Talkin’ Middle-America Unemployment Pandemic Blues

Some of you might know I’ve been unemployed since June 2020. I like earning income, having benefits, and keeping my brain occupied while producing something. But this layoff has had unintended benefits. It effectively obliterated certain duties and certain office and cubicle dwellers that were beginning to feel like a millstone around my neck. Plus, the time off has allowed me to stretch out.

Anyway, while I hope to be shackled to the 9 to 5 a few more years before limping into the sunset, I want to share what I think might be a typical unemployed weekday in the life of a 60-something, college-educated, middle-class American male in the era of the pandemic.  Perhaps my mundane ritual can provide some humor or consolation for others in a similar state.  In this global village, we need to stick together. So here’s my routine…with a shout-out to my retired blogging chum Neil at Yeah, Another Blogger for his Seinfeld-styled inspiration.

Greenpete’s Day:

8:00 – 8:30: roll out of bed, shower, brush hair, remove hair clumps from brush, shave, floss

8:30 – 9:00: fix Seattle’s Best coffee (YES!), eat Cheerios, watch a Leave it to Beaver rerun

9:00 – 12:00: read/delete emails, visit social media sites and Amazon (sometimes).  Search for work, though this activity is dwindling. Maybe write, like what I’m doing now

12:00 – 1:00: eat lunch, usually peanut butter sandwich with potato chips, or leftovers

1:00 – 4:30: VARIES WIDELY. Maybe read book. Maybe play with visiting granddaughters. Maybe revisit social media or job hunt. Maybe write. Maybe practice guitar. In warmer weather, yardwork. Eat a banana or Gala or Fuji apple

4:30 – 5:00: change into running clothes and do two-mile run in neighborhood (YES!)

5:00 – 5:30: take dogs on walk around neighborhood while scooping poop and chatting socially distantly with neighbors

5:30 – 6:00: shower and stretch, concentrating heavily on back stretches

6:00 – 7:00: eat appetizers (almonds or cheese/crackers), drink Yuengling beer (sometimes), watch reruns of The Rifleman starring Chuck Conners

7:00 – 8:00: swallow senior multi-vitamin and eye meds, eat large bowl of leaf spinach, eat dinner (often black bean soup, usually whatever my wife has fixed). Watch PBS Newshour featuring my girlfriend Judy Woodruff, and often yell at the interviewee

 8:00 – 10:30: read book or watch either PBS or old movie (“old” being 1940s-70s). In winter, watch/ogle alpine skier Lara Gut-Behrami or biathlete Dorothea Wierer. Eat small piece of dark chocolate

10:30 – 11:00: drink MiraLAX, head upstairs, swallow Echinacea pill (great for warding off colds, possible COVID-19 preventative), brush teeth, crawl under covers

11:00 – 8:00 or 8:30: sleep, wake up, pee and rehydrate with diluted orange juice, sleep, wake up, pee and drink again, sleep, perchance to dream. (Had one of my best a few nights ago. She was a redhead.)

8:00 – 8:30: begin ritual anew.  NOTE: this ritual changes significantly on weekends. For one thing, more beer is consumed

In addition to Neil, I thank my wife for accompanying me in some of the above endeavors, and for her understanding regarding women news anchors, skiers, and overnight redheads.  Without her, I don’t know where I’d be. 

And, please, if anyone has suggestions for improving my above ritual, or would like to share their own routine, add a comment! As humorist Red Green used to say, “Remember, I’m pullin’ for ya—we’re all in this together.”

“The Party” (1968)

The year 2020 has ended and it’s time to turn over a new leaf (and president…assuming our democracy remains intact).  Time to party!

Most of us will still be barricaded in our domiciles, either alone or surrounded by a few virus-free loved ones.  But that’s no reason not to celebrate, even if only vicariously.  And if you want a fun New Year’s movie, you can’t do better than The Party, directed by Blake Edwards and starring Peter Sellers.

Blake Edwards had flirted with the comedic possibilities of upscale dinner and cocktail parties in previous films, notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In The Party he pulls out all the stops. This is one of my favorite flicks and one of a very few that our whole family enjoys.  The story is refreshingly simple:

A clumsy but well-meaning Asian-Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi (Sellers) is fired from a production of Gunga Din after he accidentally blows up the movie set.  Cigar-chomping studio mogul General Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley) receives the awful news while in his office.  To guarantee Bakshi “never works again in this town,” he brusquely scribbles his name on a sheet of paper before storming out the door.  But the paper is a list of people that the General’s wife had invited to a swanky party she’s planned.  Clutterbuck’s secretary arrives, sees Bakshi’s name on the paper, calls directory assistance for Bakshi’s address, and mistakenly sends him a party invitation.

Bakshi arrives early.  Nobody knows who he is, although the Gunga Din producer (Gavin McLeod) swears he “know(s) him from someplace.”  The rest of the movie follows Bakshi around the party.  He becomes a one-man wrecking ball while trying to fit in with self-important Hollywood bigshots, oily agents, bimbo starlets, egotistical actors, and one drunken waiter, played to perfection by Steve Franken.  The party (and movie) climax with a wild bubble bath in the home’s indoor swimming pool.  The producer finally remembers Bakshi, but Bakshi escapes just in time in his three-wheeler Morgan with the producer’s date, an aspiring chanteuse played by Claudine Longet.

That’s the story. The behind-the-scenes story is that Sellers and Edwards, who teamed so successfully in the Pink Panther movies, weren’t speaking to each other, and all communication between the two was delivered by proxy.  Also, many of Sellers’ lines and some scenes weren’t even scripted: he improvised outrageously.  The movie, with its free-form structure and numerous sight gags, has the feel of a silent film.  One of the onlookers during filming was young writer/director Paul Mazursky, who used Sellers later in the year in his acclaimed social satire I Love You, Alice B. Toklas.

