CURRY AND FRIENDSHIP….Just Partake and Enjoy !

| July 6, 2012 | Comments (0)

The kitchen in my Theves house in Bangkok was a kitchen in name only. First, there was no fridge and what passed for a stove was a two-burner gas affair that functioned on a whim. Often in mid-preparation of a meal the supply of gas in the miniscule tank would run out and the tiny blue flame that was cooking a curry or frying a fish would sputter,  extinguishing itself leaving a half-cooked, inedible, lump in the pan. If the  shop on the klong (canal) that sold gas was closed, and the dinner hour near, my housekeeper would walk to the nearest take-out cookery on the edge of the market and return home with half-a-dozen little plastic bags, tied and suspended by rubber bands, bouncing up and down three to a hand like tiny, colorful pinatas, each containing a different  curry or stir-fry. This emergency dinner was acceptable to the palate – especially after the consumption of several taste-bud-deadening glasses of Mekong (whiskey) and soda -but it was not a home-cooked meal, to be sure.

Actually there WAS a refrigerator in the kitchen, but it was not used for cooling or even connected to the house’s faltering electric system. An ancient contraption, probably one of the first electrified models to succeed a real ice box, when plugged in it would produce hair-raising electric shocks if  touched. After experiencing the chastening  zap of  voltage, both my housekeeper and I decided not to use the thing. It was unplugged, cleaned out and thereafter served as an all-purpose storage cupboard, a place where green mangoes were placed in paper bags for ripening and coffee beans stored until they were roasted and ground. Things like that. The only other piece of furniture in the kitchen was a large cabinet with screen panels on all four sides, an item indispensible to all tropical kitchens. This was where perishable food was kept; where left-overs from dinner were shelved for another meal, kept from spoiling by breezes that cooled the house from the Chao Phraya River just feet away.

Ofcourse, in the tropics without refrigeration, it was problematic what you could save and eat later and what you should throw out. My housekeeper felt strongly about the redemptive power of boiling food back to freshness.  In her opinion, a two-day old, un-refrigerated  chicken curry prepared on Tuesday was good to consume if it were boiled again on Thursday and sprinkled with the hottest of chili peppers.  As the guinea pig for this experiment in frugality, I put my foot down after a month of  eating heated-up dishes that had been cooked the day before. Not only was this rather ripe fare less than totally tasty; I began rapidly losing weight due to stomach problems.

After consulting two doctors – one said I was a classic case of Caucasians wasting away in the Asian tropics and there was nothing to be done except pray or go back to where I came from while the other told me to stop drinking alcohol – I came to the conclusion that an old curry is not always a good curry. Thereafter, left-over food was given to the Buddhist temple next door or the gardener or the hang-abouts at the boat dock. It was always wise to be on good terms with the neighbors since I was the only white man living in Theves and I had heard more than one frightening story about uppity, distant foreigners who had gone native and come to regret living outside the protected perimeters of farang (foreign) compounds on Sukumvit Road.

The preparation of a meal in my house was  my favorite time of day. As dinner was created, a succession of aromas and sounds filled the air. First, the fresh smell of chopped, diced vegetables and spices.Then the rhythmic tap-tap of the  cook’s mortar and pestle counterpoised with the tinkle of evening temple bells from the nearby wat (Buddhist pagoda). My housekeeper prepared  our food sitting on the floor surrounded by a fan of banana leaves upon which were spread  vegetables, meat, fish, fowl and myriad spices which she purchased every day in the market just steps away.

So close was the Theves Market, in fact, that we were often awakened at the crack of dawn by  shouts and banter  between the merchants; later the hawkers’ cries would sing out, “Buy my fresh durians, ladies ! They’ll turn your husband into a tiger !  (It was well-known in Thailand that durians from Chantaburi had a even more miraculously up-lifting effect on the male organ than rhinoceros horn powder, causing the most worn-out appendages to rise to the occasion !) Between her sarong-wrapped legs was a massive stone mortar and pestle which she used for pounding chilis, tumeric, onions, garlic and other ingredients that now-a-days are more conveniently purchased in prepared, packaged pastes. But I insisted on no short-cuts in my kitchen.

