Friday, December 30, 2011

The Years of Speaking Dangerously

With Dad on the Northwestern
campus in 1975
My father was a native of Memphis -- he grew up in Bartlett, which is now effectively part of the city but was in the 1930's and 1940's an outlying community, a place where country people mixed with city folks.  My dad spent most of his years working in grocery stores, and in that business, he encountered a vast array of people from all different walks of life and parts of the world.  There were Italian truck farmers, Jewish food brokers, Greek restaurant owners, you name it.  He kept his ears open to their accents and expressions, but he didn't stop there -- he turned everyday words upside down and inside out, then used them in normal conversations.  The results were often hilarious, because he didn't hold back.  He would use these expressions when in the company of complete strangers, and this delighted many people, my friends among them.  It goes without saying that he was one of the most popular parents to ever chaperone the Treadwell High School band bus.

For example, I did not know the correct pronunciation of the word "catastrophe" until I was about eight years old, because my dad always pronounced it "CAT-a-stro-phe", with the accent on the first syllable, which to me sounded like something untoward happening to a feline.  It was only when I was corrected by a fellow third grader that I realized the error of my ways and started using the correct, albeit less dramatic, and therefore less effective, pronunciation.

One night, my mom and dad attended an open house at my school, and when my dad got home, he mentioned that the walls of the school were painted "bilious green".  He said this with his characteristic Tennessee/Louisiana accent (although I am not aware of any Louisianans in the family), and I thought it was sublimely ridiculous, so much so that I started using it on my own to describe any less than pleasing shade of green.  At the time, I did not see the connection to "bile", but I just thought the word "bilious" sounded absolutely fabulous on its own.

In our house, my dad would call a hospital a "horse spittle", which my mom always scolded him about because she thought it sounded so rude.  I picked that one up as well, because having not yet attained a more mature level of gentlemanly civility, I thought that I could surely get some mileage out of any expression which evoked a certain element of revulsion.  Some years later, my parents spent quite a lot of time as patients at Baptist Hospital, and I pulled back on the whole "horse spittle" thing after that, having gained a new respect for what hospital employees actually did for a living.

But by far, my favorite expression Dad used was the word "cattywampusided".  Now, the term "cattywampus" is widely used in the South and Midwest to denote a condition of disarray, or more specifically, misalignment, and my father's use of the word remained true to this meaning, but his variation is something I have never since seen in printed literature or heard in spoken English.  I'm convinced that he made it up, and I said bravo, because that was one great slang word.  I still find myself using it from time to time, owing to the weird way it strikes the ear.

My dad would add fuel to the fire by taking these made up words or variations and adding to them some kind of accent, and I seem to have perpetuated that practice.  Truly, it makes for fun at times: I've been wished "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" when a Carrabba's waitress assumed I was Jewish, I've fended off telemarketers by pretending to be a recent immigrant who does not yet have a full command of English, and needless to say, I have no trouble getting offshore support for my electronic devices.  I think Dad would be proud of me for continuing his tradition of mixing it up a little in everyday speech.

So the next time you speak to me, please do not be surprised if I launch into some fake French or Mumbai street speak.  I don't mean anything by it...I'm just carryin' on an old family tradition.

Happy New Year, everyone!!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mrs. Inman

"Mamaw, I'm sorry, but I just can't hear what you're saying."

My maternal grandmother, Malvina, a sweet, proper Southern lady, was at the point where her Parkinson's had not only affected her mobility but had now also reduced her voice to a barely audible whisper.  We had moved into our Memphis home several years earlier, and Mamaw had the best room in the house, with her own television and air conditioner, but it just wasn't working.  She needed a level of care that my parents simply weren't able to provide, and so, in 1964, they made the difficult decision to move her into a nursing home.  

My folks didn't want to have Mamaw live in an institutional environment, so they found a gentle compromise in a large old home just off South McLean Boulevard, on a little side street that was a quiet shelter from the city traffic.  The owner of the nursing home was a kind, patient woman who treated every resident as if she were her own mother.  The home accepted only ladies, and it was spotlessly clean, with open, airy rooms.  Most of the year, the windows were opened to allow a gentle breeze to waft throughout the house.  All in all, it was about as pleasant an environment as one could hope to find in a nursing home.

On Sunday afternoons, my mom, dad, and I would visit Mamaw at the house.  I would have Beatles tunes running through my head as I stepped out of the Chevy Impala and up onto the generous wooden front porch, but once I entered the door, it was like a different world, a completely peaceful one.  Two or three ladies would gather in each room, and each had her own favorite place, with her own rocking chair, and a comfy bed.  There were plenty of caregivers on staff to attend to every need.  It would have been nice to have had Mamaw back at home, but I was old enough to understand the challenges her care presented my parents, and this seemed like a good alternative.

One hot summer afternoon, the owner asked me if I would like a Coke, and when I answered yes, she asked me to come back to the kitchen to get one.  On the way, I passed through several rooms, and just before I reached the kitchen, I spotted a little lady in a rocking chair by a window, sporting a big smile.  She looked as if she'd just won a contest -- she was smiling from ear to ear.  I said hello, and she waved back to me.  There was something about her that piqued my interest.  The owner said, "That's Mrs. Inman."

