do what he needed to do, while I sat out in the van with my book, a precious forty-five minutes to catch up on a little reading. I'd keep an eye peeled to the side, and when I saw him come out, I'd pull the van around, load the stuff up, and we'd be good to go.

When it began to get harder for him, I'd go in too. I'd push the cart, and he'd go along on his walker, and after that, his scooter.

"Let me go shopping for you, Dad. Or, hey! Let's call Fresh Direct and order your groceries to be delivered. Then the time we spend can be 'quality,' not 'quantity.' Wouldn't you rather spend the time we have going somewhere enjoyable, or just coming over and hanging out?"

"No," Dad says. "It's important I get this shopping done right."

Dad has the same shopping list every week. It might vary in minor ways; it might, for example, call for one gallon of orange juice instead of two, four bags of Snickers fun size ("Not the minis!") instead of three, or we might still be "ok" on the Preparation H wipes, and not have to get any of those at all.

When I go shopping for Dad myself, I do tend to screw up in minor ways. It's after work. I'm tired. I rush. Sometimes I just go to pick up a few things for him without a list. Once I got him two tubes of Fixodent instead of two tubes of Polygrip.

"It's not hard to tell the difference..." Dad said, not unkindly but pointedly, after he took the stuff out of the bag. "This Fixodent is in a blue box, while the Polygrip is in a ...."

"Dad, I know how to tell the difference between Fixodent and Polygrip. I didn't screw up the two because I'm color blind or because I can't read. I got the wrong one because I just decided to pick some up, and I forgot which one you preferred. I was just trying to get you a few things."

"Oh I know, I know, Honey. And I appreciate it."

I pick up my dad, sometimes after work on a weekday afternoon, sometimes on a weekend if I don't go up to P'son. We go up to Westchester, outside of the city, because the supermarkets are easier with the wide aisles and the big parking lots. We frequented an A&P in Yonkers for a while. It was ok, and we had the floor plan down pat. We knew where everything was and could get in and out fairly quickly. We knew which cashiers to go to and which to avoid. But the parking lot was sloping. It was tricky for Dad to maneuver, and even trickier for me to maneuver with a shopping cart loaded down with three large bottles of grape juice, five six-packs of Ensure, three bottles of cola (Dad always writes "cola" on the list, and we get Coke OR Pepsi, whichever is on sale that week) and what-all. Dad buys heavy stuff. Once my cart was so heavy that it got the best of me on a forty-five degree angle down a slope, heading for the broadside of a parked Cadillac with me whimpering and sliding behind it, before a good Samaritan rushed over and helped me stop it.

"Let's try the Fresh Direct, Dad. Just once or twice."

"No, it's important I get this shopping done right."

We switched allegiances to the Stop 'n' Shop. A little closer, and a much more user-friendly parking lot. "User-friendly supermarket parking lot" being a strictly relative term, of course. There are still a number of mindless boobs willing to inadvertently, or probably advertently, run you over the first chance they get.

You have to be careful with an elderly person in a mobility scooter in a parking lot. They're low to the ground, so it's not always easy for a harried mom with three screaming kids in a mini SUV backing out of a parking space to see a little old guy with a straw hat puttering by behind her. I try to get my dad to stick close behind me as we pass behind these, or behind any cars with the engine on, loaded with groceries and distracted drivers. They'll probably see me if the stars are on my side. And if they don't, well, I'd rather they back up at me, rather than Dad. I have a better chance of darting out of the way.

"Please hurry, Dad. Stick by me."

There are two speeds on Dad's scooter, designated only by pictures--a rabbit and a tortoise. "Put it on the rabbit please, Dad."

"I don't like to do that, J. If you stop short, I'll run into you."

Or, if I happen to be following behind, "I don't like to do that, J. I want you to be able to keep up with me."

Tortoise, it is. One mile an hour.

We get in, we always do, to the front of the store. And we start our routine by stopping abruptly a few yards in past the automatic doors.

The List.

Like I said, it is the same thing on the list every week, if indeed the quantities fluctuate just a hair from time to time. We bear to the left and start on our way to the bakery aisle.

Wait. Where's the bread?

We were alarmed a few weeks ago. We had it down to a science. An art. I could take that list and zip through the entire store with my dad with my eyes closed in half an hour. And then...

...they changed the floor plan.

Who knows what corporate minds decided this needed to be done. I mean, common supermarket layout logic, which works to their advantage according to all consumer analysis, puts the "basics" around the sides. Your dairy, your produce, they're all at the farthest reaches of the supermarket, which will require you on a large trip (if you don't have an unchanging, anal-retentive list like my dad's) to travel through other, less necessary, impulse-buying aisles, such as snacks, soft drinks, dressings and marinades, candy and cookies, etc.

But it used to be bread we approached, as we made our way to that first aisle along the left. And now it was frozen foods. And not even all frozen foods, just some frozen foods--the vegetarian-entree frozen foods.

"Where's the bread?" Dad demanded in a slightly agitated fashion when we arrived to this...transgression.

