GCSPrank Is Here

For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Borg vs. McEnroe

July, 1980. Wimbledon, the tradition if not the very soul of tennis on a chewed-up grass court. Bjorn Borg, four-time consecutive Men’s Champion, a gentleman of uncanny restraint and icy nerves was to face the fiery volatility of John McEnroe, an uncouth brat with the mouth of a sailor and pure genius in his left hand.

Bill and I had spent the night before playing tennis under the lights. To be precise, what we did was hit balls back and forth with the kind of savage creativity that gets toddlers fingered for pre-school therapy. By the time morning rolled around to present the growingly-famous “Breakfast at Wimbledon,” I was spent, barely awake and rooting feebly for Borg.

The hell with patriotism: I liked the Swede better and he was ranked #1. Go with a winner!

The first sets were tight, with Borg firing rifle shots from the baseline while Mac darted to the net for putaways that defied logic. To my surprise, McEnroe took the first set with slashing volleys. The second set was a struggle, with Borg taking it on quick forays to the net. The third seemed closer, but once again Borg dominated with risky approaches and pinpoint passing shots. Borg led 2 sets to 1 and I drifted to sleep on the Student Union couch.

When I woke up, Borg was leading 5-4 in the fourth set. In that game, he had two match points, and despite superb play, McEnroe saved both with diving volleys that were the essence of genius and desperation. Winning that game, they remained tied so that at 6-6, they went to a tiebreak.

The players call it “lingering death.” Anyone who watched that fourth set tiebreak live knows exactly what that means. Borg, wide-shouldered, slumped, walking quickly on short steps. McEnroe, lithe, slouching, a petulant look on his face as he stalked the court. First to seven points, but must win by two. Before the tiebreak started I yelled out “Go, Borgie baby!” And then I forgot to breathe for the next 20 minutes.

What had been an excellent match turned into greatness then ascended into legendary. Borg fired cannon shot after cannon shot, hitting his strokes with a precision and power that had never been seen. McEnroe kept sprinting in, daring the Swedish sniper to find an opening that his strings couldn’t block. Time and again the crowd gasped as one magnificent shot was met with another, the cathedral-like silence imposed on such proceedings squeezing emotions into uncontrollable yips and squeaks.

Borg fought off seven set points that McEnroe achieved, but to the enormous credit of the brat, he fought off five Championship points, four of them with Borg serving. In the greatest cauldron of pressure on the greatest stage of their sport, both men danced like high-wire artists over a bottomless chasm.

It ended in a blazing slash, McEnroe winning an unbelievable set, 18-16. As the crowd rose to its feet in admiration and anticipation of a fifth set, I saw something in Borg’s eyes I hoped was not there: fear. His eyes were mirrors of fear. I whispered to myself that stamina would now be the difference and nobody was fitter than Borg.

Years later, I read that Borg admitted to feeling fear at that moment, between the fourth and fifth sets. He decided to go for broke, to simply chase down every ball in an effort to beat this unfathomable lefty.

And scramble he did, swooping like a falcon from corner to corner, firing shots that were inhuman in power and angles. Only to find that McEnroe was willing himself to stay in the match, flinging his body like a mistreated marionette in pursuit of a near-invisible ball.

Neither player gained an advantage, and the fifth set reached 6 games all. No tiebreak in the final set; winner has to win two games in a row. Borg won to go ahead 7-6. A close-up at that moment of each player gave a clue: Borg looked like a bank teller at 10:30 AM; McEnroe looked like a bank robber on the lam. Still striking shots only they could hit, the magnificent game ended, Borg fell to his knees releasing all the emotion he kept hidden every other day of the year and the greatest tennis match I’d ever seen ended in a “Borgie baby” victory.

But as I walked away on numb legs, I kept thinking about those mirrors of fear and what they meant to Borg. I sensed that Borg would never be the same, and he wasn’t, retiring a little over a year later at 26. I couldn’t help but wonder when I would see those mirrors in my eyes and how I would change after that.

Blood Will Tell

Ask 100 people who knew me before I entered college what the odds were that I would volunteer to help others by doing menial tasks and 100 would have said “No way.” It would have been unanimous even if you included me in those 100.

As with so many things with GCSPrank, I don’t know how I happened to volunteer for the Red Cross blood drives. I guess I walked up to to some nurse-looking person and said I wanted to help and they pointed me to a table. Most of the time I handed out bags, taking down a person’s name, verifying they had received a check-up and getting their signature. Not exactly rocket science, nor beaming spotlight.

I did try to leaven the moment with humor, using the poetic “Proceed to bleed” as a send-off, often countered by guys with “Drain a vein” and by women with blanching. Worst moment: A young lady whose name was “Toy” receiving a distracted “When I was a kid I loved playing with toys” from me. Her response was a disgusted “I know,” and I was left feeling like the gum on the sole of a dirty sneaker.

At other times, I would handle the blood bags, stripping and sealing them. Unlike the other volunteers who passed the blood-filled bags around like water balloons, I was always very conscious that I was holding an essence of life. Pointing out the level of activity to Don, he said with admirable acuity: “This shows the level of civilization we have achieved, that this is so routine.” I wish I’d said it first.

But nevertheless, stripping and sealing was a job a well-trained monkey could do. No matter: I did it anyway.

The best part was sharing the time with Don and Bill. Don, usually in charge of the snacks, received the putdown of “Bartender” from me. When I handed out bags, he put me down with “Paper Pusher.” But the real character was Bill, who volunteered according to his own standard. With amazing skill, he would pick out the nervous belle—the nervous pretty belle—and shepherd her through the entire process, a Southern gentleman of the old school. If at any point any other comely maiden suffered the vapors or just barely hinted at a moment of weakness, Gentleman Bill would immediately beam over to her side and offer courtly comfort.

I once told Bill he’d run through an ugly woman to reach a pretty one and he replied “Yeah, wouldn’t you?”

Uh, no. But I wish I could.

I also donated blood, sometimes too often and with too much vim. Once I was sharing a head-to-head table with a very nervous guy. The nurse, who knew me from previous blood drives, told me to turn my head and I said “I don’t mind. I like seeing the needle penetrate my arm.” We heard a brief groan, not mine. She rolled away behind me, then rolled back. Flipping a thumb over at the other guy, she said “He fainted.”

Definitely no Bill to his rescue.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


She complained fairly often that the guys she dated were “off.” I thought they were jerks. True, Alyson would win no conventional beauty pageants. Maybe she had bad taste in men. But any guy who spent an hour with her and didn’t see how special she was was brain-dead. Of course, the argument could be made that most men are, indeed, brain-dead.

Alyson spoke with a breathy little-girl voice that contrasted with her very adult mind. She had a heart that dwarfed my entire body and a way of focusing all her attention on you that made you feel as if you were being absorbed.

We called her our “Mother Figure,” and teased her about everything. I actually pretended to be gay around her, a move that backfired badly. I invited her to dinner at Ruby’s and offered her wine. When she declined, I told her I was trying to get her drunk to take advantage of her. Her look practically snapped me in half, made up as it was of 6% “With what?,” 11% “I’d like to see you try” and 83% “You’ve gotta be kidding.”

I didn’t feel shot down, I felt annihilated.

My standard line with her was to subtly put her down for being a woman. I used “female” a lot, a word that deeply annoyed her to the point that she confessed to a co-worker “It’s not that it isn’t accurate, it’s just the way he says it.”

If not for my reflexes, she would have hurt me once. Several of us were at the office, late one winter night. While Alyson was washing her mug for the hot chocolate I’d make later, I quipped “That’s the female's true role, washing dishes.” The sink was six feet to the right of the doorway and I was leaning on the far wall, ten feet from that same doorway, the only exit. To escape, I had to get through there, open a number-pad keylock to the outside door and rush out down the stairs. The instant I saw her back stiffen, I moved. I actually got past her, punched in the “2-then-1” combination, turned the latch and doorknob and raced out ahead of her grasp. She hissed at me from atop the stairs, truly upset, so I waited a few minutes and returned. Alyson was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her usual way of sitting. She ignored me.

