Friday, October 27, 2017

The Eyes of Art

I really didn't expect to find his name. I had Googled my old company during a free associative search for something or the other, but when I saw Art's obituary, I stopped and read it, and then I promptly lost interest in whatever it was I had been researching.

Way back in 1980, I was offered a position as the data processing manager for a Chicago carbon paper company. It had all happened rather quickly, when the small, family owned consulting company that I had been working for suddenly collapsed, leaving its customers stranded. One of those customers was American Tara Corporation, which was quite the player in the carbon paper business at that time, with revenues in excess of fifty million dollars a year. For those of you too young to remember carbon paper, it was the manual precursor to modern copiers -- it allowed you to make multiple copies of documents by interleaving carbon-coated sheets of thin tissue-like paper between regular sheets. You would then write or type on the top copy, and the pressure would be transferred through all the lower layers, generating what were known as "carbon copies." Even though the mechanics have long since disappeared, that expression has remained in our lexicon.

Because computer networks did not yet exist at the time, I was constantly on the road among the company's five divisional offices, supporting their systems by applying application or operating system upgrades, installing hardware, and meeting with management and end users. (This was all before frequent flyer programs, or I would have made out like a bandit.) About one week every month, I found myself at offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles. I didn't mind the travel, because in those days, airlines offered comfortable seating and real food, and companies were quite generous with their expense accounts, especially smaller companies like ours.

Art, in the late 1970's
And so it came to pass that one day, I made the acquaintance of a certain Englishman named Art, who was the divisional controller of our Los Angeles office. Art, probably around 60 years old at the time, was in Chicago with several of his staff members to meet with us about an upcoming payroll system upgrade. He was very knowledgeable about accounting practices and could describe complex California payroll requirements in great detail, but he maintained this particular sparkle in his eyes that revealed his ready sense of humor. I took an instant liking to him.

In those days, I generally traveled to each divisional office for several days at a time. In the case of my West Coast trips, I usually took a weekend on one end or the other to visit with my aunt, uncle, and grandmother, who lived about fifty miles up the coast from L.A. in the city of Camarillo. The work weeks were demanding, partly because our American Tara office was located in the heart of South Central L.A., in an area where we were advised to leave no later than 5:00 PM for our own safety. Because of this, the office officially shut down around 4:45, and it was therefore imperative that we finish our work early each day. All our equipment including adding machines, check embossing machines and the like were wheeled into a walk-in safe and locked up for the evening to prevent theft. This was not unwarranted -- one evening, several of our late shift factory workers observed two men attempting to wheel our entire rack-mounted microcomputer system, which was in a room with its own lock, out the front door of the office and down Beach Street. During daylight hours, the area was fine, but when darkness descended, it was dodgy at best.

On my first trip to our L.A. office, I traveled with my friend Sam, who worked as an industrial engineer at our office in Chicago. One evening, Art asked if we would join him for dinner. We agreed, and Art said he would pick us up at our hotel. Decked out in a bright, bold Hawaiian shirt that was impossible to miss, Art appeared at the appointed time in his trademark Buick Riviera and whisked us away to Canard de Bombay on San Vicente Boulevard for an outstanding Indian dinner and some lively conversation. He brought us back to our hotel at a reasonable time, and we were able to get a decent night's sleep before heading back to South Central the next morning. That was the beginning of my dinners with Art.

Bognor Regis, Sussex
I learned fairly quickly that Art's wife Marie suffered from poor health, so after work, he would head straight to his home in Downey to take care of her. On nights when he had dinner plans, he would get her set up with dinner before he headed back out. It was obvious from the way he talked about Marie that Art was extremely devoted to her, and yet, I also got the sense that he enjoyed getting out once in a while and sharing stories. Art was an outstanding storyteller. When he spoke, his bright blue eyes sparkled, and his regal English baritone would make even the most mundane story take on a life of its own. He had many stories to tell.

Art had grown up in the English coastal resort town of Bognor Regis and had enlisted in the Royal Air Force, where he served as a decorated flight sergeant during World War II. He had participated in the Battle of Britain. It was during a six week layover that he met Marie, who was living in New York at the time. They fell in love, and Art proposed to her in a letter he sent while he was stationed in the Indian Ocean. Marie accepted his proposal, and they were married in England in 1945.

Although he had served extensively in the RAF, war stories were not Art's stock-in-trade; rather, he preferred talking about time he had spent in Billings, Montana, Marie's hometown, to which he had moved with her in 1950. In 1953, Art and Marie had a daughter named Barbara Anne, and in 1957, Art became a naturalized citizen. In 1970, they moved to Los Angeles.