This movie is Peter Sellers at his very best, with a typically spot-on soundtrack by Edwards mainstay Henry Mancini. I’ve seen it over a dozen times, and every viewing reveals some new detail I missed.  Here’s just one of many choice moments:

Bakshi approaches Clutterbuck, Clutterbuck’s stuffy congressman friend, and a couple Hollywood sycophants and overhears the words “took everything, even the gold watch my daddy left me.”  Trying to fit in, he starts laughing and says “It’s wonderful, wonderful!  Tonight is one big round of laughter!”  To which Clutterbuck gruffly responds “The congressman was telling us about the time he was robbed.”  Bakshi stops laughing and crawls away in embarrassment.  The congressman then sternly asks “Who’s the foreigner?” and Clutterbuck replies “I don’t know, someone my mixed-up wife invited.”

As with the Pink Panther movies, one of the highlights of The Party is Sellers’ ability to completely become the character he’s portraying.  There’s also the irony that while Bakshi is utterly polite, dignified, and ingratiating, he nonetheless inadvertently turns this snobbish party on its head.  He’s an innocent who is surrounded by pomposity and fakery, so it’s completely apropos that, after blowing up a movie set and turning a Hollywood mansion into a disaster area, he drives into the sunset (actually, sunrise) with a beautiful woman next to him.

POSTSCRIPT: while poking around the internet, I was surprised to see The Party being criticized by some for its use of “brownface” and for negatively portraying Asian Indians.  While I try to put myself in the shoes of the victimized group whenever these identity battles surface, I find this charge fairly ludicrous, for several reasons. But if any Asian Indians are reading this and wish to chime in, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Till then, let us ponder the words of Hrundi V. Bakshi: 

Wisdom is the province of the aged;

But the heart of a child is pure.

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler…

Prince Hamlet’s thinking leaned more existential than a choice between appropriate verbiage for a non-secular holiday salutation in the 21st century. Still, it’s a question we modern-day philistines are faced with. And there’s an element of nobility and gallantry behind deciding how to answer the question posed in my essay header.

I’ll get to the quick: while I’m not anal about it, I prefer “Happy Holidays.” You conservatives might say it’s because I’m a leftist liberal.  There’s a grain of truth to that (although I’m not as leftist as some of you might think).  I would say a more appropriate reason is that I often employ the same brain machinations in non-political as political ways. Hey, I am what I am.

When I was a kid I threw around “Merry Christmas” all the time (or in print, the lazier “Merry Xmas”).  I didn’t know anything about religion.  Hell, I barely knew how babies were made.

I’m older and somewhat wiser now.  I now realize that Christmas is a commercial religious celebration (or at least it started out religious), but that a lot of my fellow Earthlings actually are not Christians.  Eureka!  We’ve got Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, paganists, agnostics, and atheists galore here in Uncle Sam land.  (Maybe not in North Dakota…but you know what I mean.)  Lots of smaller cults, too.

I’ll still say “Merry Christmas” in return if I’m greeted that way, because I know the person greeting me is okay with it.  But if I’m doing the initial greeting, and I’m ignorant of the religious or non-religious affiliation of the person, I always say “Happy Holidays.”  Like Mutual of Omaha, it’s an all-encompassing insurance policy.  It covers New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and I think it usually satisfies atheists and garden-variety, Christian-tinged agnostics like me.

(I shouldn’t forget Kwanzaa, a black cultural celebration occurring just after Christmas.  Kwanzaa’s popularity has evidently declined since its peak in the 1990s, to the undoubted dismay of Hallmark.)

***

So to those fist-pounding militants who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” like the guy around the corner with all the crazy yard signs, I say “knock yourselves out.”  Just don’t foist it on me.  Nothing against Christ—who, by the way, preached humility and tolerance—but I’ll celebrate Christmas in my own way, thank you.

It’s all about politeness.  Or gallantry and nobility. You know, “’Tis nobler.”  Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen with people who are adamant about their “individual rights” and defying “government intrusion” by refusing to wear facemasks in public—masks intended to protect themselves and others—politeness is in absentia in certain dark corners of the country right now.

But in the Christmas spirit, I’ll offer a “Happy Holidays” to even these people.  And throw in a “Be Safe” for good measure.

Them’s Fightin’ Words, Buckeye Nut

brutus2

Fall is my favorite time of year for many reasons. I won’t roll out clichés about apple cider and the “chill in the air.” I’ll just say it’s almost the perfect season. Now you’re asking, “Why almost?”

Here’s my answer: football. “Why football?”  Because it’s poison ivy in my big pile of beautiful autumn leaves. I don’t dislike the actual competition, which is often exciting. And I actually prefer watching American football to real football (soccer).

My issue is with the unavoidable accessories that accompany the actual competition.  I could write a dozen blog posts on these accessories, none of which I ordered with the base model. They extend from puerile television commercials, to the misguided and crooked college scholarship system, to certain leagues that blackball socially conscious players and try to squirm out of concussion lawsuits.

This doesn’t bother most people.  They munch, guzzle, high-five each other, and conduct loud one-way conversations with the TV screen oblivious to the accessories.  But I’m a sensitive sort, who ponders stuff way more than is healthy, so they bother me.

But I’ll just concentrate on one sports accessory in particular: haughtiness. And this haughtiness hits close to home (literally, to use my daughter’s favorite word). Specifically, the haughtiness of one particular college football organization: the Ohio State Buckeyes.leaves

I know of whence I speak. I’ve lived in Ohio for 54 of my 61 years. Just wrote a blog series brandishing my Ohio connection. Grew up in a town that had an Ohio State (OSU) branch campus. My mom and in-laws were successfully treated at the OSU medical center in Columbus. Got a brother and sister-in-law who went to the main campus. Heck, got a wife who went there.

One would think these circumstances would render me an OSU fan. However…my DNA double helix was long ago constructed such that when anything is shoved down my throat, and whereas most people swallow with gratitude, I always gag.