I said “Females are known to kill for sport.”

She didn’t look up and said: “In your case, it would be by necessity.”


The day she was leaving, I took her a gift, a book of horse diseases, defined and illustrated. Alyson was mad about horses and the gift had been the end result of a very long search. She tore the wrapping paper off and immediately cried out happily. She sat down, cross-legged, right there in the parking lot. Turning pages, Alyson pointed out details I knew nothing of, but that made her very happy.

I realized then that I had always had a crush on her.

She closed the book. I helped her up and zipped my lip about that. For a few seconds, we avoided the words. Then I held out my hand and wished her success and blessings. Alyson took my hand and said she was very pleased to have worked with me.

As I walked away, she called out to me: “Are you really gay?”

I paused and turned around. “Can’t a female tell?” She laughed merrily and waved goodbye.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Eudora, Elvis and Faulkner

They are names that resonate with a power that transcends even the basest elements associated with the Magnolia State. One wrote fiction that defied belief and acted in ways that fostered disbelief. Another was a slick-haired rebel, sneering and sneered at for his pelvic "obscenities." And the third grew slowly on the consciousness of the country, a lady far above and beyond the belles.

You couldn’t squat in Oxford for more than a day without encountering some mention of William Faulkner. And yet, it wouldn’t take you another day to realize that while the town and university played him up for benefit, they not-so-secretly looked down upon him…and not because “Billy” was height-challenged.

Faulkner was not one to go through life rounding off his sharp edges. He once upbraided his daughter, who hassled him about his drinking, with “No one remembers Shakespeare’s daughter!” A drunkard of epic proportions in a land that considers drunkenness a weekly rite (and right), Faulkner skewered his surroundings and its people with bone-slashing observations that, couched in mellifluous and overwrought sentences, dared to reveal more than they concealed.

His words adorned the Ole Miss Library; the Yoknapatawpha Conference was an international hit and his home was a tourist attraction. And yet, you got the feeling that if Faulkner vanished from memory, the collective sigh of relief would have drowned the tinkle of steady money.

Elvis was born in Tupelo and that’s as much of Mississippi as he or anyone else cared about. The Great State, as so many laughingly call themselves, had little to do with his eventual power as a cultural icon. That Elvis strode the earth like a giant, almost single-handedly remade American society and gave us an iconoclastic 20th century Greek tragedy of a life is hard to ignore.

Mississippians don’t ignore it. They talk around Elvis, close to Elvis, make references to Elvis and sometimes even talk through Elvis, but in the end, they pointedly downplay Elvis. Until that moment—and it always comes—when they drawl with ill-conceived and badly-misplaced hubris: “You know, he was born in Tupelo.”

Eudora Welty is not a Nobel Prize winner nor is she an American icon. She was a writer, one of the great ones from a land that produces writers like royal families produce inbred feebs. Her prose was—is—clean and simple, with consistent flashes of insight and charm. She wrote for decades, her works defined by both quantity and quality and the ability to blend in with, not shake up, society.

She was gracious where Faulkner was abrasive; real where Elvis was fantasy. Eudora Welty was never as famous as the other two, but she was easily the more admirable, the friendly one who never soured her name or that of others, who cherished herself to a long and worthy life. She scaled no great heights, but she never descended from her scaled steps.

I heard too much about Faulkner there in his hometown and wished I’d heard less about Elvis. But not once did I hear a word about Eudora Welty. If the good die young around the world, the good die unremarked in Mississippi.

Friday, March 25, 2005

"Sentimental Journey"

It was on Saturday nights, from 6 to 8 PM, then later the schedule was from 7 to 10. The theme song, a flowing instrumental arrangement of the Les Brown/Doris Day hit that evoked such memories for the wartime generation, would swell into the room with ballroom elegance. A Memphis DJ with a scratchy mellow voice would present songs of the 40s and 50s with a little story for each. However, each story seemed to have an aimless quality, like the ramblings of a garrulous old man.

There were occasional bits of gold: How Doris Day went from dancer to singer because of a broken leg; how Johnny Mathis transformed himself from failed jazz singer to superstar; how Frank Sinatra went from superstar to seedy club singer and back to superstar again; why Johnny Ray cried so often; where Frankie Laine sang an entire concert to exactly 3 people; how Columbia records had two “Italian” singers under contract at the same time and chose to push one named Sinatra over one named Perry Como; the song a wandering hobo gave Nat “King” Cole that went on to sell over two million records; how the recording ban actually propelled The Mills Brothers to national fame; that Glenn Miller knew he was going to die and got on the plane anyway and how little-known Jerry Vale made it big in Vegas.

That last story made several appearances, as did Jerry Vale, for he was a close personal friend of the DJ. (If I remembered his name I would use it, natch.) Jerry would act all gangster-cool, dropping names like his life depended on it and refusing to talk about any aspect of his life except singing.

Vale hit it big with “Eternally” (which he co-wrote with Engelbert Humperdinck!) and at about that time, the DJ and he became good friends. They bantered well and showed a good friendship, but the shows with Vale felt awkward nevertheless. When he wasn’t around, the music took center stage and on those nights, time melted.

There is a poignancy and innocence to the music of that era that appeals to me. The lyrics feel like poetry even when the words are simple and unadorned. The recordings hissed and popped slightly, but the voices came through with such clarity, style and charm, reminding you of a time before studio engineering transformed the true talent and beauty of a live recording done superbly into an artificial construct.

One could marvel at the power and emotion of a very young Tony Bennett, the easy-going baritone of Vic Damone, the cool flair of Ella Fitzgerald, the unbelievable charm of Buddy Clark (who died in a plane crash on Beverly Boulevard, in Beverly Hills), the deep emotion of Eddie Fisher and the homespun charm of Patti Page.

I discovered singers, songs and the joys of music that resonates with your heart. The show framed my nights with rare comfort. If I was alone, solitude gained the depth of emotions far outside my own. If Carol was there, it was a chance for discovery and conversation, as songs opened hidden doors inside of me that I often didn’t know were closed.

I never heard the show with anyone else, nor did I actively try to catch it every week. In that sense, it was like a close friend: there for me when needed, able to proceed alone knowing I would return. My journey into music has expanded far beyond what “Sentimental Journey” offered, but despite so many joys along the way, it has never been as satisfying as those Saturday nights, when the music fulfilled me and the world felt right.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


He was too good for GQ. If the average GQ guy improved twofold, he’d still be in Kenny’s shadow.

I met him the summer I roomed with Steph, a 275-pound second-string tackle on the Ole Miss football team. Steph was big, black and his friends thought he was reckless or weak for accepting a white roommate. Except Kenny. He shook my hand and then ignored my blatant admiration.

Kenny was handsome. Not pretty-boy or ruggedly handsome, just plain jaw-dropping handsome. If you looked at him for a while, he didn’t seem real. Even his friends would dart sidelong glances at him as we played Spades or talked about stuff, checking his expression, maybe trying to confirm he was still there. If he hadn’t been so quiet and self-effacing, he probably would have had no friends. At least, no male friends.

Besides his looks, Kenny dressed to perfection. His clothes seemed a part of his body, an extension of his grace and style. The combinations were gloriously matched, meshing into a whole that seemed so absolutely right you’d wonder why everyone didn’t dress that way.

So being the way I am and knowing I could bug Kenny for the fun of it, I chose to bug him about his clothes. That’s right, me, the T-shirt/jeans/sneakers guy doing a Blackwell number on über-GQ Kenny.

