Archive for May, 2012

WHIPPIN’ SLAVES AND PICKIN’ COTTON …Down on the Ole Plantation, Good Times Are Not Forgotten

| May 26, 2012 | Comments (0)

An astute observer of the  Old South once said that Dixieland could be summed up in the following sentence:  “On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”

I take strong exception to this sweeping characterization of my birthplace, the homeland of my ancestors. How can one presume to present such an incomplete picture of the Old Confederacy leaving out those elements so familiar and dear to every Southerner ? Where are the grits and fried pies ? Where is the hypocrisy, the double-dealing mendacity, the delusional fantasy and more than a splash of racism, not to mention the loquaciousness ?

Let’s start with loquacity. Southerners must be the most talkative tribe on earth. First there is the story-telling.  I doubt there is a (white) southern family that does not have its slaves and plantation tales. Even white trailer trash can participate in this Southern Gothic fantasy, claiming that Uncle Willie Shifflett was overseer on the “back eighty” of the old Dawes plantation. And is there an upstanding Southern family that does not have a member who played poker in a New Orleans bordello betting stacks of chips against the slaves he claimed he owned ? And then lighting his cigar with a hundred dollar bill when he had raked in his winnings for the night ? That tale has been passed on for generations over bourbon, told to grandchildren who would be better off not knowing such historical prevarication.

My late grandmother, rest her soul, and she WAS a good, dear soul, was the foremost practictioner of  non-stop conversation at all times. Talk had to be maintained, at all cost, to ward off  that horrible void  called silence. Silence was not golden, as I had been taught in the first grade of grammar school. I recall talking to a classmate during a lesson and being shushed by the teacher, who must have been a Yankee, who told us, “The Lord said:  Silence is golden.” The next time I transgressed God’s Silence Rule, I received several smart wacks on my rear-end with a ruler.  So for me  a conflict developed between what grandmother said and what I was learning in the outside world.  In her life my grandmother had several golden rules,  foremost among which was that conversation had to be constantly  engaged in no matter what  circumstances prevailed. Wordless quiet to her was a wicked virus that had to be chased away with the soothing patter of sound.

When relevant conversational subjects had been exhausted, thank goodness for fall-back topics like the weather and recently deceased relatives (“I remember how nice Aunt Maude looked laid out in that velvet coffin of hers; her face was pretty as wax….doncha think ? Sammy, are you LISTENING to what I just SAID? I’m talkin’ about your sweet old Aunt Maude. Now you remember your Aunt Maude, doncha ? How she took care of you when I was away and spoiled you like you were the only chile in the world, her very own off-spring. ‘Course Aunt Maude had no children of her own. Poor thing, she never married. Bless her heart, she was plain as a fence post, could never catch a man. Mean old Horace  – and I know he’s burnin’ in Hell right now – he used to say Maude woulda walked the streets naked if she thought a man woulda looked at her. But that was plain unkind cuz Maude DID have beautiful eyes. Her eyes were what I would call LUMINOUS…that’s the word, LUMINOUS. Sammy, why are you telling me to be quiet and not talk ? You sound like your Daddy, Sam Sr ! Being quiet is not friendly. Talkin’ is cozy and brings people together, makes us love one another more, you hear me ? Families hafta stick together, chile. Blood is thicker than water !”)

As much as I thought about that ” blood being thicker than water” sentence, I could never make any sense of it. Did she mean that people who were NOT your relatives did not have blood in their veins, that their arteries were filled with water ? The value of aphorisms and proverbs is destroyed when their logic and sense cannot be determined. Hence grandmother’s case for constant conversation came crashing to the ground when my 7 year-old brain could not fathom water-filled veins.

My mother, when she joined the conversation circle, had her own spin on  how to keep words rolling. One of mother’s  talking techniques was the constant compliment. Mother maintained that each day one should tell one’s friends something “nice”. Mother also had the habit of using over the top nominatives of address when speaking to people. The objects of her comments were never spoken to by name. It was always Dream Boat or Honey Darlin’ or Sweetie Pie as in “Dream Boat, that dress you’re wearing is to die for and I’d kill for it right here and now !”