On our next visit, my curiosity got the better of me, so I wandered back to Mrs. Inman's room and said hello again.  This time, she invited me to sit down, and we started to talk.  I don't recall what we talked about, but it seemed that every thing I said to Mrs. Inman made her laugh, and her laugh was sublime.  She would lean forward in her chair, slap her knee, and giggle with complete abandon.  Looking back, I believe she probably had a touch of dementia, but nevertheless, she could giggle better than any pre-teen girl I had ever met in my neighborhood, and the more she laughed, the more I laughed...it was completely infectious.  I had definitely found something here.

For months, when we would visit Mamaw, I would make a point of stopping in to see Mrs. Inman for my laughter quotient.  She never seemed to have a bad day...it was amazing.  I could talk about almost anything, and Mrs. Inman would start laughing, then I would start laughing, and the whole thing would start rolling downhill.  Again, I have no recollection of exactly what we talked about, but it didn't seem to matter.

One day, the owner took me aside and told me how much Mrs. Inman looked forward to my Sunday visits.  When I questioned her as to why, the owner told me that Mrs. Inman had relatives right there in Memphis, but that none of them ever came to visit her.  In fact, it sounded as if I was her only visitor, and this troubled me.  How could such a sweet woman, a person who had the innate ability to make other people feel good, be abandoned by her family?  It made no sense to me.

My visits to Mamaw, and now Mrs. Inman, continued for another year or two until Mamaw's health deteriorated further, and she had to be moved to a more full-service facility in Humboldt, about ninety miles away.  We continued to visit Mamaw until she passed away in 1968, and I would like to think that even though her surroundings were not exactly home, that she was at least comfortable and happy.  And as for Mrs. Inman, I do not know what became of her or how long she lived, but I do know this: I gained more from making that elderly lady laugh, and from laughing back in turn, than I could ever have imagined, and her sense of humor has remained with me all my life.

Mrs. Inman, I never got to say a proper goodbye, but thanks so much for the memories.  Keep smiling.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Autopilot

It has happened to almost all of us: you are driving to some routine destination, and when you arrive there, you realize that you have no clear memory of having made the drive or of anything you might have seen along the way.

procedural or non-declarative memory:
http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/101004/chapters/Long-Term_Memory@_The_Brain's_Storage_System.aspx


Monday, October 10, 2011

Sweet Magnolia

My aunt Ida Mae was a remarkable woman.  Twelve years older than my mother, her baby sister, she divorced her first husband and outlived two others, all the while maintaining a relatively comfortable life in the town of Trenton, Tennessee.  Trenton is a small city of about 4,300 located in the northwestern part of the state, not far from Humboldt, home of the West Tennessee Strawberry Festival.  It's one of those places where everyone knows at least a little about everyone else, and that's just fine with the locals, many of whom have spent most of, if not all, their lives in Trenton.

When I was a kid, we used to drive up from the metropolis of Memphis to spend weekends with my Aunt Ida and my cousin Marion.  We had a regular routine: Marion and I would break out a game of Monopoly (for which we'd bent the rules to suit us) and listen to the latest albums he had received from the Columbia Record Club.  It was in this way that I was first exposed to the music of Andy Williams, Herb Alpert, and Johnny Horton, among others.  As the night progressed, we'd find an episode of "Twilight Zone" to give us the chills, then after staying up way too late, we would turn in for a good night's sleep.  Marion was about eight years older than I was, but it didn't seem to matter, and he was a very patient surrogate big brother.

I guess the thing that most impressed me about the whole Trenton clan was Aunt Ida's resilience.  When she divorced her first husband, a prominent town mortician, she was suddenly forced to look for some kind of work to sustain herself.  Looking back, I'm sure that breaking ties with a wealthy family and choosing to remain in the same small community was not the easiest route to take, but Ida was determined to make it on her own, and after all, Trenton was her home, too -- she'd lived there her entire married life.  She chose to go to "beauty school" in the neighboring town of Milan (pronounced MY'-LUN, for all you out of towners).  I remember that on some nights, we'd go meet Ida at the school and accompany her home just after dark, and then we'd feast on barbecue and maybe, if it wasn't too late, we'd head over to the Tastee Freeze for a little late night snack.

When Ida graduated from beauty school, it was time to come up with a snappy name for her business, and she chose "Coiffures by Ida".  Ida said that "coiffures" was a French word, and she thought it would give the name some pizzazz.  After we all learned to pronounce it, the name sort of grew on us.  She opened her first shop on Lexington Street and stayed there for a while, then bought a small house on High Street and did it up right.  The High Street house had a million steps up a steep hill, and the front door opened right into the salon.  Within a few months, it became the destination beauty shop in town, and all the people whom she'd known during her years with her ex-husband's family became her customers -- it was as if they'd never missed a beat.