It was simple. He’d show up and I would pause, giving him a slow once-over from head to toe and back again, only to shake my head sadly and mutter something like “Brown belt, tan shoes. How bold,” or a mock-disbelieving “Tweed in the spring?” or “Really. Gabardine,” in a dismissive monotone.

The first time, Kenny froze, then broke into his strong, silent laughter. He even laughed handsomely, with dignity yet joy. From there on out, for the many times we saw each other, he’d break into a grin when he saw me, chuckled as I gave him the haute couture eye and then crack up as I uttered my ponderous judgement.

His dates—always beautiful young ladies—would look at us as if some white/black nastiness was going on, but Kenny would say I always commented on his clothes and I’d nod in satisfaction as the ladies would look me over like I had six legs. Hey, somebody had to keep him humble.

Kenny graduated and I saw him no more. Until one day, while ambling through Atlanta, I spied a familiar walk in front of a glass, people-filled monolith. It was Kenny, looking even better than ever in a finely-tailored suit, a shirt and tie combination that screamed class and shoes that matched the buttery leather of his slim briefcase. I stopped in his path and crossed my arms, cocking my head as if analyzing his presence on the planet. Then he saw me and instantly broke into a huge grin. I started to shake my head sadly and he cracked up, raising a hand to stop my words.

“Uh-uh,” he said, laughing through the words. “I KNOW I look good.”

Insight. And the sharing of joyous laughter as our goodbyes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Thoughtless Act

He walked into my room and made fun of my surname, targeting my dad’s Air Force name tag. For some reason, I knew he was being friendly, not obnoxious. Though sometimes, with Bill you could barely tell the difference.

It’s not that he was mean. It’s just that between brain and broadcasting, Bill would simply bypass anything remotely resembling a filter and simply say what popped into mind. Forever after, the word “cringe” became a visceral part of my vocabulary.

Bill would show up in a restaurant at one minute to closing time and expect service, for, after all, it really wasn’t closing time yet, right? He’d mention someone’s distinctive-yet-best-ignored feature as if it were the weather, like the time he asked a woman with very long toenails if they were thorns or a woman with small breasts if she liked being flat-chested. He belonged to both the Black Student Union and some other group opposed to such unions, enjoying the contrast both cards created in his wallet and on people’s faces. And he’d press a question if, once asked, it had been politely ignored until it was rudely ignored and then he’d ask it again.

But Bill had another side. As a friend, he’d be there, come Hell or high water. He could be obtuse about some things (so could I), but if he knew you needed help, he was an unconditional ally. And his word was pure gold: if he agreed to it, he was committed.

For three years we spent at least a day or two a week hanging out. During the summers, we’d spend entire days just skimming from one activity to another, from dawn to dawn, take a nap, then get up to keep going. I must have hit 500,000 tennis balls and 200,000 racquetballs at him. We probably competed for weeks—weeks I tell you—at video games. We ate about 450 pizzas together, traveled twice across the desolate length of the State of Mississippi and added maybe 5,000 miles more in our trips together.

Hell, he even stored stuff I forgot when I left. He still has it, 22 years later. For you see, when I left Oxford on that gray January morning, the trunk of my car and back seat packed with the memories I’d lose later that year, I didn’t say goodbye to Bill. I got in my car, turned the key and drove away. Not once did I look back.

Last year Bill and I shook hands again and eventually he brought up that distant day. Of course he would. I sidestepped it quickly as the pain gripped my heart in a way I’d hoped would never return.

Bill didn’t deserve that from me. It was a thoughtless act and I’m sorry. And for last year, when your generosity was not answered with my usual equality, I apologize, too. I should have told you my marriage was dying. It is moribund now. I hope our friendship isn’t.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Animal Moment #2

Did you ever have one of those days when whatever rules the Universe had are set aside in favor of any arrangement aimed at just ticking you off?

The day had started poorly, with a headache from sleeping in an awkward position and had gotten progressively worse. I couldn’t write, cable was out, nobody I knew or cared to see was in town, I hadn’t done laundry and I didn’t have food at hand.

I tugged on an ugly shirt, slammed a cap on my head, which just made my head throb even more and headed for Mr. Quik. I figured the walk would do me good. Until I stumbled and almost fell while getting into the elevator.


The campus was empty for Spring Break. The day was warm and windy, but the walk dragged on and on because of my headache.

I got to Mr. Quik and discovered that nothing I wanted was available. Not a thing. In an even fouler mood, I grabbed whatever was at hand, paid for it and ate it in the parking lot.

Walking back, I decided to just shut myself in and wait the day out. Something would come up and I’d find a way to finish my story. Writer’s block was for wimps and I would not accept being a wimp.

Nearing the Cafeteria, I peripherally noticed birds flying in circles. As I walked near the hedges, I heard chirping, sharp and fast. Glancing through the leaves, I saw a tiny chick caught about a foot off the ground. I looked up and near the top of the hedge, almost at eye-level, was a small nest. The chick had fallen. The birds kept circling.

Intent on not touching it, I found a small stubby branch and gently placed it beneath the chick. Slowly, over a period of minutes, I helped the chick climb through the brambly maze of the hedge until finally I was able to tilt the branch gently and place the chick in his nest.

The day had changed. My headache was gone. In a moment, the day’s ragged events seemed to make sense. I tossed the branch away and started walking back to the dorm.

Suddenly that inner voice you cannot ignore screamed DUCK! I crouched instantly. A bird hit me on the head hard enough to knock my cap off. It was like being hit with a curveball. Twice.

I grabbed my cap, stood up and shrieked at all the birds. I screamed that they would die if they messed with me again! I would shred their bodies and stomp the pieces into dust! Just try me again!

One of them did. I missed.

Then I saw a woman standing on the opposite sidewalk, staring at me like I was mad.

The birds kept circling, way out of reach. My head throbbed again, my throat hurt and I kept reliving my bird-swat miss. And that damn woman kept staring at me.

Stupid. Birds.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Sweet Sue

It would be so dramatic to say that I recall the first moment I saw the sky-blue can, tall and inviting, with its sunny-faced Sue smiling all my cares away. Dramatic indeed.

No can do. I bought my first two cans of Sweet Sue Chicken and Dumplings on a whim. I’d never had dumplings, or at least, I didn’t remember ever eating them. I knew what they were (in theory) and I’ve always been partial to soups anyway.

The part I liked best was the fact that it was a 48-ounce can, a can worthy of feeding a hungry family. None of this Campbell’s Soups “add a can of water” tripe, either. This was the essence of good food: open, heat and serve.

You can smirk at my gourmet pretensions. Before I had any faith in my culinary abilities, I had to survive first and 48 ounces of anything edible would keep me alive for at least another couple of days.

On a chilly fall night, I cranked open the first can and set it to heat. It looked great, home-made rather than machine-churned. Sweet Sue looked smilingly out of place in the wastebasket so I turned the can to have her face downwards: out of sight, out of mind.

I served myself a large bowl of chicken and dumplings and had my first spoonful.

Here’s what’s left of my initial paragraph once references to sexual peaks and over-bearing emotional excesses were wisely pared away: The soup was hearty, savory and satisfying from start to finish.

I finished the first can, opened, heated, served and polished off the second as well. Restraint often eludes me. Over the next several years, Sweet Sue and I had plenty of dinner, lunch and breakfast dates. I particularly enjoyed reheating the soup a couple of times until the dumplings softened the soup into a heavy stew. It was the first meal I turned to when the weather was cold and the first I turned to when my time for seclusion was ending. It filled my stomach, warmed my heart and gave me moments of peaceful bliss amidst storms.

Gives “Rhapsody in Blue” a different meaning.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Dorm Mother

Dorm rooms are squares more akin to coffins than living spaces. A coffin is useful immediately, whereas a living space takes time to create and mature.