Mother also had a  disconcerting conversational habit which she thought cute and funny, that involved invoking the death of the object of her remarks, as in “Bertha, Precious Thing, I just LOVE that clock on your mantelpiece. Darlin’ will you put that in your will for me ?” The reaction to this “funny” will request was mixed, to say the least. In at least one case, I know it resulted in mother being written OUT of the will of  an old and wealthy aunt.

The two strongest influences in my life have been the Old South, warts and all, and the Island of Java in the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia. In both of these societies – and let’s suspend our memory of the horrid racism that  reared its hideous head in the South until quite recently –  social confrontation in polite society is utterly taboo. One doesn’t say what one thinks; one is POLITE in dealing with fellow humans. Polite to the point of being two-faced. Following this  code is not easy when an “in your face” place like New York City is your home, as it is in my case. My first decade in Gotham found me being trampled on by native New Yorkers. Today, having adopted an overly compensatory defensive response as a non-native New Yorker, I fancy myself tougher than even the most hardened denizen of the South Bronx where I live.

Which is not to say that a streak of crazy, kind spontaneity is absent from the  mean streets of New York City. While I haven’t had many – or any – strangers stop me on the sidewalk and invite me home for a bowl of Creole Gumbo, as used to happen in my native New Orleans, I was told by a fellow passenger on the crosstown Manhattan bus last week  that I could have HER seat when she got off at the next stop. Unfortunately I was a bit slow  taking her up on her offer; the seat was quickly filled by a skinny  skate boarder dude wearing head phones, his buttocks protruding over a pair of grimy jeans.

Maybe I should get on a Greyhound bus and return to where I came from. You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy…


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| May 15, 2012 | Comments (0)

High School Yearbook Photo

In 1945 when I was six years old, I brought two bouquets of flowers to school, one for my first-grade teacher, Miss Dickerson, the other for my desk. It was an old-fashioned desk in a two-room country school house and contained an ink-well. I inserted the paper cup containing the flowers in the inkwell and thought it was a lovely addition to our classroom. I had gathered the flowers from our backyard garden and was sure they would be a hit with my teacher and my classmates.They were not. Minutes after installing my floral arrangement, I was greeted by hoots of “Pretty Flowers!” and that remained my name until I left the school three years later.
Miss Dickerson seemed confounded by both my gift and the derisive nickname bestowed on me by my fellow students. Her apparent confusion at the sight of a boy clutching a bouquet seemed a signal to the class to up the ante; their taunts turned to insults. During recess I was pounded to the ground and later sent home with a bloody nose.
By the time I was a fourteen year-old freshman in high school I had earned another nickname – Margaret Rose.This rather descriptive moniker – I had developed into an effeminate adolescent – was not shouted out by school yard bullies. It was handed to me by my father, who being the family joke-ster, thought that he could tease me out of my unconventional behavior through what he deemed comedy. While I laughed outwardly at his funny label for me – in the family we all agreed that being named after the Queen of England’s younger sister was a real hoot – inside I felt great shame and sadness. My photo peering from the pages of the school yearbook in 1954 was a study in melancholic desperation. Many of my fellow students refused to sign my yearbook saying I was a sissy; even worse, others wrote scathing comments addressed to Girlie Boy and Miss Oglesby. After tearing my photo out of the freshman class pages, I shredded and burned the yearbook.
Midway through high school I engineered a radical self-transformation, morphing into a swaggering gym rat who pumped iron every day and had the biggest biceps in school. Suddenly nobody bothered or be-littled me anymore. Some girls even started flirting with me. By senior year, Slam Books – the 1950s notebook version of today’s Facebook – that circulated in the cafeteria and the gym, listed me as one of the coolest, most popular kids in school.
My game of deception had succeeded brilliantly. I had gone “underground” and nobody, but me knew what really lurked inside. My father seemed pleased that his Margaret Rose tactic had worked. One day he buddied up to me telling me I was nearly a man now. In recognition of my impending adulthood, he reached into his shirt pocket pulling out a pack of cigarettes, offering me a Camel.
Years passed and my sadness turned to toughness. Smugly satisfied, I had learned to play by (straight) society’s rules. I was outstanding in college and later excelled in the professional world. Happiness came to me slowly as I built my own tiny sphere of optimism and fun with a small human network of loving support that eventually included a domestic partner.
When President Obama recently announced his support for gay marriage, I smiled and thought to myself how different my life might have been if President Harry Truman had done the same thing in 1945.