I was proud to tell my friends that my housekeeper, Khun Ta, was the only cook I knew who did NOT use MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) in the preparation of her dishes. MSG had taken Thailand by storm in the 1970s and most cooks felt they could not make an acceptable meal without using this flavor-enhancing chemical. The result was delicious food, but also a weird assortment of complaints that were felt after a meal by diners, most common among which was a throbbing headache in the nape of the neck, a malady that came to acquire the seriously scientific-sounding name, Chinese Food Syndrome.

Ofcourse, I eventually found out that Khun Ta WAS using MSG. She kept little packets, in appearance not unlike the small parcels of heroin that were also widespread in Thailand at the time, secreted in her apron, surreptitiously sprinkled in the pot as her curries bubbled to completion. This deception went on for years with my being none the wiser and suffering none of the ill effects that were reputed to be caused by the evil powder. I only learned about Khun Ta’s duplicity when she had a falling out with the gardener who, in true Southeast Asian fashion, chose his route to revenge wisely, going through “Nai” (me, the boss) rather than attacking her directly. On Khun Ta’s day off, the gardener approached me, and with side-long glances  and exaggerated gestures  worthy of a silent screen star, acted out in slow motion how the cook would extract a packet of MSG from her apron, tear off the corner of the packet  with her teeth and dump its contents into almost every dish she prepared ! For this and many other reasons too complex to relate now, this was the beginning of the end of Khun Ta’s culinary reign over my kitchen.

Food was not the only thing that perished quickly in the tropics. A freshly laundered and ironed linen sheet or shirt,  left folded and un-used in a damp place for a week, would turn sour. After a few months delicate cloth would often succumb to the elements, rotting and ripping as the atmosphere penetrated its wholeness. Buildings constructed of wood might sag into charming attitudes of collapse after a couple of rainy seasons. Impermanence was in the air in tropical Southeast Asia. We were reminded by these signs of decay, more than anywhere else in the world, it seemed, that nothing stays  the same forever.  If a formalized code was needed to remind us of the transitory nature of our lives and  the objects that surrounded us, Buddhism was there to teach us not to worry and fret if  our faces got wrinkled or our lovers abandoned us or the house we lived in collapsed. It was all in the nature of things.

Last week a good friend, an Indonesian, left New York City for his native land after working in the US for fifteen years. My partner and I had become close friends of Anto and his family. We had been guests of honor at his wedding and the christening of his daughter, now six years old. When Anto informed us of his decision to return to Indonesia  we assumed we would see him before his departure.  But it was not to be. He explained in a phone call that with so many things to organize and take care of before leaving New York, he would just have to say good bye to us on the phone.

At first I was crushed by what I heard, thinking we had somehow offended our good friend and that he didn’t want to see us. But then my partner, also Southeast Asian, explained to me that there was no problem,  we were still Anto’s good friends. It was just that  a life change had occurred,  they were leaving New York  and it was time to move on. No offense, no problem, nothing to agonize about. They were leaving and we were saying goodbye – not at a party with lots of emotion and “until we meet again” promises; just a clean, simple farewell.

Somehow I thought of Khun Ta’s curry that was good for one day. You ate it and enjoyed it; then the experience was over. We had cherished our friendship with Anto and his family, but like the eating of the curry,  our “meal” with Anto, our friendship, was now over. There was nothing to prolong or regret or cling to. We needed to be resigned and happy with the change.

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A TIME WARP ON SECOND AVENUE…Where Is the World We Used To Know ?

| July 2, 2012 | Comments (0)

Buried somewhere in the middle of George Orwell’s “1984” is a haunting description of a tiny shop that somehow, because of its insignificance, has escaped the gaze of Big Brother. It is a dark, cobweb-ridden hole-in-the-wall in a down and out neighborhood.  Inside there is no grim monitor on the wall; the place is presided over by an old codger who babbles on about the old days, the days before WAR=PEACE AND JOY.

But despite its gloomy atmosphere the old shop is not depressing. To the contrary, for  Winston, the hero of “1984”, the dank  cavern is a refuge of joy and light, a place where freedom reigns, where  people are still humans, still individuals with their own private thoughts, their hopes and dreams. Big Brother and the totalitarian state he embodies are no where to be seen.