My arrival at the dorm was the dropping of a soul into the desert. I knew no one. I had yet to develop the urge to explore. I brought no books, had no TV or writing machine. So I took to going down to the lobby and met the Dorm Mother.

Her name disappeared within days of the last time I sat with her to speak. She had incredibly white hair, glasses the Cleavers would have found stylish and arthritic hands that moved restlessly. I sat with her the night after my arrival and started a conversation. It didn’t take much. She went on about her daughters, her garden, Tupelo, the pains she endured daily, her husband pushed to work beyond retirement age and Tom Snyder.

She loved Snyder, watching him faithfully every night. She got home too late to catch Carson, she’d say, but then Carson said things she didn’t quite understand. Snyder—she always called him Snyder—spoke simply, made himself understood and his jokes always made her laugh.

I told her about Puerto Rico, which was the same as telling her about the Amazon, Nepal or Xanadu. She wasn’t slow or ignorant; it’s just that her world was a familiar wool blanket and mine was a cascade of clashing colors. She focused more on family and friends and seemed distressed that neither group was large in my life. She made up for it by telling me all about hers.

Several times I spent the last few hours of her shift with her, from early evening to late night. She asked me if I knew anybody or did anything; I shrugged. Several times, other lost souls would drift into the snack room and give me dirty looks because I was talking to her. I felt superior to them because I never gave dirty looks when the situation was reversed. I was too proud.

A couple of weeks into that first semester, the urge to explore hit me, friendships were being established and books were piling up. I skipped a night, visited her again and then went no more.

Occasionally I’d see lost souls wander in, their attitudes changing as they saw her. A few weeks later, I passed through the lobby and we saw each other. She seemed more tired, stiffer and I thought she looked at me with a touch of anger.

She probably didn’t. That wasn’t her style. Nevertheless, my guilt was real.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


He was a straight man with wit and style. A baritone with effortless delivery, he was probably better known for having a drink in his hand (often apple juice), being surrounded by pretty women and living life like it was one genteel party.

Dean Martin was never the crooner Bing Crosby was, but he outsold him for many years. He was never the actor his best friend Frank Sinatra was, but he was well-respected by actors for being natural. He was never as funny as Jerry Lewis, but then again, Jerry wasn’t as funny after he split from Dean.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was the first song I ever heard by Dean. Christmas in our house was the musical time of the year, so any voices heard then tended to stay with me year-round. We’d watch The Dean Martin Show, with his dancers, piano and couch, but that didn’t impress me as much as the fact that he knew Rudolph and Santa.

I bought a tape of Dean’s Greatest Hits and played it often. Unlike other singers, Dean could add an enormous amount of personality to lyrics, whisking you along through an Italian love song, a country tune or a broken heart.

The song that hooked me on playing him more often was “Houston,” a wistful-yet-plucky song that served as a soundtrack to the summer when Carol was an intern in that city. I gained a new appreciation for monster hits like “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime,” “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” “That’s Amore,” “Standing On The Corner,” “Memories Are Made of This” and “Volare.” Dean was often the catalyst that started my letters to Carol, but when she returned, I seldom heard his voice: when she was there, he wasn’t needed; when she left, he reminded me too much of her.

Years later I explored more of his songlist: “Sway,” “Return to Me,” “Innamorata,” “Angel Baby,” “On An Evening in Roma,” “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head” and “I’ll Always Love You” also became favorites. I learned he had deliberately copied the easy-going style of The Mills Brothers, also one of my favorites. I discovered Dean knocked The Beatles off the #1 spot and he was the only artist to ever have 5 simultaneous albums on the Best-Selling List. My dad had all of them.

Dean was suave and debonair, a character who could make you smile with him as he ambled confidently through life. I am so sure I wasn’t alone in wanting to be like him.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Stories That Ain't True

Over the years I developed a series of routines, comedy pieces I would spin out to entertain and amuse… me. They were often dropped into the middle of conversations or as distractions within an otherwise free-flowing lecture. Unfortunately, tossing them off in deadpan style often created the sense that I actually lived these experiences and that I was either:

A) Terribly weird.
B) Delusional (a subset of A.)
C) A bare-faced liar.
D) A pig.

To some, I may have been a combination of any or all the above.

So, to clarify the matter, these stories ain’t true:

“I moved into an apartment that was converted from an old hotel. While setting up my things, I opened a kitchen cabinet and discovered a medicine bottle stuffed with all kinds of pills. Blue, green, yellow, red, two-toned, some round and most of them capsules. There were maybe 50-60 pills in that bottle. I guess I could have sold them, but I decided to just flush them down the toilet. A few days later, I was reading when I heard a small tap-tap-tap on my door. I opened it. There was nobody there. Then I looked down and I saw a rat shaking horribly, clutching itself like it was going to fly apart. He saw me looking, licked his lips and yelled ‘Gimme more drugs, man!’”

“I hated doing laundry. I hated going to the laundromat with its dead air, funky smells and aura of gloom. I hated sorting the clothes, getting change, washers that didn’t wash, dryers that didn’t dry or that roasted your clothes, seeing people I wouldn’t want to be caught dead with and then lugging the whole mess of laundry back. I hated it all. So instead of doing laundry every week, I started stretching it out to every two weeks. That got old quickly, so I stretched it to once a month, then every two months. At that point, to find clothes I could wear, I’d just throw them against the wall. Whatever didn’t stick, I could wear again. When all of it stuck, I’d throw it against the ceiling and wear whatever came down during the night. When I had nothing to wear and couldn’t chip the stuff off the ceiling, I’d move to a new apartment and buy new clothes.”

“The problem with admitting a weakness is that your friends are usually the first ones to use it against you. Because of a childhood pre-operation diet, I developed a loathing of Jell-O. Couldn’t stand the stuff. So of course, on my birthday, what did these f(r)iends get me? A case of Jell-O. Assorted flavors! A tidy bundle of 48 little boxes of gastronomic sludge. I put the box in my kitchen and forgot about it. Until one day I realized that 48 little boxes of gelatin need a lot of hot water and that unless you have some cannibal’s stewpot, you only have one choice for that big a batch: the bathtub. Filled halfway with hot water and with the multi-colored Jell-O contents poured in, I had me a reddish purple sloshing mass that just begged to be tested. I learned three things: Sitting in a tub full of Jell-O is not as fun as it sounds. Jell-O has a way of creeping into crevices that you will not like. And finally, that it takes hours to clean the gunk off your skin and you can write off the bathtub as a loss.”

Well, actually, that last one is true. Don’t tell anyone.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Polymath Pal

pol•y•math n. A person of great or varied learning.

I wasn’t impressed when I met him. He was distant, which caught my eye, but not isolated, which made me curious. We walked out of the meeting room together and ended up walking over to the Student Union. I don’t know why, but I was angry at him. Later I realized it was that ability of his, already noticeable, of connecting with people without giving anything away, as if he were some sort of holographic chameleon with the integrity of an ideal Jesuit priest. I was jealous of it.

It took me but an hour to wipe away my lack of impression and incipient jealousy. Don could talk about anything with wit, depth and ease. Not only could he open a new subject, making connections that were almost beyond me, he could also take my leaps of creativity and improve them. With that much talent and brainpower flashing about, we naturally turned this motherlode to…humor.

I blame college for that.

The next few days, I made it a point to hook up with Don as often as possible, delighting in his company as if I’d found an alter-ego. Pardon my self-centeredness: it’s all I had back then. That Don was much more than that was never in doubt.

Don made me laugh. Often. His sense of timing and the absurd were uncanny. (Still are.) I prided myself on being a dead-still poker face in almost any situation. Don cracked me up until I no longer tried too hard to dead-pan anyone.