Okay, I get that chest-thumping is part and parcel of college athletics, and a fun and usually harmless activity. Maybe it’s even healthy (a refreshing diversion from Powerpoint presentations, anyway). My father and daughter graduated from Pennsylvania State University (literally). That school chest-thumps with We Are Penn State! Note the crucial exclamation point.

Ohio State, on the other hand, has several thumping gestures, one of which is THE Ohio State University. Note the emphasis on THE, always Biblically pronounced thee. The school was founded in 1870 with this word article intentionally in front. But when certain partisans emphasize that first word, sometimes like a weapon, the implication is that Ohio has only one legitimate public university (which, of course, is patently false). Otherwise, why would this insignificant article even matter?football

In my opinion, the emphasis on this word goes beyond mere chest thumping and spills into unmitigated haughtiness.

I may as well now reveal the chief source of my grievance: I attended Ohio University (OU). OU is located about an hour’s drive southeast of that other school with the ‘S’ in the middle, in a small town called Athens. It is a much smaller school: 17,000 main campus undergraduates compared to OSU’s 47,000. It has a much smaller endowment: 569 million compared to 5.2 billion. And a much smaller football program. We play in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), not the Big Ten (which should actually be Big Twelve, or maybe it’s up to 13…I can’t keep track).

map ohio

Ohio University is located in one of the most scenic parts of Ohio, and for years our main claim to fame was that we were one of the top party schools in the nation (ranked #1 by Princeton Review eight years ago…not bragging, just saying). Although we have a great athletic program, OU is not what might be termed a sports powerhouse. Beer drinking powerhouse, yes.  But sports is not the biggest thing on OU’s radar. So this “THE Ohio State University” crap—at least in a sports context and delivered in the presence of a graduate of a different public university in Ohio—is personal.

How did this ridiculous trend of OSU emphasizing “THE” begin, anyway? Can I get some love here, people? As you’ll soon see, my figurative Napoleon complex is entirely justified.

Founded in 1804, my school of Ohio University has used the abbreviation “OHIO” since 1896. In 1993, we trademarked that nickname for merchandising purposes. OHIO is on our apparel, flags, bumper stickers, and other licensed merchandise. But in 1997, Ohio State challenged our trademarked nickname/logo. Evidently, “Ohio State” and “OSU” weren’t good enough. The Buckeye nuts wanted the whole enchilada, including “OHIO.” Why? Haughtiness, of course.

During the acrimonious legal dispute, the two school presidents got together, probably over some 3.2 beer on High Street in Columbus. Surprisingly, OSU’s titular head eventually saw the light and admitted his corporation—I mean school—was being silly. So, my school, which was founded 66 years before Ohio State popped out via C-section (it was too large for natural childbirth), was able to retain its nickname OHIO. It’s still on my forest-green sweatshirt. I continue to wear it in public, and I haven’t been arrested.

Just as in the real world…just as in Washington and elsewhere…here was a classic tale of Goliath wanting to beat up David. And this time—which seldom happens—David prevailed.

Battle Of David And Goliath

“Go, Go, Go-liath!” Seriously? (vecteezy.com)

(David and Goliath stories always spike my blood pressure. It’s probably why I’m a liberal Democrat…the old-fashioned kind, anyway.)

You know where this is leading, right? Chewing on their sour grapes, the sword-wielding children up there at Ohio State had to save face somehow. And that’s why that corporation—I mean school—in Columbus and its football scholarship jocks feel the need to emphasize the article “The.” Sour grapes. End of story. I think.

NEWSFLASH: I just learned that THE Ohio State University recently tried to trademark the article “THE.” This is not a joke. Evidently they have lots of time on their hands. However, they failed in this ludicrous attempt as well. Laughed out of the courtroom. Thou failest, Thee Ohio State University.

Maybe that school should next try to trademark the colors red (they haughtily call it “scarlet”) and grey.

***

So this is why my Buckeye-nut wife threatens to divorce me every fall when the traditional Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game comes around. Even though I don’t utter a word, much less watch the game, she knows I’m secretly pulling for, as Ohio State fans refer to them, “that team up north.” Not because I particularly like Michigan, but because, for me, rooting for Ohio State is like drinking skunky beer.

All kidding aside, OSU, Michigan, and Penn State are top-ranked public research institutions which annually churn out high-achieving graduates (as does OU). Athletically, Michigan football ranks first in NCAA history. Ohio State is one of only two schools to win men’s football and basketball championships the same year. Penn State has more overall NCAA Division I championships than any Big Ten school.

And my school? The humble, green-and-white Ohio University Bobcats down in lil ole Athens County? Win, lose, draw, or game cancellation…doesn’t matter. We’ll find a reason to be on Court Street and party at the Cat’s Den.

OU

I Would Prefer Not To

Urinals

“Can you stop by?”

This was the Skype message I recently received from my supervisor. Those of us Bartlebys who have worked in an office environment and have been unlucky recipients of such a message from the boss (aka “The Big Cheese”) know that, no matter how cool and self-assured one might be in other situations, there’s always a quickening of the pulse when such a message is received.

It used to be a phone call, or a head appearing in one’s office doorway. Then it was email. Now it’s Skype.

I was half-tempted to type back “I would prefer not to.”  But I sold out and typed “OK.”

As I walked toward his office, I wondered if this would be one of those “Shut the door” type conversations. Sure enough, it was.

“Shut the door,” he said abruptly. “Have a seat.” How polite of him. My heartrate had by now increased dramatically.

“Don’t get excited,” the big cheese assured me, unsuccessfully.

In addition to words and voice tone, body language is also very revealing in these encounters. And at this moment, his body language indicated that, yes, this would be yet another session of existential revelation, explanation, justification, and eventual atonement.