By the time I met him, Art had lived in L.A. for about ten years, and he had learned his way around the city fairly well. Karen and I lived in Chicago at the time, and being a dual-income-pre-yuppie couple, we were always exploring local restaurants, so any time I traveled, I enjoyed sampling the local fare. Art was an excellent dinner companion, and we had a regular set of places that we frequented: Lawry's Westside Broiler in Beverly Hills, Castagnola's on the Redondo Beach pier, and The Warehouse in Marina del Rey.

As a divisional controller of our company, Art managed a small staff of administrative employees, and he was well-liked by everyone. I remember clearly how one week, the division's entire accounts receivable system collapsed due to an issue with the computer hardware. Art and I discussed the problem at length, and when we had exhausted all the automated recovery options, it became apparent that we would have to manually re-enter the sales data from all customers for the preceding month. On Saturday morning, the entire staff appeared, and we made it a data entry party. In the afternoon, Art found the Dodger game on the radio, so we tuned in to that. We came back in on Sunday and finished the task, and never, throughout all this, did Art lose his cool or his sense of humor.

Castagnola's, years before it was
destroyed by a storm and fire
For some reason, even though Art was 35 years my senior, we had a lot in common, and talking to him always seemed more like talking to my father or uncle than to a work associate. Art loved to talk about Billings, and he told me that he and Marie already had plans to move back there when he retired a few years down the road. He liked the remoteness and openness of Montana, which stood in sharp contrast to his neighborhood in Downey. So I was not surprised to hear, years after I had left American Tara, that Art and Marie finally made it back to Billings.

Once back in Billings, Art and Marie resumed the life they'd had years before. They reconnected with friends, and Art became very involved with the Optimist Club. From all indications, he and Marie had a wonderful life there, but Marie passed away in 2003, and shortly thereafter, Art relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he lived with his daughter's family for the rest of his life. He passed away peacefully on an evening in May of 2015.

I was extremely touched by Art's obituary. We had not communicated since the mid 1980's, but reading it brought back so many memories of the few short years that I was able to explore fine dining and conversation with this gentle man, to hear his stories, his contagious chuckle, and watch those sparkling blue eyes as he told a story. I know this may be a bit out of the ordinary, but I would like to leave you with a quote from Art's obituary, because it is so beautifully written:
This is the chronology of a fulfilled life, but does not describe the character and temperament of a wonderful man who was loving, kind and tolerant throughout his life. If there was a silver lining in any situation, Art was able to find it. If there was good in a human being, Art saw it. He was a wonderful, warm and loving husband, father and friend. We shall miss his twinkling blue eyes and love of horse racing and silly puns and unfailing loyalty. 
He also leaves a tremendous legacy which, as is the fate of so many others, will likely never enter the history books or grace the television screen. Yet, with his help, the war was won, two great nations were strengthened, and many, many lives were made brighter, happier and more hopeful. His was a life well-lived by a man who enjoyed living life to its fullest. 
Art, you were the epitome of a gentleman. Thank you ever so much for being my friend.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Deputized

Ladies and gentlemen, the stories you are about to read are true. No names have been changed, since none have been provided.

I suppose we all have in our pasts that one job that was a wee bit quirky, one that we perhaps took out of necessity or curiosity, but one that we would never retain for any extended period of time. Such was the case with my brief involvement among members of the Shelby County Deputy Sheriff's Association.

In the winter of 1978, knowing that my time in Memphis would be limited, I started looking for a job that would get me through for a short time while I lived at home and saved some money. I was having no luck finding anything, so I answered an ad in the paper for a "delivery" job. I thought that at least, this would be interesting. The job was with the Shelby County Deputy Sheriff 's Association, which appeared to be loosely affiliated with local law enforcement. I went in for a brief interview and was hired on the spot. That should have been a clue as to what lay ahead.

The Deputy Sheriff's Association, known by insiders as the "DSA," cold-called people for donations, and my job was to deliver promotional materials to those who had donated, namely bumper stickers. For that, I would receive a small cut of each donation. The average contribution, generally made over the phone, was about sixty to seventy dollars in today's money. For that, the donor would receive a rather handsome green bumper sticker to affix to their car or home window, or anywhere else they decided to stick it. Many donors assumed that if they displayed the sticker on their cars, they would not be pulled over by traffic cops, although I'm not sure that this rule held in all cases. Regardless, people paid, and they got stickers.

My first day, I was handed a stack of stickers and a list of addresses. This was way before any kind of GPS mapping, so I kept a big spiral bound city map on which to find all the destinations. I would look up the street name, then find the page showing a detailed neighborhood map, and take it from there. On the first few days, I probably delivered five or six stickers each day with no issues. I delivered to both businesses and individuals, and truly, it was a chance to really explore the city in a way I never had. Most of my deliveries to businesses were made during the day, leaving most home deliveries to the evening. This was interesting in many ways, not the least of which was that it took me into neighborhoods I otherwise would not have explored.