Don could draw. His doodles were filled with personality, odd quirks that brought them to life and gave them a depth few others could match. Interesting to note, he drew GCSPrank as a blank-faced character, hiding his expression behind eyeglasses. I guess he saw me dead-panning fairly often. I’ve been known to not see myself accurately.

If Don had a flaw it was his insistence on being an Engineering major. I’m a little pained to admit that I rode him hard for wasting his time getting poor grades when he was so obviously brilliant. I may have crossed the line more than once, but I think—I believe—he grasped that my insistence was from caring, not belligerence.

Finally, and thanks more to his then-future wife than to me, he went ahead and followed his heart. Three Masters degrees later, Don continues to grow in mind and heart. He steadied my road in college, again as an adult and if I had more sense I’d confer with him weekly.

My grandmother met him once, at my wedding. A few months before her death, out of the blue, she sat me down and looked into my eyes for long seconds. Then she said “The fact that you have a friend like Don means you are very special.” I froze. She went past my malaise and hit on a truth so strong I simply couldn’t ignore it. It was a long road back from that much darkness, but the day I took the first step to truly heal myself is very clear to me.

I thanked my grandmother, in life and death. Now I thank you, Don.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Jane Pauley

She was there, every morning, and I didn’t pay attention. At that hour, I was either going to sleep or sleeping, so the brief glimpses I had of her were charming, but quickly forgotten, like cotton candy.

One summer I developed a habit of walking through town late at night, returning to write until the sun rose, then making breakfast. Too keyed up to sleep, I started watching "The Today Show." And in a couple of hours, I fell in love with Jane Pauley.

Obviously, not in a creepy stalker way. It was more in that soft-boned way shut-ins become enamored of soap opera stars: you see someone attractive and interesting every day and you want to be with them all day. Jane was not a traditional beauty. She didn’t look artificial or Hollywood-bound. What she had was much more special: intelligence, vitality, perspicacity and that vague but valuable quality called heart.

She was all-too-human. I read that she had lost twins and missed her on the show. She returned a couple of weeks later, pale, drawn, evidently sad. That first moment on the air was weighed with pain, and her co-host (Gumbel?), reached over and held her hand for a few seconds. Her smile was brave, but flickering. For the first time, I cared about a celebrity as if she were one of my own.

Her hairstyles were the playful exuberance of a teenager, while she dressed with the savvy of a career woman who thinks fashion is a good place to start. I know the show had a wardrobe coordinator, but Jane made her own choices, adding touches that were hints of both flair and defiance. Who else would pin a chiffon scarf with a Snoopy brooch on a Dior jacket and make it look great?

There’s one moment I absolutely cherish: During the overbearing wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Jane, Bryant and some British newspeddler were commenting on the wedding. Bryant was playing it cool, but Jane was like a teenager, soaking in the pomp and pageantry. The British guy was pointing out the significance of events in a monotone, so he may have been “frightfully excited.”

At one point, the British hysteric said that Lady Diana would enter the church unescorted, but after the ceremony, she would have a Royal escort. Jane immediately said “Oh, that’s when her blood turns blue?”

I cracked up. Coming from me, it would have been the depths of sarcasm. Coming from Jane, in innocent fashion, her question was too obvious for television, but perfect for the audience. Bryant tried to hide behind his tie, the British guy appeared to have sucked on a lime and as the silence stretched into several seconds, Jane was looking like a schoolgirl who’d been caught drawing unflattering doodles of the headmistress.

British guy unpuckered his face long enough to pointedly change the subject, while Bryant and Jane exchanged a look that means more than just sharing glances. For the rest of the show, Jane was subdued, making quiet and accurate remarks that met with the approval of the British pinhead.

I wished I’d been there. She and I would have had a blast.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Tennis Eddie

Eddie was tall and lanky and looked like an intellectual having a bad day. He bit his fingernails something fierce, and amazingly, his toenails as well. You’d think he’d refrain from wearing sandals.

I don’t remember how we met. There’s this vague memory of an overcrowded cafeteria and me sitting alone. Sounds about right. He was majoring in Political Science, or as I told him, “Something Useless.” He chuckled and didn’t retaliate when I told him my major was biology.

Eddie brought up tennis first, that I remember. He complained that his regular playing partner, a Korean student with a powerful forehand, had left the university on an internship. I offered to play him and he quizzed me about my skills. In summary: weak serve, weak forehand, weak backhand, good volleyer. We decided to play later that afternoon.

When I got to the courts, Eddie was already practicing his serve. A high, lazy toss. Several dozen angles as his arms and legs flexed and whirled and uncoiled. Then a meaty splat as the ball rocketed off the racket like a fuzzy bullet.

Into the net. Fourteen times in a row.

I walked confidently onto the court and we started warming up. Eddie’s forehand was smooth, but his backhand was sickly. He was a baseliner, declining to even practice volleys. He twirled his racket, won the up/down and elected to serve.

I was so ready. Hard flat serves were easier than hitting a fastball and I could hit a fastball. Eddie tossed, angled, corked, uncoiled and fired a fuzz-bullet long. Second serve. I was ready. Toss, whirligig, spinning serve that practically bounced sideways.

A lesser athlete would’ve broken a limb trying to reach that ball. I lunged, rolled and spun to sprint back onto the court in time to see Eddie punch a forehand into the far corner of my side.

And that was the pattern of our matches: A hard serve that never came over often enough for me to use it, with crazy-ball second serves that had me moving in and out, side to side and punching it back as if I were 73 and had suffered a stroke.

I never beat Eddie. (It irritates me just to write that.) We played some 14-15 matches against each other and I always lost two sets to one. My serve let me down, as did my forehand, backhand, overheads and lobs. My volleys and quickness kept me close. But it was Eddie’s second serve, that lollipop-from-Hell, that kept me at bay.

And you know what? He never stopped bashing the first serve. I once suggested he make his second serve his first since it went in frequently and was hard to read. He thought about that for a moment, then said “But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Spoken like a Poli Sci major.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

2 Out of 3

I hated selling vacuum cleaners. I took the job because I wanted to challenge myself and have the freedom to explore the Hattiesburg area. It was a challenge just trying to stick with it, I had the freedom to explore and in general, it—well—sucked.

The Sales Manager was a small, sharp-faced man called Jake. Raised snakes and looked like one so you can guess what the salesmen called him behind his back. Jake had only one focus: sales. How many did you sell? was his constant greeting, even at 6 AM. Yes, 6 AM.

At first I was bothered by having to respond “None.” Jakes eyes would freeze, he’d blink slowly 3-4 times, like a… reptile, and he’d turn away as if I had ceased to exist. For all I know, to him I had. As the weeks went by, saying “None” was a pleasure, as it defied everything he stood for. (And because I was making money on the side. Details later.)

Paul was the office’s star, a slim, balding man with impeccable grooming in “formal casual,” his way of describing dressing well enough to be respected, but casual enough to avoid intimidation. Women loved him and he received several calls a day for “service.” He was happily married, though, and he did sell a vacuum cleaner almost every day. In the Renaissance, he would have been the Captain of the Guard with ladies writing him secret letters filled with poetic musings.

Billy Bob—and believe me, I wouldn’t make that up—was a paunchy good ol’ boy who loved huntin’and fishin’. He said his secret to selling a vacuum was to put it together in smart snaps and clicks. He told me once that when any guy saw him click them tubes together like armin’ a rifle, the guy was sold. Billy Bob called me an intellectual, which was always a bad word when he said it. Still, he gave me my first sale, a “college lady” who didn’t like his down-home country style. Sold her the vacuum in six minutes, the time it takes for her to write a check and for me to carry it in.

Hank was an alcoholic who started drinking about 8 AM and sold most of his vacuums after 1 PM, when his tongue and belligerence got loose. There were days when he out-sold Paul, but most of Hank’s sales were canceled a day or two later. See, he’d get mad if he went through his spiel and you didn’t want to buy. In the morning, he’d smile and leave. In the afternoon, he’d threaten to take your old vacuum and throw it away. He often did. But he sold enough to stay in Jake’s terrarium.