Yesterday I felt I had walked into the pages of Orwell’s novel when I stepped into Josef’s Repair Store at the corner of 45th Street and 2d Avenue in Manhattan. What prompted my visit was a watch band. Several years ago I bought a SWATCH wrist watch. Ever since the purchase of this time piece, I had been plagued by the band breaking. Badly designed and made of plastic, it was a classic creation of  our culture of the disposable. The  band would crack after a few weeks’ use; at one point I almost lost it when the watch fell from my wrist while I was riding the subway. Had it not been for a vigilant and helpful fellow passenger who nudged me and pointed to the floor where the watch lay, it would have been gone.

Having the band changed at the SWATCH store was costly and there was no alternative for replacement;   only another easily broken plastic strap and, due to its rather idiosyncratic, three-pronged design, no other store would work on it.  I puzzled about what I should do. Chuck the damned thing in the garbage and buy another watch ? A snazzy, thin, expensive Rolex ? Go to Chinatown and find  an attractive knock-off  from the Peoples’ Republic of China ? Or just  forget about wearing a watch all together ?  Why did I need a watch anyway ? Being a “retired” person, I had no need to cleave to a tight schedule.  My presence was no longer demanded  in windowless meeting rooms where endless confabs stretching for hours  would consume afternoons tousling over whether the word “manage” was preferable to “administer” in the composition of a report that  nobody was going to read !

Besides, my trusty cell phone told me the time in the upper right hand corner of the screen. A wrist watch was really superfluous. The techological clock had struck the hour, so to speak, and it was time to walk free and watch-less. But somehow my arm seemed naked without a watch; I felt I was not a person who could be taken seriously without one. Glancing periodically to check the time gave me dignity and gravitas. Especially these days  now that I really have no where to go, checking the time would  look good to anybody who might, by chance, glance at me. They wouldn’t know that I was headed for the gym or Starbucks or returning home for an afternoon siesta or just going to sit in the park and feed the pigeons. For all they knew, I was hurrying to a conference about networking or global-warming. Yes, a time piece was still a necessary part of my persona. A comforting disguise.

Sharing my disgust with my Swatch, I complained to my ever-sympathetic partner who suggested I go to Josef. But WHO was Josef and WHERE was he located, I asked. Working in a backwater office of the United Nations on 45th Street just by Second Avenue, I had never in 25 years come across Josef’s Repair Shop even though my partner said it was half a block from my office. Following his directions, I proceeded to the corner of 45th and Second and found myself standing in front of what appeared to be an abandoned store. The windows and glass door were so dirty and smudged with the soot of time that I couldn’t see beyond the grit and grime. There was no sign either. Obviously, an enterprise that had gone bankrupt and was closed.  Convinced that my partner was mistaken, I turned  and was about to walk away when a a sari-clad Indian lady emerged through the gloomy door with a wide grin on her face. She was clutching two pairs of high-heeled shoes, murmuring to herself with a wag of her head, “Oh…veddy  cheap and veddy good !”

Convinced by this happy testament that there must be something going on behind the dirty door, I entered the tiny shop and was astounded to find it jam-packed with people, the kind of people, I could instantly sense, who know what a good bargain was, the kind of people, unlike me, who would comparative-shop at three places for a pair of socks before making a purchase.

Alone behind the counter was an elderly  man who I assumed was Josef. Despite his age, he was strapping and athletic, smiling as he moved about doing what seemed to be many things at once. Two other sari-clad ladies waited bare-footed while he worked on their sandals, a man in a three-piece suit had come in with a damaged umbrella – imagine in New York City, repairing a damaged umbrella ! – and there I was with my watch. Expecting to wait a bit before my turn came, I was surprised when Josef looked up briefly from his work,  glancing at me  with a quizzical, friendly “Yes?”

I decided, prone as I am to wordiness, that a long-winded explanation was NOT in order so I simply said, “Watch band problem” placing the irritable time piece in his out-stretched hand.  As he leaned over  the counter and his shirt sleeve moved up  a few inches, I saw engraved on his arm blue tattooed numbers. His eyes caught my glance as he replied with a thick Eastern European accent, “OK, it will be just a minute !” Somehow, and it is beyond me how he managed, Josef seemed to work simultaneously on the broken umbrella, the worn-down sandals and my troublesome band. He labored with what I can only describe as a joyous rhythm, fingers deftly selecting sharp, delicate  instruments with the dexterity of a brain surgeon.