My body language indicated that my heart was now pumping enough blood to cause the front of my shirt to vibrate like the skins on a drumhead at a Hottentot wedding celebration. So it was kind of difficult to instruct my involuntary cardiac muscle not to “get excited.”

He leaned over his desk, folded his arms, and looked at me with solemnity over the top of his wire glasses.

“Just answer me…”

He paused for dramatic effect. I waited with bated breath to see if I would be granted or denied admittance through the Gates of Heaven.

“…did you or did you not forget to flush the urinal yesterday?”

I was busted. Oh, God. I’ve always had a feeling that one day I might slip up.

Indeed, I had made a visit to the bathroom yesterday. And after doing my “business,” I followed the same ritual I always did. I walked to the sink, washed my hands in lukewarm water (for some odd reason, this one bathroom doesn’t provide hot water), dried my hands with a small paper towel…then walked across the tile, grasped the door handle with said paper and opened the door, then flipped the used paper in the nearby waste can.

However…on this one occasion…I forgot to use said paper to push handle on said urinal before exiting said bathroom. And I remembered that an anonymous gentleman was, at that moment, conducting his own business in a parallel urinal. He must have narc’ed (squealed) on me.

(You ladies might be interested to know that men’s public bathrooms are perhaps the most unsociable places on earth. Sinks are acceptable locations for idle conversation, although men being men, conversation is infrequent. Urinals are definitely off-limits. Conversation occasionally occurs, but eye contact is forbidden, unless there’s loud rock ‘n’ roll or football going on, and the men are drunk.)

“Uh…yes,” I stammered. “I mean…I did forget. Is that a big deal?”

The cheesy one sat back in his swivel chair and, with a doleful expression not unlike an elderly basset hound, stared at his hands, now folded in his lap.

“Always…” he began, “always flush the urinal. This incident has reached Rosemary.”

Rosemary is the Human Resources Director. She’s a petite, attractive woman about 30 years old. Half my age. Her nickname is “Rottweiler.” I’m assuming she earned this nickname because, not only does she have a pet Rottweiler (a dog with a reputation for “territorial aggressiveness”), but every time an employee leaves the company, she sends out a company-wide email with the employee’s photo stating “John Doe is no longer employed at (the company). Should he visit our facility, he must be treated as a visitor.” This cold declaration is followed by various security requirements that employees must follow—and John Doe must adhere to—if John Doe visits former facility.

I can understand taking away an employee’s electronic badge before he leaves. But I’ve never understood either the necessity or the effectiveness of these company-wide emails.

Rosemary not only hires people, handles their benefits (paid time off, 401K, health, and life itself), processes their resignations, delivers news of their layoffs and firings, but after employee has vanished, she alerts the workforce that former employee is, essentially, persona non grata. The only analogy to this last action that I can think of is someone who might desecrate a gravesite.

Rosemary may be petite and attractive, but she has more power and influence than the company president. Think a smaller version of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But getting back to our little drama…I expressed atonement to Herr Limburger for my thoughtless action the previous day. Then, with trepidation, I asked him if I needed to visit Rosemary.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” he said, just as solemn as when I first sat down. “Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. There will, of course, be mention of this incident in your next performance appraisal. But your employment situation is still secure.”

Whew. I staved off a company-wide email from Rosemary.

Cheesy one apologized for, as he termed it, the “brouhaha.” I told him “That’s okay, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“Hey, don’t apologize,” he said. “This is my job.” Indeed, it is.

I left his office. I felt a strong urge to visit the scene of the crime and flush all the urinals, as a sort of psychological purging.

I also felt a strong urge to determine who the asshole was who narc’ed on me.  Then decided “screw it…I would prefer not to.”  And, then, a revelatory moment:

I pinpointed the reason for Rosemary’s high-security emails.

 

bartelby

(Bill Bragg, 2012/foliosociety.com)

 

Newsboys on the Loose!

newsboy

Blogging buddy Phil Brown recently did a piece on his days as a paperboy up in Ontario, Canada. I thought it was a great slice of (North) Americana. Phil gave me permission to do my own Norman Rockwell-styled dip into yesteryear, so here is my throwback tale of stomping over hill and dale in north-central Ohio, U.S.A. (the other side of Lake Erie from Phil) delivering non-electronic newspapers (such newspapers being folded sheets of 54-inch web-width, wood-pulp newsprint paper with printed ink that informs about current events. They lacked audiovisual accompaniment, pop-up ads, and “click bait”).

Here’s my story:

Joe Hamrick and I were shooting baskets in Joe’s driveway in the fall of 1969 when the station wagon pulled alongside the curb. She was a middle-aged woman who said her name was “Frances.”

“Would you boys be interested in delivering newspapers?” she asked us.

“Yeah!” we gasped, as if we’d been chosen to start the Indy 500.

A few months before, while our family lived in Detroit, I had a taste of being a newsboy when I filled in for Jon Longo for two weeks delivering the Detroit Free Press. Had to rise before the cock crowed, then pedal my Schwinn Stingray from house to house in frosty darkness, the melody of a Stroh’s Beer commercial dancing between my ears. It was a new experience, my first sincere responsibility. I owed it to Jon to do a good job. After we moved back to Ohio, I got a check and a nice note in the mail…so I guess I came through for him.

bike

Red Schwinn Stingray, with high-rise handlebars and banana seat (mine was a 5-speed)

Anyway, not long after meeting Frances, I discovered Joe wasn’t as enthusiastic as he initially seemed, because he backed out even before we started. (Much later, I heard he received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps.) So…it was my route.

We lived on Vicksburg Drive, but the route was several streets away. It covered Cliffside Drive and Morrison Avenue. “Cliffside” gives you an idea of the terrain. Both streets sloped at least 45 degrees. Couldn’t pedal my Stingray up those hills.