Jim was the Service Manager, a veteran of the Korean War married to a Japanese lady. He spoke fluent Japanese, was a whiz with mechanics and read voraciously. I spent more time talking with him than selling, and because he was limited by Social Security and Jake knew it, we devised a system of taking Hank’s returned units, reclassifying them as inventory for parts and I’d sell them at half-price, splitting 50-50 with Jim. Suddenly, I was making $400-$500 a week and cavorting on Easy Street.

And Jake kept asking “How many did you sell?” Only now I was lying.

The best Jake-tweak happened on a Wednesday. I was pretending to go door-to-door (covering the scheme) when I stopped at a large Georgian (or Victorian?) mansion. My knock was answered with a shout and seconds later, the door flew open.

“What do you want?” A small man, dark-faced, sharp eyes squinting at me like I had slapped his favorite parrot.

I said “Good morning” and told him my spiel, noticing the large white wall-to-wall carpet in the foyer. Or living room. Whatever.

He shook his head. “We already have another brand. The wife loves it.” He started to close the door, then snapped “Do you play chess?”

I said yes and he invited me in.

That afternoon, I walked into the office and started to tell my story. At the point I stopped above, Jake jumped in and said excitedly “You let him win and sold him a vacuum cleaner!”

I scowled. “No. I won two out of three.”

Jake’s face fell. He didn’t even blink: he just walked away.

Billy Bob said he didn’t know how to play chess like us intellectuals.

Jim gave me a big thumbs-up.

Hank was snoring in the back room, propped against the wall.

Paul watched Jake leave, smiled at me and said “You’re not a salesman, Gil.”

I nodded and offered to play chess with him. He agreed, in exchange for the address of that house.

I beat him twice. He sold the lady of that house a vacuum cleaner the next day.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


It was a record-high 92 in San Juan when I left that January 11th morning. Three hours later, I arrived in Atlanta and I heard the temperature was 26 degrees. Less than two hours later, we landed in Memphis. I didn’t know the temperature. Less than four hours later, the bus left me and my baggage at the Oxford station. The driver told me that the temperature was 0 degrees, with a wind-chill of minus 10. But that was at 5:00 PM, when the sun was still a feeble light in the gray sky. Now it was 7:30 PM and very dark.

I was wearing my usual: jeans, T-shirt, light jacket, sneakers and a cap. As the bus pulled away, I realized just how quiet everything else was, how shuttered and closed it all felt, with scattered layers of snow like trimming along streets and rooftops. I knew calling a cab would be useless. The dorm wasn’t far. I could walk.

Practically my whole life has been spent in warm weather. Winter to me is any drop into the 60s. I had encountered true winter the year before, a day or two in the low 20s, but rode those out by staying in, where the thermostat and some judicious tinkering would keep my room in the high 70s.

I felt pain in my hands and face, an alarming tightness exacerbated by the knifing gashes of breath in my nose and throat. I walked slowly, fighting the urge to hunch over as the wind slashed around me. My bags were light, but began feeling immense and my pace slowed. I looked at the houses with the warm glow of lights behind frosted windows. Maybe I should knock on one of those doors, I thought. But arrogance can be an unjust master and I walked on.

A sudden gust doubled me over and I dropped my bags. I looked at the back of my hands, where the veins rise prominently and was aghast. There were jagged crystals pushing up from inside the veins. My hands were literally freezing. As if in a trance, I touched the largest of the jagged mounds. I felt it move and scrape deep within. I had been walking less than 15 minutes.

I was in front of a dentist’s office. A low hedge ran along the right-hand side of the building, covered in ice and snow. I threw my bags between the hedge and the wall and tried to pick up the pace. The wind slammed from all sides and as I flexed my hands, I could feel more jagged scrapes in places I refused to notice. I didn’t think of taking clothes out of my bag to layer for warmth. I thought only of getting to my room.

The Law Center. If I could get there, I could rest and warm up. Between the town and the campus lay a tree-ringed bowl, an almost elven cubbyhole with a raised sidewalk through the middle. As I crossed it, this space I found so endearing, I felt myself unzip my jacket. The wind howled through the treetops and I almost fell off the sidewalk. I could no longer feel my hands.

I trudged up the low hill to the Law Center, passing several houses. I ignored them. I didn’t care for them. I could barely breathe and my throat was raw. The Law Center was lit. I stumbled to the door and pushed against it with my shoulder, keeping my hands from something bad I couldn’t quite remember.

The door was locked. I had wanted to return early to beat the crowds. I had.

I cowered near the door, trying to draw a less-painful breath. The Student Union. It would be open. It had to be. I swung myself off the door and fell. I didn’t break my fall at all, slamming my head onto the concrete. Rolling over, I pushed myself upright. I had the vague sense that the time was 8:10 and that I should have been in my room five minutes ago.

My steps were painful and clumsy. I could sense it, but not put it into words. I also sensed I should close my jacket, flapping in the sharp wind. I took off my cap and tucked it inside my jacket, against my ribs. It was my favorite cap and I didn’t want it to be damaged.

I stopped walking, turned to my right and took a few steps towards some bushes. I fell forward.

How long I was there, I’ll never know. I spasmed awake to enormous pain. Ice broke off my face and the bush’s branches as I pushed myself to stand. Slowly, without thought, I made my way to the Union. As I approached the door, I could see a gap. It's open, I thought, without concern. I pushed the door open with my shoulder and out of habit, went to my mailbox. I slumped to the floor in front of it and fought the pain as I recovered. I was probably there for half an hour.

From the Union to the dorm was a slow trek without incident. I got to my room and simply collapsed on the bed, too weak to wrap myself in a blanket or change clothes. I had trouble breathing. I didn’t want to move so I could ease the pain.

The phone rang. The phone rang. It rang again. I barely made it there to pick it up. I knew I had never felt so drained in my life.

“Hello?” Four musical syllables. Carol.

I croaked a reply.


Another croak. Carol and Don had returned early too and were at the office. Would I join them?

I said yes. Changed clothes slowly, gritting my teeth to shallow breaths. Got a stocking cap, heavy jacket and gloves. Layered an extra sweatshirt and longjohns. Made it to the office because they were there and that’s where I wanted to be, more than anywhere else in the world. They noticed I wasn’t feeling well. I never told them what happened, except for my bags. We went and picked them up.

Later that night, Don and I went out and peed our names in the snow. Luckily, my name isn’t “Alexander.”

[Note: On 11 January 1982, San Juan had its record high of 92. That same day, Oxford had its record low of -5. I was the only person in the world to experience both of those record-setting temperatures. And in that odd way that Life has of throwing coincidences at us, exactly 25 years later, my dad died.]

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Gómez vs. Sánchez

There was never a greater small fighter than Wilfredo Gómez. Known as “Bazooka” for his awesome two-handed punching power, or “The Cobra” for his hypnotizing side-to-side movement, Gómez at his peak was an incomparable combination of aggression, speed and wallop.

His killer instinct was superb, as time and again he would get opponents into trouble and finish them off in seconds with dazzling combinations. Gómez cemented his stardom when he faced the legendary Carlos Zárate, a slim power-punching Mexican who boasted an incredible 55-0 record with 54 KOs. Zárate knocked Gómez down in the first round, but Gómez shook it off and proceeded to demolish the legend with a brutal 5th round knockout.

Salvador Sánchez rose quietly through the ranks, suffering an early loss in an opponent’s home city. Steady and methodical, training like a demon, Sánchez efficiently rose to become a champion and made himself one of the greatest small fighters ever seen.