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| May 7, 2012 | Comments (0)






Mondays are errand-filled, beginning of the week, bill-paying, letter-writing days. Yes, I did say letter-writing. There are actually folks who  still do slow mail, who do not live in the electronic world. They are not retards or dotty old eccentrics; they simply choose to live without email, Facebook, APPs and TWEETs, those kind of things. I, myself, draw the line at Facebook. Use it but don’t love it; great to reconnect with people whose paths parted from mine half a century ago – and Facebook has indeed facilitated some wonderful reunions – but it mostly ends up being too much information and pictures I would rather do without. Like my friend’s 19 year-old daughter and  her picture on Facebook, showing an 8-month, naked  pregnancy ” bump”; she’s un-married, un-educated and un-employed, hasn’t a clue what she is going to do with her life, let alone that of the child who will arrive in one month, but she’s advertising her impending Motherhood for all the world to see. Well, there I go! … giving YOU too much information !

But back to letter-writing and slow mail. Last week I received a letter, a REAL letter from a friend in Arizona whom I had known 50 years ago. We were re-united via the technology I just maligned in the opening paragraph of this piece. Facebook having paved the way, I wrote to my old pal in Arizona, sending her a short note hoping to reconnect. I didn’t waste pages writing  an epic catch-up  on what I had been up to over the last five decades; you never know, at this point in our not-so young lives, she could have passed on by now, for all I knew and my scribbles would have been for naught. Yes, that’s the way it is with us over- 70 crowd. When somebody is late for an appointment, I no longer find myself exercised by their delay. I simply shrug my shoulders, roll my eyes  heavenward and conclude they are dead. Then they show up 30 minutes late with the usual New York City excuse, ” Oh those trains!”

But back to Portia’s  letter which arrived as mail would in days of yore: a plump, cream-colored envelope stamped with  brightly-illustrated commerative postage containing pages and pages of crisp vellum stationery with an exhaustive account, written in impeccable cursive long hand, of what my pal and our mutual friends had been doing over the last half century – marriages, babies, more babies, divorces, grandchildren, more grandchildren, grandchildren marrying, grandchildren divorcing. Rather predictable “plus ca change” events, but rather re-assuring to know that we humans are up to the same old fun and games we have been playing since time immemorial.

I, ofcourse, felt obliged to reply in a similar, newsy vein which is always a challenge for a childless, gay person especially when corresponding with somebody one knew before one “came out” (of the closet, that is, not “came out”, as in being presented at Court.) Living in Arizona, anything was possible. My old friend could be a homo-hating Mormon, a Mexican-bashing nativist, an Obama-detesting ” birther.” I took the safe way out and talked about my house and the squirrel problem in my garden. I threw in a bit about the cultural joys of living in New York.  I was careful not to say OUR house or OUR garden. That would have raised questions. Then there was the United Nations. Thank God for the United Nations. As much as I bad-mouth my old employer, perfidiously biting the hand that feeds me my generous monthly pension, I do acknowledge with gratitude the use to which my UN connection can be put in a pinch, keeping my news safely neutral but passably interesting. In the case of my letter to Friend Portia, I was able to rattle on for several paragraphs about my career with the UN – probably despised in Arizona for its black helicopters  and plan to take over the world – naming the countries I had worked in and the exotic places I had traveled to, not to mention such events as earthquakes  I had experienced and tropical diseases  I contracted. Nothing like chatting about a disease to tighten rapport with an old friend; one of the few things we all have in common. Bless you, death and taxes, for giving us all something to bond about !