Within five minutes he held out my Swatch which now had a handsome black leather band in place of the hated plastic strap. The nettlesome three prongs had been catered to by his making  a trio of tiny, exactly indentical incisions as only an old-world craftsman could do. Not looking up from the sandals, now the focus of his attention, he said simply, “Ten dollars.” Far less than the price of a Swatch replacement and a handsome piece of work that I was sure would last for a long time.

As I looked up from the counter  after fastening the watch to my wrist, I saw a large portrait on the wall of the much-revered Rabbi Schnersson, one of the leaders of New York’s Jewish community; I sensed Josef must be a religious man.

Stepping out into the sunlight from the dark of the shop, I realized what a blessed time warp Josef was.  And how he defied the throw-away culture of 2012, repairing, for a song, items that today were meant to be thrown away after a bit of  wear and tear. Fixing a crushed, five-dollar umbrella was a thing of wonder to me.

I also reflected on the inky numbers I saw on Josef’s arm. Somehow they reminded me of the story told me by my nonagenerian  friend, Melvin. After three years in Auschwitz, Melvin’s mother and the camp’s other other surviving inmates were liberated by the Allies in the Spring of 1945. Half-starved to death and dis-oriented, many of the prisoners were at a loss as to what to do. Not Melvin’s mother. Pulling out a cache of bills hidden in her bosom, she marched through the dreaded gates and announced, “I’m going to the beauty parlor ! It’s time to look good ! I want the world to see me at my BEST !”

What is it they say ? You can’t keep a good woman down ! Here’s to Josef and Melvin’s Mom ! Today’s world would never produce such people.

 

 

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CHURCH BELLS PEAL, NAZIS SALUTE AND A LADY PONDERS A MANSION… I Really Must Switch to Decaf !

| June 28, 2012 | Comments (0)

 

Reaching the peak of a noontime sugar/caffeine high – I had just had an excellent lunch topped off with mousse au chocolat and a double espresso – I bask in the warm sunshine that bakes Katherine Hepburn Park, that delightful sliver of green extending from lst to 2d Avenue at 47th Street.

Some years ago, the park had been a noisy thoroughfare, a grid-locked two-way street choked with angry, honking cars snarling at each other, seemingly going no where. Somehow City Fathers had the wisdom to transform the street into a much-used park, a rare occurrence, indeed. An oasis amid the  concrete canyons in postal code 10017.

Now as I sit in the park on a bench next to a snoozing Chihuahua, Miss Hepburn’s sanctuary is quiet except for tree leaves rustling in the breeze and the tolling of midday church bells chiming their joyful invitation to lunchtime mass. Da…da,da,da…da…da,da-uh…da ! The words of the old Beethoven hymn ring in my ears, a distant echo from childhood Sundays in church: “Glorious things of thee are spoken…Zion, City of our God !…”

Or wait a minute ! Wasn’t  it also …”Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles !”, the Nazi national anthem and still, today, a German patriotic song ! The night before, I had watched a documentary on television about the collusion of the Catholic Church with the Nazis. Although I had been aware of this hateful liaison from reading history, I had never actually SEEN visual proof of it till I saw the film which showed smiling, plump priests standing next to Nazi party stalwarts. Everybody, including the holy men,  had extended their arms upward giving the hated, out-stretched  Hitler salute. Suddenly the sweet sounds of the church bells were ugly and sinister.

Shaken from my happy reverie, reminded by the chimes of what a confused world we live in, my gaze swept the passing parade of lunchtime pedestrians.

Probably few spots in New York City provide such a contrast in life styles and human profiles as one sees in the midtown neighborhood of  Turtle Bay. The park is a demographic playing field and the teams assembled represent all manner of stripes and persuasions – wealth, poverty, honesty, chicanery, arrogance, humility, not to mention that trait shared by all of us, human confusion.

There is the lunchtime expense account crowd, the Madison Avenue PR types, those creators of jingles and sound-bytes that make us buy things we don’t need and consume products that actually harm us; then we have the financial crowd, their flushed purple-ish faces, already jowly before they are even thirty – true-blue Republicans to a person – huddled in conspiratorial groups buzzing to each other knowingly with arcane code words; and who could forget the cream of the crop – the United Nations functionaries and diplomats, expensively tailored with seriously pursed lips, striding by at a rapid clip,  pashmina scarves  flying over their shoulders, glancing purposefully at their Rolexes…We are in a hurry ! We are important ! We have a mission !