"Oh, they must have changed a few things around," I tossed off airily, so as not to alarm him further. Though I knew supermarkets didn't make these changes lightly. They made them only after a lot of customer survey-taking (though I, as a customer, have never been asked), consumer analysis, and official-type stuff like that. I knew we were going to have trouble finding more than the bread.

Not only was some frozen food where the bread used to be, but naturally, the waffles, one of Dad's staples, weren't in that particular frozen food section. No, the waffles were two aisles down, in the frozen food section where they had always been, though somehow it just confused matters further. And they changed where they kept the syrup. In my simple mind, it would make sense to keep the syrup near the waffles, or perhaps in the cereal aisle (thinking 'breakfast' here) but it was kept in the "baking goods" aisle. We had managed to get used to that.

But they moved the entire baking goods aisle one past the pickles--pickles, which used to be part of the baking goods aisle (believe it or not) when it was much closer overall to the frozen foods. I mean the waffles-and-other-breakfast-foods-frozen foods, not the other frozen stuff where the bread used to be.

"Where's my ham?"

Only Oscar Meyer will do. I was searching along the deli aisle, near the counter where they cut cold cuts for you fresh. Dad was never interested in the fresh-cut cold cuts. He was always happy with the Oscar Meyer smoked ham. When we switched to the Stop 'n' Shop, we found that for some reason they didn't regularly carry the smoked ham. So it was with some prodding that I got Dad to agree to try the Oscar Meyer chopped ham, and much to everyone's delight, it seemed satisfactory.

But where was the Oscar Meyer ham now? It wasn't to the side of the deli aisle where it always had been. There were other prepackaged cold cuts where the Oscar Meyer stuff used to be, but the Oscar Meyer stuff was nowhere to be found.

"Oh Goddamit! Don't tell me these corporate idiots stopped carrying my Oscar Meyer ham!"

"I'm sure they didn't, Dad, I'm sure they didn't. I'm just going to leave my cart here to the side, stay with it, will you? I'll go back up the meat aisle and have a look. I'll find it."

I'm very considerate with my shopping cart. It's a pet peeve of my dad's, and mine too, actually--the people who leave their carts square in the middle of the aisle as they mull over the canned soup selection. Or at a right angle in an intersection, preventing people from getting through from any direction. If you are a little old lady, and you have lived your life, and you are doing your best to just get through the day, then all right. But otherwise, move your goddamn cart out of the way. Or my dad, or I, am going to yell at you. More likely my dad.

OK, I'm back. I found the Oscar Meyer chopped ham. They have a whole special Oscar Meyer section now. I knew it had to be somewhere. So we wended our way through the produce aisle back toward the front, toward the registers. I get some produce for myself. I get some fruit for the kids, a couple of cucumbers, tomatoes...some broccoli, and maybe a bag of Yukon gold potatoes. I can't shop for all my stuff at the same time I shop for Dad's stuff, it's just too confusing. But I can pick up a couple of things, and he always insists on paying for it.

He gives me the cash, off of the Daddy Warbucks bankroll. I stopped asking years ago why he felt it necessary to bring fifteen hundred dollars to the grocery store. I just rely on the goodness of strangers to not knock him off his scooter and take it, and failing that, my ability to scare any no-good-niks away.

I know. I'm not that scary. But it's all I can do.

Half the time, if it's particularly frenetic in the store, Dad will go, at my request, to the exit area. It's just not worth all the maneuvering through the check-out line. Sometimes he will go through the line with me if it's not too hectic. Sometimes he'll come with me through the line even if it is hectic.

This is usually when the scooter battery acts up.

We've never been able to put a finger on what actually causes the battery to act up. Sometimes we'll get through a whole shopping expedition without it happening. Sometimes it will happen ten times. Occasionally, as I proceed down an aisle, usually a crowded and hard-to-navigate aisle as Murphy's Law would dictate, I will hear the familiar, high-pitched and constant "beep-beep-beep." Some days, Dad can't stop and restart the scooter, without having to fiddle with the ignition, turning it on and off when the cart refuses to go forward and only chimes the beep, instead of getting Dad through and moving on with the rest of the shoppers.

He hates the beep-beep-beep, Dad does. It draws attention to him, and keeps him from keeping the flow of shopping cart traffic going. It makes him one of....them.

He gets flustered, Dad does. He doesn't want to gum up the works. I try to explain to him, as I jiggle the battery and try to get it working again, that people can see we're trying to get on our way. We're not absent-mindedly blocking the way of other shoppers, and if anyone is going to be that rude and impatient to have a problem with us when we're trying to solve our dilemma, then I will deal with them. I am not particularly assertive, but I can deal with assholes in a supermarket for sure.

I can do it for Dad. Dad spent his life giving assholes "what-for," whether they deserved it or not, and if I can't tell an impatient geezer to cool his heels, then I'm not my father's daughter.

We wheel the groceries out into the flat Stop 'n' Shop parking lot and I get Dad's walker out of the van. I hand it to him, and he rises and makes his way into the passenger seat as I fold up and put away the scooter, and all the groceries. I'm careful to put the heavy stuff, which constitutes 85% of the purchases, on the bottom. I try my best to be mindful of the delicate items.

Dad hates it when I mush up the bread. Though he doesn't usually say anything about it.

Unless I ask.