One afternoon, I had a delivery to Pooh's Lounge, which was located on Vance Avenue, in the red light district of Memphis. I drove up in front of Pooh's, locked my car, and ambled in, rather clean-cut looking, if I do say so myself. I made a bee-line for the bar to deliver the sticker that the owner had purchased and noticed that an immediate hush fell over the lounge, which was occupied at the time by only about five or six patrons. I heard murmurs of a nature that suggested I should leave the building, but I stood patiently (and warily) at the bar while the bartender presumably went to get the owner. After several minutes, she re-emerged and told me to come back later, because the owner was not there and she could not write a check. I thanked her and left hurriedly, returning to the association's East Memphis office and chastising the two quasi-redneck DSA phone solicitors who had sent me to Pooh's. I told them I wasn't going back, so they said they would. It's worth noting that a few days later, the two of them went together, met the owner, got the check, then returned saying how the place had been so scary.

Another afternoon, I drove up to a nice home on a large piece of land in North Memphis. A long driveway led up to the door of a well-maintained Colonial style home. I rang the doorbell, and a middle-aged woman came to the door, dressed in a flowered robe. She appeared to be very pleasant, although rather tired, as if she had just awakened. After I had introduced myself and told her why I was there, she excused herself, saying that she was going to get her checkbook. She was gone for a couple of minutes and then suddenly reappeared at the door, this time screaming at me incoherently at the top of her lungs. I had no idea what was going on, but before I had time to decide whether to stay or flee, her husband drove up alongside my car in the driveway. He quickly came up to the front porch, introduced himself, and apologized for his wife's unusual behavior. He said, "I'm so sorry...she has problems." He went into the house, produced a check, then thanked me. I left the house with a mixture of relief and sadness, wondering if the woman's condition had been long term, or if it had surfaced only recently. Regardless, I thought about what they must be going through.

Daytime deliveries might take me to neighborhoods I'd never visited, but at night, things took on a whole new perspective. I always had this feeling that even though the fundraising efforts for the DSA were completely legitimate, they were still discretionary on the part of the donors, and I also imagined that not everyone might appreciate a personal visit to collect a donation check, particularly after hours. Such was the case one evening on Wales Avenue.

I had friends who lived on Wales, and I visited their home often. The neighborhood was not by any means affluent, but neither did it appear dangerous. One chilly winter evening, I was assigned a delivery to a home at the other end of the street from where my friends lived. When I rang the doorbell, a man whom I would guess to be in his early sixties came to the door. When I told him I was with the DSA, he said that he had indeed donated and would be glad to write me a check. He asked me to come inside, since it was so cold. I was more than a little intimidated by the two Dobermans who had accompanied the man to the door, but he reassured me that they were harmless. Both dogs had just had their ears cropped and were still bandaged.

Things began to take a turn for the weird when the man commanded one of the dogs to sit up on a chair. He leaned forward to the dog's face and said, "Here, baby...give Daddy a kiss." The dog licked him all over his face while he made "kissy" noises. As odd as this was, I had the feeling that it was a regular occurrence; nevertheless, it was unsettling. The man then asked me to wait while he got his checkbook, which he said was in the back bedroom.

When he reappeared a couple of minutes later, the man held a pistol in one hand and a box of bullets in the other. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "This is my checkbook. Now, get outta here." I looked him straight back in the eye and told him he was crazy as hell and then fled, literally. I gunned the engine of the Chevy Malibu and returned to my house, shaken and stirred.

A few days later, I was talking to my friend who lived at the other end of Wales Avenue. After he'd heard my account of what had happened, he said, "Which house was that?" When I told him, he said, "Oh, no...you didn't...that guy is really crazy."

My tenure with the Deputy Sheriff's Association was necessarily limited. After several weeks of exploring neighborhoods hither and yon, I thanked my boss, quit the job, and made preparations to move to Chicago, where I found a position in the accounting office of an engineering firm several days after arriving. That job led to my involvement with information technology, which ultimately became my career.

Every time I see one of those sheriff's association stickers on a car, I get the heebie-jeebies. I can only hope that most solicitation now is done either over the phone or online, and that collateral materials, whatever they may be, are delivered by mail. On the other hand, I did seem to acquire a penchant for urban exploration, which continues to this day. But now, I'm the one who chooses where I go.

Stay safe out there.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mambo Americano

I enjoy authoring this blog for many reasons, not the least of which is the freedom to write about anything that crosses my somewhat spontaneous, freewheeling mind. Not long ago, I submitted my blog to an automated ad-generating tool, which said that it needed a theme on which to base ads. It was stymied in that it could find no common topic thread among all the posts I've written since 2004. Therefore, it is my belief that I have succeeded in my mission.