Frances would drive her station wagon to the bottom of Cliffside and leave several tightly packed bundles of papers in the grass, waiting for me. I’d mosey over from Vicksburg and use a small pair of wire cutters to open the packs. Then I’d stack as many papers as possible into my burlap tote bag, sling the load over my bony 11-year-old shoulder, and trudge from house to house. Then return to the corner and stuff more papers in. I allowed each shoulder to take a turn. Several turns.

As I write this, the heady aroma of burlap and newsprint paper comes back to me.

Some subscribers wanted their paper inside the screen door. Others wanted it under the doormat. I had to remember who these people were. If I goofed up, I might encounter a frowning man wagging a fat finger at me. My favorite customers, obviously, were those laid-back folks who didn’t care where I placed their paper. I think these people later supported McGovern.

There were the usual dog encounters. Maybe it was during this period that I developed a dislike of Boston terriers. The teeth marks from “Chief” are branded into my ass flesh.

Even more irksome than surly dogs, though, was the weather. I hated delivering in the rain. And I’m sure my customers hated receiving soggy paper. (In those days, we didn’t seal everything in plastic.) Then, when fall turned to winter, I had to deal with Lake Erie-effect snow. Try to picture a freckled kid weighted down with thick Sunday newspapers—enhanced by slick, colored ads and comics—trudging up and down two small mountains in eight inches of wet snow.

Could I have foreseen summiting Mount Whitney 49 years later?

station wagon

1969 Mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon

Dogs, hills, weather…what else? Oh yeah: collecting. Like most 11-year-olds, I was shy around adults, so ringing doorbells for money could be excruciating. I usually waited until the last minute to do this, such as Sunday afternoon or evening. Most folks were home, eating a formal dinner, and the door usually opened. But for many it was a rude interruption.

“Could you come back in an hour?” some would ask with unconcealed irritation. “We’re eating dinner now.”

“Okay,” I’d reply, as dots of perspiration formed. Often, on Sunday night, I didn’t get home until long after dark.

Once, the Rosslands from Michigan visited us. I still remember being slumped on our couch, cursing that I had to go out and collect. While getting ready to leave, Mr. Rossland walked over and said “Peter, when I was your age, I had to walk five miles every day before school to deliver newspapers.”

I couldn’t fathom this Abe Lincoln-like feat. I do remember my parents smiling in the background after Rossland made his remark. It was a long time before I realized that adults thought it was great fun delivering this white lie to kids.

I had a few special customers. At the bottom of Cliffside, last house on the right, lived the Grassels. They had four kids, and the oldest, Doug, was rhythm guitarist in the Ohio Express. This was a “bubblegum” pop band that had a worldwide hit in the 1960s with “Yummy Yummy Yummy.” (Yes, there actually were song titles like that back then.) Joe and I sometimes heard them practice while doing cannonballs at nearby Walnut Hills Pool.

ohio express

“Ohio Express.” Doug Grassel is the John Lennon lookalike on far left.

Although I never saw Doug—maybe he was always on tour—Mrs. Grassel was really nice. She always invited me in, probably so I could see the framed photos of the band she’d arranged in the foyer.  Bug-eyed, I’d scan the ruffled shirts and long hair while she scoured the house for the $1.50 she owed me. Years later, after I became a rock ‘n’ roll animal, I learned that “Ohio Express” wasn’t their real name, and they didn’t sing or play on any of “their” hit songs. They just fronted tunes that several hotshot New York suits wrote and sang in order to cash in on a fad. Another childhood bubbleburst.

And then there were the Malones. Ah, yes, daughters Pam and Cindy. I still dream of Cindy, with her creamy, amber hair and pale jeans that clung to smooth thighs like painted watercolor. Here’s the standard conversation after she opened the door:

“Can I help you?”
“Uh…hi.”
“Hi.”
“Hi…um…(gulp)…I’m here to collect.”
“Collect what?”
“Uh…dues for the News Journal.”
“Oh. How much do we owe?”
“Uh…let me see…” (nervous fumbling)
“Okay, take your time.”

This woman was like the goddess Venus to me. If only she’d have invited me inside and indoctrinated me into the ways of things. It would have headed off a lot of stress in the coming years.

Cindy was a co-ed at Kent State. I’m assuming she was there on May 4, 1970. Every time I see that famous photograph, I think of her, and what a rotten fricking world this can be.

Near the Malones lived the Hofstadters. Tom Hofstadter had the paper route before I did. He was a year older, raced a mini-bike (small motorcycle), and if I remember, was a rabble-rouser…which is maybe why Frances took the route away from him. Tom’s younger brother Mike was better behaved. Like me, he collected Topps football cards. Toward the end of my delivery career, Sunday evenings were spent crouched in Mike’s hallway with dozens of cards spread out. We bartered for probably an hour, with a bad moon rising outside the kitchen window while I should have been collecting newspaper money, not football cards.

barney

Topps 1970 card of Detroit Lions cornerback and Hall of Famer, Lem Barney. My dad got his autograph for me while on business in Detroit.

“Got some extra Tom Keatings, Hoyle Grangers, and Jim Tyrers,” I would inform Mike with expectation. “Need any?”

“No, already got those guys. They’re a dime a dozen.”

The real gold were the wide receivers: “Bullet” Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor, Otis Taylor, and both Gene Washingtons (49ers and Vikings). Today, I have all these cards and more, though I’m still looking for a near-mint Tom Dempsey. He was the Saints kicker who nailed a then-record 63-yard field goal…with half a foot.

Our Topps trading must have influenced him, because Mike was a longtime TV sports anchor in Columbus, Ohio. A few years ago, I visited the old hometown and asked Mrs. Hamrick (Joe’s 80-year-old mother) about Mike. She told me he’d married a (quote) “very black” African-American woman, then taken a job at a small station in a small Amish-Mennonite town in rural Pennsylvania. A bold move, Michael.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiers in Hooterville.