Although Gómez was a bantamweight and Sánchez a slightly-heavier featherweight, it was inevitable that they would meet. On August 21st, 1981, the fight called “The Battle of the Little Giants” took place. Sánchez was then 41-1 with 31 KOs while Gómez was 32-0-1 with 32 KOs. (It bears repeating: 32 wins, all by knockout.) Gómez had developed the reputation of destroying Mexican fighters and his arrogance grated on Sánchez, who was normally unemotional about his opponents. Although Gómez was moving up in weight to challenge Sánchez, the Puerto Rican juggernaut was still a 2-1 favorite.

For the first time in my life, I bet on a fight: $100. I was so sure of the outcome, I even forgot to watch it. Small mercies.

Gómez landed the first knockout punch and anyone else but the Mexican would have gone down. Sánchez stayed upright, then knocked Gómez down in that first round and only heart kept Gómez from losing the fight in the first few rounds. Sánchez pressed his advantage and pummeled Gómez, beating him soundly until the fight ended on an eighth round TKO.

I lost $100. Much later, I learned how losing my bet was inevitable.

Sánchez was a gym rat, a dedicated athlete who polished his skills with discipline. Gómez was flying high, confident to the point of vanity about his abilities. Hell, he was even dating a distant cousin of mine and making a point of staying out until dawn, singing, dancing and living it up until a week before the fight.

Only one recognized expert called it. My dad’s closest cousin, Waldemar Schmidt, one-time Ring Magazine “Referee of the Year” and early holder of the record for most championship bouts, said it loud and clear: Gómez will lose. To Puerto Ricans, this was high treason, to have one of their own pick a Mexican over a boricua. ¡Al carajo con eso! I wish he’d told me.

The epilogue is both tragic and touching. In July of the following year, Sánchez won with a champion’s brilliance against a very strong Azumah Nelson in what turned out to be his last fight. On August 12th, 1982, less than a year after defeating The Cobra, Sánchez died in a car accident. One of the mourners at his tomb was Gómez, who brought flowers, shared the family’s grief and has stayed in touch with them ever since. The town where Sánchez was born, Tianguistenco, celebrates a festival every year in commemoration of their champion. Gómez has been the Guest of Honor 19 times.

Monday, March 07, 2005

She Called Herself Shannon

The small metal table, topped with a heavy mug of chickory coffee and a beignet, bordered the French Quarter sidewalk. Scattered about my body were $2,200 in cash, product of my first real contract as a writer. Midnight had passed and the weeknight crowd was sparse but active.

She walked up to me in a roundabout manner, heading away from me, then back, then away, only to return and make a beeline for my table. She was young, a few years older than me, slim, in jeans and boots, with a light jacket covering a sheer yellow blouse. She was blonde. Mostly.

“Are you waiting for someone?” Her voice was soft and insistent.

I shook my head.

“Would you like company? We can find a room nearby.” She walked closer and her perfume was flowery.

I sat up straight and waved a hand at one of the chairs. “Not interested. But I can pay you for your time just to chat.”

She stared hard. “You want to give me money just to talk?” she said harshly.

I smiled. “Sure. You don’t waste your time and I get conversation.” I placed a twenty on the table, under the coffee mug. “We can talk until you get bored.” She looked at the bill, then at me. She grunted—a nasty sound—and sat down. She grabbed the bill and put it in a jacket pocket.

“What do you want to talk about?” she grated.

I asked her about other cities she had visited and how they compared to New Orleans; about good restaurants and bad; about magazines she’d read recently; about movies from Hollywood and foreign movies that didn’t make sense; about fashion and how it seemed to be aimed at making women look ugly or foolish and other unlikely topics. Every 15 minutes or so I’d place another twenty under the mug. By the fourth bill, she was asking me questions: why was I in town, where did I live, what job did I have, was I really a student, where did I grow up, did I have a girlfriend. I placed a bill under the mug and she waved it away.

She accepted coffee and we talked on. We discussed our families, or at least I discussed mine. She told me about tragedy and abuse that seemed smooth and vague. I nodded and murmured at the right moments. When she finished, I asked her what her name was.

“Shannon,” she replied immediately.

I waited. She got fidgety. I waited some more. “Is that it?” she demanded. “Are we done?”

I shrugged. “Do I owe you any more money?”

She was disdainful and started to get up.

“I enjoyed it. Hope it wasn’t boring.”

She paused, then looked around. We were now surrounded in the French Quarter. She sat back down and suddenly looked 10 years older. “It was nice.”

“Good to know.” I sipped coffee as she just sat there, a deep and unnerving sadness in her eyes. Suddenly she jerked her head around and got up. “I gotta go.”

She didn’t see me nod. She adjusted her purse, straightened her jacket, readjusted her purse, glanced at me as if taking my measure, then leaned over a bit to get closer. “Brenda,” she said softly and walked away quickly.

I quelled the urge to say Goodnight, Brenda as she left the café. For once I had the wisdom to let someone else have the final word.

Friday, March 04, 2005

G(r)eeks Without Gifts

The males trod the countryside attired in neon greens, shocking pinks and bilious yellows not found in nature, shod in leather shoes from which socks were absent and moved with the uncanny physical and social grace of young warthogs. The females were distinguished by hair that defied gravity and common sense, wore patterns designed to fool the eye into thinking that substance was disguised by style and during that curious week between mid-spring and spring’s end, would suddenly redden to painful lobsterosity in search of early tanning, also known as “a pre-cancerous glow.”

Their ilk dominated the social and pseudo-political atmosphere of the university. Banding together like molting birds, they “rushed” and “pledged,” “partied” and “socialed” and generally behaved like the immature slobs they aspired to be. In that sense, they were a great success.

Joining a fraternity or sorority at the university was deemed an honor by people whose notion of honor is based on the dollar. These starry-eyed dimwits were overjoyed to be selected by some random trio of Greek letters that tried to convey virtues the way a strumpet pretends to be a virgin. They preened. They tried to prance. And they socialized mostly amongst themselves, which was a blessing to the rest of us.

Sour grapes? Pardon me while I retch. What possible benefit can there be to subsuming one’s identity to a fuzzy notion molded by peers less capable than me? What benefit could there be to following an agenda hidebound by the idiotic notion of “tradition”? Why make my entrance into a larger world by allowing people whose opinion was worth nothing to me to guide my path?

Try as I might, no put-down I ever came up with could top Bill’s quip about their Izod-dependent, crocodile-adorned wardrobe eyesores: “Garanimals for adults.” A. Men.

I lost track of the number of times a young lady would walk up to me, strike up a conversation for some ungodly need they might have and then ask the inevitable (and I insist: inevitable) question: “What fraternity are you in?” When the cheerful answer came back—“None”—their eyes would blank out for a couple of seconds, the engaging smile would fade like fog and they would leave. A few would say something inane like “Sorry.” Those that did would get another retort, zooming over their heads like jets above pond water.

Lest you think that bothered me, it was actually fun and life-affirming. Would you want someone to accept you simply because a group gives you identity? Because you’re a Republican? A Rotarian? A Trekkie? (The list is in rising order of importance.) Do you accept that your value rests on affiliation rather than talent, moral values, virtues, skills, intelligence, charm and personality? If you do, then I’m better off watching your eyes go blank, your smile fade and your back recede as you do me the favor of walking away.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Its impact has faded under the weight of other successful movies, the expanding career of its director and the melodrama lived by one of its tiny stars. It stands alone as a rarity: a blockbuster movie sans sequel. If you’re less than 15 years old, you may not have ever seen it because it just doesn’t seem dazzling enough. If that is the case, then you won’t know what you have missed.