Today, I'd like to write about something which is near and dear to (some of) our hearts. Others think it is an overrated food item, but I'm here to set the story straight, because I have done my homework. I'd like to talk about the humble Moon Pie, alternatively known as the "marshmallow pie," and some of its notable imitators.

First off, if you're not familiar with Moon Pies (which I totally understand, what with some of you hailing from places far removed from the American South), a little introduction is in order. Moon Pies are a treat consisting of two graham cracker wafers sandwiching a layer of marshmallow creme, with the entire assembly being dipped in chocolate or other flavors, chocolate being the most common. As of this writing, pies also are available in vanilla, strawberry, banana (surprisingly good), lemon, orange, and salted caramel flavors, but in my opinion, the chocolate is still the real deal. Official Moon Pies have been made in Chattanooga, Tennessee, since 1917, which makes them exactly one hundred years old. They were originally developed as a portable snack for Kentucky coal miners who had asked if the bakery could produce a treat "as big as the moon."

In Southern tradition, it is quite common for a Moon Pie to be paired with an RC Cola, although the origin of this practice is unknown. "Big Bill" Lister, a honkytonk country singer of the 1950's, actually released a hit song during that era which was titled "Gimmee an RC Cola and a Moon Pie." (I just had to throw that in to prove that I'd actually done my homework.)

When I was a child, my parents referred to marshmallow pies as "mambo pies." (That term is magical to me, so if you don't mind, I'm going to use it for the remainder of this article.) A mambo pie could be any of several brands of marshmallow pies on the market at that time, including Bremner's and Lara-Lynn, in addition to the Moon Pie. Bremner's was a fairly well-known imitation of the Moon Pie, and just a few days ago, I saw their pies pictured in a 1959 advertisement from a Delaware grocery store, confirming what I had always guessed, that they weren't a strictly Southern treat. I absolutely loved getting a new box of mambo pies -- there was something magical about slicing open the white wrapper to the box, viewing the individually wrapped mambo pies begging to be eaten while binge-watching cartoons.

You'd think that over the years, as my tastes expanded to include all kinds of regional and international food, the appeal of a humble mambo pie might be somewhat diminished. Not so. I retain that fondness for domestic mambo pies, but I've also found some wonderful alternatives manufactured outside the United States. This didn't happen intentionally.

One day years ago, while shopping with my daughter Hannah at a local H-Mart, a gigantic Asian supermarket, we happened to notice this shiny gold box over on the side of the store, on a rack all by itself. Upon closer inspection, we found that the treats contained within were known as "Choco-Pies," and that they were made in Korea. We bought the box and brought it home with a mix of anticipation and cautiousness. When we opened it, we found each pie individually wrapped in foil, presumably for freshness, and when we sampled the contents, we were delighted. The Choco-Pie was every bit as good as the original Moon Pie or any of its imitators, and it was of sufficiently superb quality to be referred to from that point forward as a genuine mambo pie. We might not have been able to read the ingredients list, but it didn't matter.

Earlier this week, I was visiting for the first time an international gourmet market in Alpharetta, Georgia, only five miles or so from our house. As I perused the aisles, my excitement built when I saw endless variations of sugar wafers, another of my vices. And then, to my sheer delight, I spotted it: yet another variation of the Moon Pie, this one also in a shiny gold box. These pies were produced by a company called Ülker from Turkey and were named "Chocolate Halley." Of course, I bought a box and brought it home.

The Chocolate Halleys were stacked together and not individually wrapped, but they were placed in a nice snap-fit plastic tray to keep them fresh. On my first bite, I noticed that this pie featured more crunchy graham layers, reminiscent of the original Moon Pies that we used to buy back in the day. As I recall, the remainder of the pie was excellent, as I consumed the entire thing in less than a minute.

Indeed, my experiences with mambo pies in general have been rewarding, except for one minor incident. One stressful workday afternoon in the late 1980's, I purchased a double-decker (three layers of graham cookie and two layers of marshmallow creme) Moon Pie from a company vending machine. I noticed on the package that it said the pie would be delicious if microwaved, and in my mind, this seemed like a good thing. I opened the microwave and inserted the Moon Pie, then set the recommended cook time and pressed the start button. What emerged from the microwave at the end of that period can only be described as tragic. The chocolate coating was reasonably intact, but the marshmallow creme had oozed out the sides, transforming my much anticipated treat into a volcanic mess. The pie was as hot as the surface of the sun, and once it had cooled, it was just a blob. I ate it, of course.

For those of you who pooh-pooh real Moon Pies, I understand where you're coming from. It's true that the graham cookie layers seem a wee bit drier than they were in the 1960's, but hey, the company is still in business after one hundred years, so that says something. What with the plethora of offshore options available these days, I envision a bright future for mambo pies. In fact, if I have room left tonight, I may down another Chocolate Halley. Truly, there is hope for the future.