***

My paper route ended some time in spring or early summer 1970. The wear, tear, and miserable Sundays—excepting the Hofstadter hallway—became too much. Although not a “real” job, delivering newspapers in 1969-70 was my first paying one. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for an entire collection of near-mint Topps cards.

In case you’re wondering, I bequeathed my route to Kurt Grassel, Doug’s younger brother. He was a year below me, and didn’t race mini-bikes. Not sure how long he lasted. Or if he joined the Marine Corps.

(Some names here were changed to protect the innocent, and to protect me. Also, thanks for the idea, Phil.)

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Breaking News: EVERGREEN DREAMING Gets Notice in “Publishers Weekly”

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I’m pleased to announce that my recent book, Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker (aka “Ed”), was selected for a review by the venerable trade magazine Publishers Weekly. Only a small number of self-published books are selected for such a review.

Publishers Weekly (PW) has been around since 1872 and primarily serves booksellers, libraries, publishers, and agents. The reviews are generally short plot summaries, and can be favorable or unfavorable. Fortunately, Ed’s review was favorable.

While I’m grateful to whomever read and reviewed Ed, I wish he or she had read the entire book instead of just the first section (my hike through Georgia and North Carolina). I also wish the reviewer had been more careful with relating the narrative, since there are a few mistakes.

Despite the mild quibbles, I’m still grateful for a positive review, and here is a replicate of it.  Thanks to all of you who bought Ed, for those who plan to, and for those not interested but who still visit longitudes!

Kurtz, a 55-year-old technical writer (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”), hikes from Georgia to North Carolina along the Appalachian Trail in this entertaining travelogue. His love for nature started as a teen camping with his family in the Blue Ridge Mountain; now, his wife, Lynn, supports him in his hiking endeavors, but worries about his quest at his age. Kurtz makes several friends along the way (among them, Dylan, a 24-year-old realizing his dream to hike the entire trail, who joins Kurtz for a couple days), and describes the scenery (“a long, flat stretch with lots of overhanging rhododrendon that offers a nice shady canopy”). Along the way, he argues for wilderness conservation, noting that only 3% of the 2,200-mile trail is designated wilderness and warning that open spaces are threatened. Kurtz also discusses his affinity for reading (“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), his love for the Beatles, his desire for hot water, and his reliance on sturdy walking sticks (one of which he names “Kip”)—and he always makes sure to call Lynn to share his experiences. Kurtz’s charming memoir encourages wilderness purists to chase their dreams, regardless of age.

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Halloween Movie Review: THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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Three years ago around Halloween, I published a list of five psychological horror films that I considered some of the best in the genre (Do NOT Watch Alone…). These are films about the mind that will keep you awake at night.

The film I’m reviewing this time isn’t disturbing like the others. But it has wonderful atmosphere, and I can’t think of another film like it. Critic Leonard Maltin calls it a “near-brilliant mixture of humor and horror.” It is Roman Polanski’s 1967 satire The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (known as Dance of the Vampires in Europe). *

No matter what you think of Roman Polanski’s sexual imbroglios, as with the great Woody Allen, it’s beyond dispute he’s one of cinema’s most talented writers-producers-directors. His 1965 British movie Repulsion is a tour-de-force of psychological horror (and made my aforesaid list). Two years after Repulsion, he made this more lighthearted film.

Since Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, vampire films had become progressively stale. The bottom came with the asinine Billy the Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. (Don’t watch this unless you have a large supply of alcohol on hand…enough to drink yourself into stupefaction.) So it was about time someone knocked the stuffing out of the vampire genre.

(Has anyone yet knocked the stuffing out of ubiquitous vampire books??)

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The movie plot is simple: in the mid-19th century, a scatterbrained German researcher named Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his bewildered assistant Alfred (Polanski) travel through the snowy Transylvanian mountains to a small village in search of a vampire who supposedly lives nearby. While Abronsius is obsessed with tracking down and killing the bloodsucker, Alfred is more dazzled by the lasses in the local inn, including the lovely redheaded Sarah (Polanski’s future wife, Sharon Tate), whom he encounters while she’s soaping herself in a bubble bath.

The vampire, Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), disrupts Alfred’s attempt at courtship when he kidnaps Sarah one night. Abronsius and Alfred then track him through the snow to his castle perched on the mountaintop. Bag of vampire-slaying tricks in hand, Abronsius is determined to destroy von Krolock, and Alfred is equally determined to rescue his damsel before she turns into a hollow-eyed blood bank. Without giving anything away, Abronsius and Alfred undergo various nail-biting (and neck-biting) escapades at the castle.

Expressive Irish actor MacGowran is perfect as Abronsius, with his faux pedagogy reminiscent of the standup comic “Professor” Irwin Corey (the “World’s Foremost Authority”). Instead of scientific jargon and Pyrex tubes, though, Abronsius speaks vampire clichés and wields garlic (“GAR-leek”), a wooden stake and mallet, and various crucifixes. Polanski makes a good shell-shocked stumblebum assistant. Tate, one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood at the time, doesn’t act much, or well, but she’s a visual delight. (Her horrific fate only two years later lends this film a tragic edge).

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Bathtub scene with Tate and Polanski (photo Turner Classic Movies)

In addition, Ferdy Mayne as Count von Krolock gives veteran vampire actor Christopher Lee a run for his money, with his murky, imposing stature and ominous, throaty voice.

But the minor characters provide most of the funny moments. There’s the hunchback who serves as von Krolock’s personal “Igor,” with his gargantuan buck teeth and Beatle hairstyle. In an inspired move, Polanski gives von Krolock ’s creepy son Herbert (Iain Quarrier) a homosexual spin; Herbert is as sexually attracted to Alfred as he is thirsty for his blood. Best of all is actor Alfie Bass, who is Sarah’s father, and the innkeeper.  After turning vampire, he struggles to locate a comfortable place in the castle in which to situate his coffin. His exaggerated Yiddishness is hilarious.