Apart from the Chihuahua beside me whose snores alternate with little poopy jets of  tiny Chihuahua farts, I share the bench with a homeless person, a lady of indeterminate age – sometimes being on the street makes you look fifty when you are actually twenty.  I have seen Madame Homeless before. I know she lives in the shelter on East 45th Street; outside the building looks like any posh East Side condo. I wonder what it’s like inside her abode. Sometimes I pause in front of the entrance and jaw with the ladies and guys who congregate by the door. They are a jolly, laid-back group, bantering non-stop in a cloud of smoke, much of it carrying the sweet smell of weed. To me,  they are far more simpatico than the “my shit don’t stink” UN naabobs or the Madison Avenue huckster-fops or the hedge fund gangsters.  When I tripped and fell on Second Avenue a few days ago, who bothered to stop and see if I needed help ? Only those down-and-out homeless folks. They may be poor, but they’ve got soul.

Madame Homeless, my bench mate, is obviously down and out, but her presentation, as threadbare as it is, is respectable. Her dress is worn and old, but clean and neatly pressed. Only her shoes seem to give her away as not well put together. She is wearing sneakers that don’t quite seem to match. But who can blame her for that ? How many mornings have I dressed in a hurry and absent-mindedly buttoned my jacket the wrong way or managed to slip into one brown sock and one blue one ? Who cares ! Madame Homeless is a black woman and the image she projects is one of gentility. Make that shabby gentility.

And what she is doing sitting beside me reinforces her well-born mien. She is reading a glossy brochure, an expensive  real estate prospectus advertising townhouses and high-rise condos that cost millions of dollars. Sitting in the shadow of the elegant, almost forbidding Trump Tower, that 80-story ebony edifice whose top floors are lost in the clouds, I feel that Madame Homeless lives in a palace in the sky in Mr. Trump’s extravaganza and that she is shopping for another  residence. Perhaps a pied-a-terre in Battery Park City in that new building created by the edgy French architect who designed an eccentric structure with wavey walls that make you almost dizzy when you contemplate it. Or maybe Madame Homeless seeks a country retreat, a green haven on Long Island or in the horse country around Bedford ? Dressage anyone ?

I discreetly study Madame Homeless with a side-long glance, a technique  I learned on the Island of Java where everything is done indirectly and with stealth, and her detached but involved scrutiny of  these fabulous properties confirms my initial impression that she is a class-act. The faint smile on her lips tells me that she likes what she sees, but that she is not about to get overworked and pushy about any particular property. You will never hear Madame Homeless say, “I would kill for that classic six apartment !” or “That beach house has got my name on it !” No, Madame will take her time and if it is supposed to happen – if the  mansion REALLY is for her – she will buy it. Or in her case “acquire” it. Madame Homeless is not crass. She “purchases” or “acquires.”

I sit next to Madame for the better part of half an hour. For a few seconds, she looks up from her search for just the right property and heaves a sigh. Then she begins her quest anew, starting from page one, leafing with interest but detachment through the glossy pages.

I look at my watch and realize it is late. As I rise from the bench to leave, Madame Homeless lifts her face from the pages of her fabulous perspectus and locks eyes with me. We smile for a second as I move off  to my next destination. Walking away, I hear a plaintive voice. It is Madame speaking to me. As diplomats rush by us and  trophy wives parade past with nannies, babies and poodles, I hear her plaintive squeak, barely a whisper,  “Mister, I knows you is a nice man and I’s really hurtin’ ! Can you spare a dollar for a hungry lady?”

I reach into my pocket, peal off a five-dollar bill and place it on the open page of Madame’s  real estate brochure.  The page is turned to HAMPTON PROPERTIES FIT FOR A QUEEN.

 

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A WHEELCHAIR, MEXICANS AND MOSQUITOES…Memories of My Last Trip to the Eastern Shore

| June 27, 2012 | Comments (0)

Drawn by an invitation to visit an old high school friend at his summer place in Onancock, Virginia, I plunged down  I-95 dodging  recklessly speeding twelve-wheeler cargo trucks – you just KNOW those wild-eyed drivers are popping amphetamines to stay awake day and night –  and found myself before long in the flat marshy country of my childhood, variously known as the DELMARVA (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula or the Eastern Shore.