Heaving a sigh of relief at having written what I hoped was  a pleasant, safely chatty  missive avoiding any hint of being the queer, Socialist-leaning, opinionated eccentric that I am, I proceeded to the post office to send my letter on its way. Blessed by a late morning lull and  the absence of a queue, I sailed up to the counter to find myself facing a clerk who was jamming with himself, tapping his fingers, singing soto voce in an animated manner.

Not wanting to interrupt his pleasant musical interval with himself, I simply stood without speaking hoping to gain his attention for a smooth transition from song to customer service. Ofcourse, being New York City where things are different from the rest of the world, it was not to be. In Gotham, I have learned, you can stand in front of a public service employee till Hell freezes over and not be recognized until YOU speak to THEM. After what seemed to be quite a long time, I summoned my resolve to be recognized and said to him, ” What is that you’re singing ?”

Without skipping a beat, he raised voice and  the decibel level of  the song, presenting me with what he termed Cole Porter’s “other” lyrics to that famous number,” You’re the Top !”  

                                                    ” You’re the top !…You’re a bridal suite in use…..

                                                     You’re the breath of Venus,

                                                     You’re King Kong’s penis,

                                                     You’re self-abuse !”

Multi-tasking beautifully, my musical clerk  continued his racey renditon of Cole Porter, stamped my letter, swiped my credit card and sent me on my way.

Back  on my block in the  South Bronx, I pause at the corner bodega to indulge in my favorite vice, the purchase of a tiny, lethal Hostess chocolate cake and to joust with Achmed, the beady-eyed cashier who is the most accomplished short-change artist in the five boroughs of New York City. Little does Achmed know  as he tries to give me change for a fiver when I give him a ten spot, that he is rendering a service far more valuable than the small change he hopes to bamboozle from me. They say that dementia is retarded by mind games that challenge the brain to be active and calculating. If I have any marbles left, it’s thanks to Achmed. Without his knowing it, I have silently dubbed him with the honorific “Doctor Achmed, street corner shrink and short change artist ” !

With King Kong Towering above  Grand Central Post Office and Achmed playing mind games with Hostess cakes, how can I possibly ever leave you, New York !



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MOUSEY MAY MEANDERINGS…A Mouthful of Fur and A Bit of China-Bashing

| May 4, 2012 | Comments (0)

Ours is a rather creaky household here at Fawlty Towers.  Its three denizens are all getting on age-wise; two humans and a cat with one tooth. But there are still Phoenix-like moments here on East 140th Street when one or more of us rise to the occasion in spectacular fashion, often in the most unexpected manner.

Most recent was an act of courage and useful household policing by our eighteen year-old tiger cat Putri. Putri, or Putri Dunn to give her full name, she having been born in the barnyard of Dunn Farm in Orange County, New York, has seen better days. Save for the occasional bout of incontinence, she has slipped into graceful retirement, dwelling in the twilight of  her feline  years. Rarely does she perform her time-honored morning ritual, leaping from the floor to my shoulders as I busy myself at the kitchen counter, sinking her claws into the nape of my neck, growling her matinal greeting to me in hopes of a saucer of milk. No longer does she roar out the kitchen door when neighborhood feral cats prowl the back garden, thrashing them into shameful retreat. Alas ! Her days as Warrior Princess are over.

Most regrettable of all, her mousing skills seemed to have gone the way of her athletic prowess and fierce territorial protectiveness. But what can be expected when one is deaf and dentally challenged as she is ?