More so than any other classic, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial was a “you had to be there experience.” Great movies transcend time, but what constitutes greatness in a movie is debatable. Sometimes it’s great actors, stars whose personality leaps off the screen and into the minds and hearts of moviegoers. In E.T., an expensive puppet with soulful eyes (based on Albert Einstein’s) is the star. Sometimes it’s a great story, filled with passion, angst and truth. In E.T., the story is of a lost alien who wants to go home. And more recently, technical excellence (special effects, costumes) can elevate a movie to greatness, but E.T. broke no new ground, going so far as to have a “little person” in a costume for many scenes.

What made E.T. great was not only the movie itself, but its timing. It was the first urban fantasy that children and adults could believe. It presented a world slightly-removed, viewed by children and where children were the heroes, not by imitating adults, but by being children.

I waited until the final week of its local theater run to see the movie. I picked a weekday matinee, thinking the crowd would be sparse. Not to be. The theater was almost full when I walked in, a crowd made up almost entirely by children. I also noticed that, counting me, there were only eight adults.

I figured I was in for a miserably noisy experience, but decided to stick it out. From the movie’s opening scene, the kids were enraptured. They gasped when Elliot’s ball returns from the shed. They laughed uproariously at a drunken E.T. and giggled when he hid in the closet. His apparent death had many of them in tears, but the cheering, stomping and waving were delirious as Elliot and E.T. made their escape on a bike.

Throughout the film, I watched the other adults. Every emotion expressed by the children was mirrored in their reactions. They laughed, giggled, teared up and cheered, sharing every moment. And when the movie ended, everyone was clapping. Even me.

As the mass walked out, I could see the same light in young eyes and old. The snippets of conversation had the same feel, as no matter who spoke about a scene, they expressed vivid wonder. Whatever barrier separates an adult from believing the fantasy story he or she watches with the children simply did not exist. And instead of being cynical about it, I quietly cheered.

Time passes and what was once unique becomes jaded, especially in Hollywood. Sheer repetition, in the form of sequels and crass merchandising, can push the enchantment of fantasy into the mire of mainstream. E.T. stands alone, more a product of memory than of commercialism. It captured magic, before that magic was drained to banality. If only we could hold on to—or find more of—that magic.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mae Helen

A sky-blue uniform stretched to polyester limits over a generous frame. Sensible shoes. Hair always neat and black as a starless night. When you walked into the bowling joint and she was there, you could feel it. A certain vibrancy. Then her mellow voice calling out “Hi, honey!” or “Hello, darlin’!” Sounds corny, but it was like coming home.

If you dropped in more than once, she’d ask your name. More often than not, the next time you came in, she’d remember it. Many times people would come in and say “Hey, Mae Helen! Remember me?” and she’d give them a square look and say their names. The only time I saw her miss, she retorted “I don’t remember your name, but you owe me some postage.” The guy laughed and paid up.

She sold mail-order gift jewelry, but not to everybody. She would keep the catalogues near the counter and if she thought you were worthy, you’d be shown one or two. Took me two years before she showed me one and I bought something just to make sure I’d remain in her inner circle. When I tried to pay her up front, she waved it off and said “Wait until it gets here and see if you like it.” I joked that I could spend the money by then and she said softly “You can pay me later. It’s important that you like what you’re giving.” I have forgotten what I bought (a bracelet?), but her words have guided my gift-giving ever since.

Late at night, Bill, Don and I would often drop by to eat chili and barbecue beef sandwiches, gourmet chow from Mae Helen’s food emporium. The chili was one of those all-day deals: in the pot before noon, a rich mélange of texture and flavors by midnight. I quipped that by then you couldn’t tell the beans from the beef. But not in front of Mae Helen.

Bill and I would ask for really hot barbecue beef sandwiches and I may have indicated they weren’t spicy enough once too often. One night, she tossed in a little extra sauce from a small bottle she had tucked in a corner. One bite later, I was learning how to breathe without a trachea when she turned casually and asked “Hot enough for you?” I so wanted to say “Yes,” but broiled vocal cords don’t work at will. I limited my response to a nod, sipped some water and gamely made my way through my usual four sandwiches in what became a very long night.

Mae Helen was soft where it mattered and hard when it counted. You were always welcome, but you had to behave to her standards. One night, a drunk guy interrupted my bowling, yelling and taking shots on my lane. I went and got the heaviest ball in the joint and urged him to use it because he was a big, strong guy and needed a heftier ball than what I used. When he tried to grab it, I dropped it through his hands onto his foot. His scream froze the place. While he was down, I finished my game.

Feeling smug, I sat down to order chili and sandwiches. Mae Helen nodded, started to make up the order, then came and leaned over me. I was suddenly engulfed by her presence. “I saw what happened,” she said. She held my gaze for several seconds. “Was that really necessary?”

I have been scolded, reprimanded, criticized, dressed down, threatened, badgered, attacked, scorned, spat upon and reviled by dozens of people in my life. I am not evil and I am not proud of being such a frequent target, but it’s a fact; I have learned to live with it. But never have I felt so—crushed. Her tone was level, her words soft and simple, but I would have given a lot to erase what had happened and avoid being the target of Mae Helen’s disappointment.

She served my order, leaned on the counter and we talked for hours. After that night, I often dropped by just to see her. She knew. I wasn’t the only one.

When I said good-bye to her for the last time, she must have sensed I wasn’t coming back. “Do you remember everything we talked about?” she asked suddenly.

I thought for a few seconds. “No.”

She nodded as if the answer pleased her. “You will, sugar. I know you will.”

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Charlene's Bitter Coffee

Charlene was stacked. A tall brunette with slim hips, long legs, dark blue eyes and excellent excuses for mammary fixation, Charlene was a vision. The fact that she was a biology major made her a swan amongst groundhogs. A female swan amongst male groundhogs.

She and I met when I ventured into the herpetology lab. Eighteen cages were filled with a variety of snakes, one to a cage, all of them venomous. On several occasions prior to that day, I had milked the rattlesnakes, for making antitoxin, so I had dropped in just to see what was going on. Charlene walked by and started a conversation about the snakes.

She dressed very well, with great style and her attire was meant to be looked at. One could sense where she was in the Biology building by the scattered rush to a certain floor. Comical. Or worse.

We saw each other fairly often, but always in passing. I found it odd that she was almost always alone. We talked a couple of times, but like the first time, she would keep asking questions. If she hadn’t volunteered her name, I wouldn’t have asked. She was definitely behind a wall.

One morning, I had lingered in the cafeteria past mid-morning, sipping coffee. There were some 20 guys in the place, with a group of about 12 sitting together as a mass some tables away from mine, which was near the door. Charlene walked in. Tight jeans, stylish boots and boasting a grey angora sweater with a thin belt at her waist.

Conversation stopped. Twenty pairs of eyes watched her as she went through the line and started to get coffee. One pair of eyes dropped out. I searched the tables with two thoughts in mind: sugar and location. I was looking to see if there were still sugar servers on the tables. They weren’t, having been collected prior to lunch. Then I tried to predict where Charlene would sit. It would have to be somewhere between the mass of guys and my table. She wasn’t going to sit with me, that I knew. I noted the table. And made a decision.

Charlene paid for her coffee and once again, twenty pairs of eyes were glued to her. She glided to the table I had selected as her most likely choice. As she set the cup down, she glanced over at me and nodded. I nodded back. She sat down and reached for… nothing. She looked over at the register, past the mass of guys, where the sugar was. Then she turned and looked at me, a soft appeal on her face.

I waited half a second to shake my head. It was simply the expression of my earlier decision: If she wants sugar, she can get it herself.

I knew my reasons. The overt one was my thought that if she dressed for attention, then she had to live with the results of that attention. That one made me feel self-righteous. The other, darker and covert reason was that I simply would not risk being seen doing her a favor, the sad sack guy trying to coddle up to the beauty queen. She picked me because I was safer than any other alternative. I was also the only guy who simply couldn’t do it.

Charlene drank her bitter coffee. Mine was suddenly bitter, too.