Stopping to gas up at a filling station, childhood memories came rushing back as I swatted swarms of bird-sized mosquitoes. I recalled July  evenings on my grandmother’s farm in Girdletree, Maryland more than half a century earlier where we would sit in the dark on the front porch of her clapboard house rocking and sipping iced tea. Grandmother said she kept the house dark to prevent the hoards of mosquitoes from invading and bothering us. When we adjourned to the kitchen for dinner, the only light in the room was a single kerosene lamp and the occasional lick of flame that could be seen dancing through the cracks in the enormous iron cook stove that dominated the space.

Later when we climbed the  creaky stairs to our bedrooms, lamp in hand, with our shadows dancing wildly on the wall, we would snuff out the lamp light and creep into bed hoping the mosquitoes would not find us, flying through one of the many holes in the ancient, rusted window screens that looked out on the tomato fields beyond the little red, rose-covered out-house.  Inevitably one or two – or more – mosquitoes would locate the apertures in the screen, buzzing and whining for hours as they circled our heads. This was the worst part of a mosquito onslaught, that horrible high-pitched whine and the teasing brush of your cheek before they settled in to bite and suck blood from another part of your body while you were frantically flailing and slapping at the wrong places, your ears or elbows.

My New Orleans mother, always contemptuous of what she considered the un-cultured Eastern Shore, sniffed that in the French Quarter THEY always dealt with mosquitoes by lighting citronella candles and fanning themselves with lavender-scented fans. Mother had other issues with the Eastern Shore aside from not seeing eye-to-eye with her mother-in-law,  my down-to-earth grandmother.  Mother considered the Eastern Shore fare which I quite enjoyed, the heaps of steamed clams fresh from the Chesapeake Bay and the mountains of buttermilk fried chicken that confronted us at almost every meal, as unsophisticated, unhealthy and oh so bland. “For heaven’s sake ! Where is the Tabasco sauce? ” , she would ask grandmother, who would feign not hearing her or from the pantry engage in loud stage  whispers, ” I don’t know WHAT your mother is talkin’ about, goin’ on about hot sauce ! Why that stuff’d kill a mule !” One evening their war of words escalated to the point where they never spoke directly to each other again after my mother characterized Eastern Shore cooking as death in a dish.

Actually keeping the house dark and using only one kerosene lamp for evening light because of the mosquitoes was just a pretext for not using the electricity my father  had installed in the 1930s when he had also  added indoor plumbing to the house. Neither were ever used. Grandmother simply could not fathom the utility of such “mod cons”, similar, I suppose  to my being unable to relate to Twitter and other frilly “apps”  we are confronted with these days…plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose !

Having filled my tank, I tarried at the gas pump chatting with the young pump attendant who still retained the now hard to find accent characteristic of the Eastern Shore, a mixture of Old English, flavored with a dash of African guttural and more than a dollop of salty air. Arriving at my highschool friend’s place on the water as sunset sparkled on the bay in a spectacular psychodelic  early evening performance, I was relieved to find that we could talk to each other easily after not having met in over forty years. Perhaps the yapping intrusion of several giant hounds slobbering by our side in the living room aided us in getting to know each other anew.  Their constant barking and howling filled what might otherwise have been awkward cracks of silence that inevitably creep into reminiscent conversations that try to re-capture the teenage rapture of senior class skip day and pranks that were played on our latin teacher.

The weekend passed pleasantly enough and on the second night of my stay new blood was added to the social mix in the form of Scotty’s gay neighbors, two friendly men in their late 30’s who joined us for dinner. They had “adopted” an elderly lady who was one  guy’s grandmother and it was decided that we would all go down to the water for sun-downers and sip our gin and tonics on the beach, wheelchair-bound granny included.