No doubt, sensing that Putri is no longer the guerriere she used to be, swarms of rodents, rats and mice, descended on Fawlty Towers this winter leaving their fetid calling cards in the form of pungent mouse droppings and that most off-putting of liquids, rat urine. Our efforts at elimination brought little success – poisonous pellets, baited traps and sticky pads –  the rodents’ version of water-boarding – were all for naught. Sightings and droppings increased exponentially as frantic measures met a brick wall. The low point of our campaign occurred one morning in the bathroom when I cornered a small mouse, a cute little thing. I could have done it in on the spot with my foot or the nearby broom, but hoping  the call of the wild could somehow  be re-kindled if I engaged Putri in a mano a mano with the mouse, I dragged her by the nape of the neck into the bathroom and pointed her at Mr. Mouse who had been trapped in a corner. The two faced off for a moment and then Putri executed what seemed to be the cat version of a yawn, and walked away.

Sitting disconsolately on our dilapidated kitchen sofa, I was overcome by a wave of resignation and defeat. I felt the house no longer belonged to us – Rodentville had arrived. That night I dreamed of giant rats gnawing on the legs of our kitchen table, daring us to face them down.

The next morning, descending to the kitchen sure to find a leering legion of these creatures making waste of our chair legs, I was surprised beyond description at what I saw. There was Putri chewing on the still wriggling body of a medium-sized mouse. We eyed each other with delight, Putri and I. She had risen to the occasion, pausing to gaze triumphantly up at me with what was certainly a sneer; then she continued chewing the now lifeless form, her near-toothless mouth awash with mouse blood, fur and bits of pink flesh.

Seized with a surge of joy, I scooped her up into my arms. As the mouse dropped to the floor I planted a huge kiss on Putri’s face. Our mouth-to mouth encounter was beyond description. As I ingested bits of mouse meat and rodent fur, I knew what it must have been like when that  Frenchman from long ago discovered the first morsel of roquefort cheese in a cave  in ancient Gaul. Oh Joy ! Oh Bliss ! Oh disgusting flavor ! How to describe the overpowering fusion of aging cat breath and freshly slaughtered mouse garnished with  pinches of glossy mouse hair.

Like Scarlett O’Hara’s father, riding madly and gallantly on his steed when everybody thought he was over the hill, Putri seized the moment joining the ranks of other brave souls who had been mistakenly written off. Gloating over her kill she proved that being deaf and toothless was no barrier when a woman with the right stuff is involved. As I picked the mouse fur and rodent flesh from my teeth, I allowed myself a bit of credit for our victory. It was teamwork that had done it. I was sure my bathroom gambit with Putri and the cornered mouse which I so cleverly orchestrated,  had brought home to her the purpose her life had been destined for.

Since that momentous morning there has been quiet on the kitchen front. Word has gone out in the feral community that Putri is on the prowl. Nary a mouse turd nor a smelly puddle are to be found around the house.  Putri RULES! Putri ROCKS !

On the other side of the planet word has come to me about the cruel treatment of Pandas in the Shanghai zoo. It seems that these marvelous animals are kept in squalid conditions in their captivity. Their cages are filthy and, even worse, visitors to the Panda House taunt the animals poking them through the bars with sticks. How sad that an animal in captivity that is also a revered national symbol  should be mistreated by both the zoo and its visitors !

And I’m not through with you yet, China ! The purveyor of this depressing news, my friend “J”, also reports on the shocking outcome of an automobile accident he was involved in towards the end of  his  recent visit to Shanghai.  In a swirl of downtown traffic, the vehicle  “J” and his friends were riding in was violently tail-gated by a truck, smashing their car with  excessive force. As  “J” and his fellow passengers emerged, bruised and traumatized, several, as it turned out, with broken bones, crowds of on-lookers closed in,  pointing and laughing ! Surely, there is a cross-cultural barrier here that must explain this otherwise inexplicably barbarian behavior !

As the sages say, these are “interesting” times we are living in. I have no plans in the forseeable future to visit China or any other foreign destination. With the home front quiet here at Fawlty Towers, Putri and I have no program beyond living another  mouse-free day.

Note to readers and friends: Putri is available – for a fee – to perform her “guaranteed result” counter-insurgency on rats and mice. Just call us 24/7 !




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