The movie is filled with many moments of visual humor. The moonlit snowy landscape, courtesy of the Italian Alps, is another attractive feature. As is the shimmering music, particularly the psychedelic-Gothic score that accompanies the opening credits, created by the same person, European jazz musician Christopher Komeda, who later composed the score for Polanski’s universally acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby.

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If you’re like me, you’ll get an adrenaline rush every time the doorbell rings on Halloween night. And if you’re really like me, after the doorbell stops ringing, you’ll plop yourself in your armchair and get a rush from a good horror flick. My suggestion this year is Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers.

And if you one day find yourself in Transylvania… beware of isolated mountain villages that have inns with “gar-leek” hanging over the front door!

(* Originally released in the U.K., The Fearless Vampire Killers was butchered by MGM when released in the U.S. Twelve minutes of the film were deleted, a cartoonish opening sequence was added, and MacGowran’s voice was given a deliberately comical and ill-suited dubbing. Polanski was understandably outraged, and campaigned to have the original version restored, which didn’t happen until the early 1980s.)

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The Trump Wall: A Progress Report

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As a candidate for U.S. president, some of Donald Trump’s most notorious campaign platform items were his controversial ideas on foreign travel and immigration. One was his so-called “Muslim ban” (ultimately Executive Order 13769, which was blocked by the courts and superseded by Executive Order 13780, which was blocked by the courts then supplemented by Presidential Proclamation 9645, currently undergoing more litigation along with La La Land ). Another bright idea consisted of building a “great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal Mexican immigration.

In 2015, I interviewed then-candidate Trump and touched on his wall policy. Now that Trump has (illogically) begun the second year of a presidential administration, I thought it might be worthwhile to visit with him for a status update on this wall. I’m curious to find out how big a priority the wall still is, and if the idea will lose air like so many other balloons the right-wing floats prior to every election (such as “locking up” Hillary Clinton for perceived “crimes”).

The United States of Amnesia deserves to be informed of how its elected officials are carrying out the duties for which they were elected. After all, “we” elected Trump, so “we” obviously deserve to know when and how this wall will be built. Has our government yet interviewed any landscape architects? Have we been privy to any blueprints? Will Mexico ever agree to finance construction? Will the wall extend all 2,000 miles of the border, or will Mother Nature assist in our exclusion effort? Will graffiti be permitted? If so, may we spray-paint obscenities at Trump, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan without being tossed into Guantanamo?

Trump and I met on the back nine of one of his many golf courses. I was shocked at his appearance. The bags under his eyes were heavier, and his trademark scowl was even more hideous. Nonetheless, he proved to be an ingratiating host, kidding me about my frequent shanks and divots, and interrupting our interview only 22 times to tweet angry reprisals at his critics (who seemed to multiply as we neared the 19th hole).

I’ve tried to reconstruct the interview as best I can. However, it was difficult to record the conversation, since Trump and his favorite Secret Service agent (Special Agent Rocco Infante) sat in the golf cart, while I had to cling to the back, sharing space with the golf bags (Trump’s bag was a typically garish monstrosity and took up most of the area). Also, I think he was still mad at me for dissing his juvenile reality show in favor of PBS during our first interview.

___________

longitudes: Thanks for meeting with me again, Mr. Trump.

Trump: My pleasure. I always enjoy mingling with the little people. Please call me “President” Trump.

longitudes: Speaking of which, how do you like your new job?

Trump: It’s not as easy as I thought! I have all these meetings and stuff. You’re also supposed to know stuff. Know what I mean? Covfefe.

longitudes: Uh… what?

Trump: Nothing. Hey, look at that hu-u-u-u-ge sand trap! C’mon, betcha ten grand that your ball lands in the dirt, Skippy.

longitudes: Please call me “greenpete.” I’m not a betting man, and those aren’t my kind of stakes. I’m not a golfer, either. But I’d like to ask you about your wall.diaper

Trump: Uh… (Trump feverishly taps something into his favorite toy). Uh… what wall is that?

longitudes: The one along the Mexican border you promised to build if elected.

Trump: Oh. That wall. Uh… you didn’t think I was serious, did you? Such a thing would be impossible. Even with a Congress loaded with short-sighted, hypocritical Republicans, believe me.

longitudes: Yes, I tried to tell you that in our last interview.

Trump: Don’t get smart, Skippy, or I’ll tell Mike Pence you’re gay.

longitudes: Your few meetings with Mexican President Peña Nieto haven’t gone well. Are you concerned that your supporters will get impatient that you honor your campaign promise?

Trump: My supporters? You mean those white nationalists and old ladies with dementia? They’d support me even if I defaced the Lincoln Memorial while wearing the American flag as a diaper. All they care about is that Hillary isn’t president, believe me.

longitudes: So you don’t think some will turn their backs on you in 2020?

Trump: That’s right. Anyway, any Democratic victory will be rigged. Fake news, baby. I’ll make sure I float that balloon, believe me. The Electoral College will come through for me again. Thank God for underpopulated red states like North Dakota.

longitudes: But even if the United States of Amnesia forgets about your promise to build the wall, aren’t you concerned about your…um… legacy?

Trump: Look, ok? Look. I’m no worse than your buddy Obama, the worst president in the history of presidents in every country in the history of the whole universe, believe me.

longitudes: I believe history will show Obama as a great president.  What evidence do you have that he’s the “worst”?

Trump: I don’t need evidence. Rush Limbaugh and FOX News say he is. I’m the executive now, and my job is to slash taxes for people like me! I keep telling people, I DON’T NEED TO KNOW STUFF!

longitudes: Well, Mr. Trump, on that illuminating note, I’ll bring our interview to a close and hop off.