We must have been a happy sight, the eight us of – Scotty, his wife, the two boys with their granny and me plus the two Rotweilers – lined up on the sand at the water’s edge, numbed enough by the gin not to notice the buzzing raid of moquitoes that bombarded us. At one point, at granny’s request, one of the guys pushed granny’s wheelchair out into the water so the wavelets lapped at her ankles. As she shrieked and cackled with delight and the dogs bayed at the rising moon, I felt light-headed and happy, my urban cares swept away in the rustic gloaming. Suddenly a rise in the surf of the normally placid Chesapeake Bay slapped granny’s wheelchair with a furious whack and she tumbled over into the water. The boys were quick to the rescue, setting her wheelchair upright. Scotty and his wife rushed to the house for towels and blankets and in minutes granny was dry and chipper, laughing at her adventure with a fresh cocktail in her gnarled hand. Weeks later, in an email the boys shared with us how granny was still dining out on what had become  her evening’s brush with death and near drowning on a storm-tossed Chesapeake Bay !

On my final afternoon with Scotty I was shaken out of my siesta on the deck by his bounding up the steps followed by the panting hounds. “Something’s up and I gotta go check it out !”, he said to me, a note of urgency in his voice. “Somebody’s started a fire down at the end of the property !” Joining Scotty and the canines in hot pursuit, we headed down the beach at a half-trot towards a wisp of smoke curling skyward. Soon the point of our search came into view – five Mexican laborers circled around a campfire singing to the accompaniment of a guitar. As 6’4″ Scotty and the Rotweilers approached the fire, the smiles on the Mexicans’ happy faces faded into tight-lipped expressions of fear; the guitar fell silent and Scotty announced, “This is private property and you are trespassing !”  His pronouncement was met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Soon it became apparent that nobody had a language in common. The Mexicans spoke no English and Scotty no Spanish. In an aside to me, Scotty whispered, “They must be workers from the tomato canning factory across the railroad tracks. I get this kind of tresspassing problem a lot !”

Lacking words to speak, Scotty pointed to the road, gesturing that the Mexicans were to leave. In silence the young workers picked up their back packs, doused the fire and walked away, their shoulders sagging and faces sad. My heart ached at what had just transpired. As Scotty’s guest, I felt reluctant to speak out, but what I wanted to say to  him was: let them enjoy their hard-earned day off, be a generous host, show some kindness to the less fortunate, tell them they are welcome but to please clean up before you leave and put out the fire. As often happens though, I  remained inexplicably tongue-tied when I  should have spoken out.

Next morning just after light broke, I headed back to New York City crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to the “mainland”.  Although I talk about going back to the Eastern Shore again for another visit, I doubt if I ever will. There are times when you realize that a chapter of your life is finished and it’s time to move on. Besides, I recently heard that Scotty sold the place by the bay and that the boys had split up and their granny had passed away. But we did have fun together that evening of the “great Chesapeake Bay storm and near-drowning !”

As for the Mexicans, with the canning factory now closed, no telling what happened to them.

 

 

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LET’S HEAR IT FOR MOTHERS….That Misunderstood, Maligned Species

| June 15, 2012 | Comments (0)

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A level-headed, no nonsense friend of mine, breadwinner for a showcase family – three model children and a gorgeous trophy wife whom he describes as “hot, intelligent, a great mom and a major fag hag” indicating that she is no fuddy-duddy stick in-the-mud ! – recently revealed to me the shockingly dysfunctional side of his seemingly perfect family.

For thirty years I had only been aware of the tip of the iceberg that displayed a Norman Rockwell portrait of happy parents and smiling siblings, gathered together for festive events,  harmonious at the  table as Dad carved the Thanksgiving turkey, radiant around the Christmas tree opening gifts. In fact, his family is a nightmare of recriminations and scapegoating where the favorite sport is the blame game, the onus for everything perceived wrong being blamed on his parents.

In the time-honored American way, when problems began to develop, my friend’s parents sent him and his siblings to a shrink for help.  And this is where his sisters – he being sensible enough to resist and see through the psycho-babble, claptrap blah-blah – learned to hate  their parents. As the “analysis” unfolded over months of probing consultation couch interviews, blame for the problems experienced by the children was laid at the foot of the parents. In a  world where no human is perfect, how easy it is for a “professional”, a psychoanalyst, to point the finger at a “bad” mother or an “insensitive” father, thereby  relieving the (juvenile) patient in question of any responsibility for his or her own actions.

American culture unwittingly reinforces this image of bad parents. Even in light-hearted sitcoms  the time-honored “put-down” by offspring of parents is standard fare with Junior  often  saying, “Jeez, Dad, you got it all wrong again ! When are you gonna learn (how to fix a widget !)” Snarky teenage attitudes toward parents have come to be regarded as “cute”, funny and “with it”; how could it be otherwise when many, if not most, screen-writers are under 30 ?

I fell into the “hate your parents” trap early in my childhood. Since my father was an absentee parent, working long hours, almost never involved in family affairs, closeted in his study even when he was at home, the brunt of raising the children fell on my mother. More than half a century later, I see my mother as a well-meaning person who tried too hard and loved too much and never got in return what she considered her due. When problems arose in their marriage my mother committed the cardinal sin of confiding in her children, seeking their commiseration for what she considered  to be a fast-collapsing relationship with my father. She tried her best to make us hate him. She succeeded in her mission and in the bargain we ended up hating her too. The messenger who carries bad news is never loved. My mother desperately wanted us to like her; she wanted to be our “pal.”

Americans make a grave mistake in trying to be “buddies” with their children. Children don’t want a “friend”; they want a mother and a father; they need and desire GUIDANCE, they want to respect the two people who are responsible for putting them on this earth. Children don’t  want to “hang out” with their parents; they want to love, admire and emulate them; to be told what to do and what NOT to do. As a stern but kind teacher friend of  mine pointed out: where on your birth certificate does it say “friend”? It says “mother”, “father” and “child” !

Having spent most of my life in Asia and being partnered with an Asian who is part of a large family from West Java, perhaps I am unduly influenced by the “Eastern” way of life in so far as the culture of family is concerned. It is a culture where parents are REVERED. My view is that RESPECT is the keystone in human relations and these relations begin and are learned in the family. America has gone adrift in the past fifty or so years having lost, on its dizzying journey to greater affluence and  instant self-gratification, the meaning of respect, both self-respect and respect for others, especially parents. The “permissive” camp would say that respect is somehow authoritarian, that it has  an anti-democratic reek about it. I beg to differ.

I especially differ after an incident in the subway yesterday. As I ascended the stairs to the street, I was aware of a pair of giggling, F-word-spouting teenage girls behind me. They were waving Puerto Rican flags, it being Puerto Rican Pride Day in New York City. Suddenly I felt a sharp object penetrating my anus. The pain was intense. I turned around and realized that one of these girls – probably 14 or 15 years-old at the most – had shoved the sharp flag pole into my behind. Perhaps to an on-looker it was a funny sight: an old white dude getting messed over by two chicks with big hair, big earrings and lots of tattoes. But to me it was humiliating and painful. As I stumbled up the stairs in agony, thinking this incident might be a good teaching moment, I said to them, “Keep up this kind of behavior and you’ll end up in jail !” My remonstrance only produced added abuse in the form of a violent verbal assault telling me to “go F-ck yourself, old man ! ”

Limping home, bruised physically and emotionally, I took refuge in that maligned phenomenon known as Facebook, hoping to find some instant friendship and consolation on its pages containing my 300-odd “friends” (I hardly know most of these Facebook people and I’m not really sure how we ended up “friending” each other !) Within minutes I found myself messaging an old pal from high school days. Millicent is a successful writer of “cozy” mysteries; she has written a dozen who-dunnit best-sellers with titles like “Death, Lies and Apple Pies.”

Somehow we got on the topic of driving with Millicent reminding me how I taught her to drive in 1953 when I was thirteen and she fifteen. I had commandeered my family’s 1950 Ford and we had made a beeline to a deserted old Japanese airstrip (we were living in Okinawa, Japan)  where I instructed Millicent in the basics of shifting gears and operating a clutch. After a few minutes of reminiscing and laughing, Millicent suddenly said to me, “I never told you how nice your mother was and how much I loved her !” Totally surprised by this unexpected revelation, I asked her why she loved a woman I thought everybody hated.

What Millicent said touched me deeply. Years after we left Okinawa and had gone our  separate ways, ending up in places that adulthood pulls us to, Millicent had a baby. Not long after the birth of the child, she received a gift in the mail from my mother with a note saying: “Here’s a little something for you, Millicent. When babies are born, everybody seems to forget the mother. This is for YOU.”

With tears in my eyes, I remembered what a forgotten person my mother had been and how I had scorned and avoided her when I was a mixed-up adolescent. Now I realized sixty years later that maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.

 

 

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