Trump: Hey, aren’t you going to join me on the 19th hole for, like, refreshments? Or supper with Mike Pence? (No chicks, of course… Mike’s a traditionally married man).

longitudes: I’ll pass. I have a WordPress deadline to meet. But before I leave, let me just say that, in our last interview, you called me a “loser.” You’ve also disparaged certain immigrants. On behalf of us losers and immigrants, and the many that you’ve insulted over the years, including, as president, Puerto Ricans and the family of the woman who was run over in Charlottesville, I just have three words: shame on you. Covfefe ?

But Trump doesn’t hear me. He’s stepped out of the presidential cart and is twirling his 9-iron while strolling toward the water hazard, where agent Infante just lifted from the muck, and repositioned, the bright orange golf ball emblazoned with his profile.

Only God, Allah, and agent Infante know how many more “mulligans” this man will be allowed.

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(Disclaimer: this was a fantasy interview.  The only real interviews I’ve done are with people I like.)

Cleveland Browns Finish Season at 0-16, and Fan Relocates to Cave in Patagonia

I don’t normally write about sports. I still remember that managing editor in Florida who informed me “Sports is to journalism what masturbation is to sex.”

But the post-holiday, mid-winter funk has left me without any intelligent material.

This post isn’t technically a “vent.” A venting implies that one is frustrated by something and needs to let off steam. But I gave up on the Cleveland Browns a long time ago, so there’s no steam left in the boiler.

Ah, yes. The Cleveland Browns. For those familiar with American football, even the name brings a chuckle.

The Browns just finished the 2017 football season with a sterling record of 16-0. Sixteen losses, zero wins.

Combined with last season, the Browns are 1-31 (the San Diego Chargers mercifully let them win by three points in their last game of 2016). Over the past three seasons, the Browns have compiled a record of 4-44. A team needs to put in a lot of overtime to produce a stench that toxic.

After the 2015 season, both the head coach (whatzizname) and general manager (whozit) were fired, after they posted a 3-13 record. I’m scratching my head why the current coach (dat udder guy) can retain his job after posting a 1-31 record. In the real world, he’d be polishing his LinkedIn profile and watching “Leave it to Beaver” reruns. But this is the National Football League.

Fans of the Browns are affectionately known as the Dawgs. I’m still not sure if the misspelling is intentional or not. For years, these fans have promulgated all sorts of reasons for the illness on Lake Erie. “We need a franchise quarterback.” “We need a new head coach.” “You build your team around the offensive line.” “The front office sucks.” “The owner cares more about soccer than football.” “It’s all Modell’s fault.” “We need to change our colors.”

The only solution that came close to working was after visionary owner Art Modell 🙂 moved the team to Baltimore in 1995 (where, of course, he won the Super Bowl). The city of Cleveland filed a lawsuit against the National Football League. It was then rewarded with a spanking new team, and three years later the Browns squeaked into one playoff game.

Playoffs?? Did I say playoffs?? That was 16 years ago, the longest playoff drought in pro football history. Essentially, the Browns are in the 19th year of a three-year rebuilding program.

The Browns at one time had an enjoyable rivalry with the nearby Pittsburgh Steelers. But you can’t sustain a rivalry when, since the dawn of the millennium, one team amasses a record of 32 wins and only five losses against the other team. That’s not a rivalry, it’s human bondage.

Since I’m not a fan anymore, I feel I can offer a refreshing outside opinion as to how this team can once again return to the playoffs (forget the Super Bowl… Donald Trump will win a Nobel Prize before the Browns ever reach the Super Bowl).

Boycott.

That’s right. History has numerous examples of how boycotting and civil disobedience lead to results. The big problem in Cleveland isn’t the Browns owner, front office, coaching staff, or players. It’s the fans. They’re sports whores. They’re loyal to a fault. Browns fans are maybe the best fans in all professional sports. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. They continue to buy tickets and merchandise despite the product being seriously flawed. It’s like driving around in an old Chevy Corvair long after the car has been declared a road hazard.

It’s time Browns fans ceased this perverted game of “Thank you, ma’am, may I have another?”

I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which also has a professional football team (the Cincinnati Bengals sprouted from the Browns 50 years ago after Modell fired legendary Browns coach Paul Brown, who then drove down I-71 and started his own team). Unlike Cleveland, Cincinnati is a “fair weather” sports town. In other words, the fans are smart. They’re frugal and won’t purchase a flawed product. After 14 losing seasons, Bengal fans threw up their hands, then threw up, and stopped coming to games. So the owner, Mike Brown (Paul’s son), started investing in quality personnel, not long after he blackmailed the city into building him a new stadium.

Since then, the Bengals have reached the playoffs seven times. Of course, being the Bungles, they’ve lost the opening playoff game every time. But at least they’re not a punch line like their noodlehead neighbors up north.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Browns fans will ever follow Bengal fans’ lead. They wear their sports loyalties like Keith Richards wears eye liner, or Elton John wears a toupee. It’s a part of who they are. Without their beloved football team, they’d be lost. You can only visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or troll for walleye on Lake Erie so many times on Sunday afternoons.

Earlier, I said I was no longer a Browns fan. Let me qualify that: I still have a place in my heart for that goddawful franchise. It was once a champion, in a faraway time, before many of you were born. The greatest athlete in history played for the Browns (running back Jim Brown). Best of all, they had a northern Ohio native at quarterback (Bernie Kosar) who threw side-armed and ran like a drunken giraffe.

But I can’t watch them anymore. I’m even embarrassed to be seen in public wearing orange and brown (and this is a masochist who wore Browns clothing when Cleveland was without a team). I’d prefer to devote my loyalties to the meaningful things in life. Sports are fun, but hardly meaningful.

So I guess you could label me a “fair weather” fan. Which means that, these days, I’m not only closer in attitude to Cincinnati than Cleveland, but I’ve been waiting for torrential rains to stop for a long, long time.

Does it rain much in Patagonia??