I learned very early on that most information of any consequence pertaining to Trenton and its residents could be found out by listening in on the Saturday morning appointments.  It wasn't that we would be doing this intentionally, but Marion and I would be playing a game of Rook in the next room, and it was impossible to ignore the accounts of how so-and-so's husband was an absolute no-count or how someone else's niece was wearing something totally inappropriate to school.  We started out watching television game shows, but pretty soon, we discovered that the town news being exchanged in the adjacent salon far exceeded anything we could have witnessed on TV in terms of sheer entertainment value.

Ida was a strong woman -- indeed, several years ago, when she passed away, my cousins and I were sitting around the night before her funeral, drinking wine and reminiscing about the way she had carried herself, how she had pulled herself up by the bootstraps and made a good living, all this in a small town where news and gossip are sometimes too readily exchanged, at least for us city folk.  Her eldest son Joe was wondering if there would be a good turnout for the funeral the next day, and I said that I really didn't think there would be anything to worry about.  And indeed, on the following January morning, with a temperature in the teens but illuminated by a brilliant white-gold sunshine, it seemed that half the town appeared to pay their respects.  And on everyone's lips was the notion that Ida Mae was the definition of a "steel magnolia".  Just hearing that made me so proud of her.

Ida was quite successful as a beautician and married two more times, outliving each of her husbands, and through it all, she remained a strong, beautiful woman, full of self-assurance and love for everyone.  She was more than my aunt -- she was someone who for so many of us demonstrated that regardless of the circumstances, it was never too late to pick up the pieces and make something wonderful out of them.

So, Aunt Ida, I hope you know that if you were here tonight, we'd be heading over to Milan for some barbecue.  And if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to ride in the back seat of the Fairlane and look up at the stars on the way back home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Vinyl

I would like to personally thank Waldo Semon.  Born September 10, 1898, in Demopolis, Alabama, Mr. Semon is credited with being the inventor of vinyl, the key component of the "phonograph record".  Those of us who grew up in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's probably owe Waldo a debt of gratitude, for without his invention, many a day or night would have been rendered lifeless owing to the absence of recorded music.  Maybe I'm exaggerating, but think about it: how many hours of your life did you spend listening to music prior to the advent of compact discs and downloadable music files?  If you're like me, the hours probably number in the thousands.

"Vinyl" is nowadays considered the domain of the audiophile.  Many claim that the analog nature of vinyl recordings gives them a leg up on digital recordings, in that the entire unbroken frequency spectrum can be reproduced.  There is something innately satisfying about playing a record -- you open this oversized cover, graced with original artwork, and pull out the paper sleeve containing the record, handling it by its edges (the thumb) and center (third and fourth fingers) in order to avoid scratching the surface.  You gently place the record on the turntable, then lift the tone arm and lower it carefully onto the blank leading edge, where a wily groove takes hold of the stylus and leads it steadfastly into the opening track.

Back in the day, I acquired LP's at a healthy rate, but I stopped buying them sometime around 1983, moving on to the world of cassette tape until CD's appeared a few years later.  When I was in college, I was continually moving "the records", which by that time filled two large boxes, each of which must have weighed around forty to fifty pounds.  Since my home was in Memphis but I was attending college in Chicago, the records were often shipped on the plane (funny thing is, I don't remember incurring any extra charges).  In a sense, they were a nuisance, but I couldn't live without them: whenever I would move to school, back home, or later, to any of several apartments, the first thing I would do upon arrival was to unpack at least one of the boxes and make a selection that fit the occasion.  I remember one night we had moved from one apartment to another in Chicago, and the temperature had been two degrees -- it was brutal, and when we arrived at the new place, we opened a bottle of wine and played Dan Fogelberg.  We painted a friend's Rogers Park apartment listening to Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley.  School started with some Joni Mitchell.  And when I was homesick for Memphis, it was Isaac Hayes.  There always seemed to be a record to fit any occasion.

These days, given my eclectic CD collection and bushel baskets of downloaded music, my wife often encourages me to get rid of "those old records", but I just can't do it.  Whenever I look through them, the memories come flooding back.  There's the LP from a musician named Joe Probst that I acquired one evening as a gift while staying at the artist's apartment in Brampton, Ontario, during a choir tour that was itself memorable in so many ways.  There are two albums that were given me by Perry Allen, who was Isaac Hayes' business manager and a friend of my dad.  There's one from a band named Three Man Army that we saw as an opening act one night in Chicago and that I had to get, simply because it contained a truly hideous but strangely addictive rock song called "Polecat Woman".  The Beatles, Yes and Steely Dan phases are very well represented.  Bernstein to Bowie, it's all there in the collection.

But undoubtedly the most important record to me is one that I acquired when I lived in Charlotte.  My father was a huge music fan, and he listened to everything from Hank Williams to Nat King Cole.  One of his favorites, and in fact, the first song that I ever listened to in earnest, was Jackie Wilson's "That's Why", recorded in 1959.  When I was a little kid, I used to play this 45 RPM record over and over on a little RCA Victor turntable that plugged into a portable radio.  I never seemed to tire of hearing this song, and my dad always used to get a kick out of my peculiar fascination with it.  He would tell me stories of visiting the Grand Ole Opry in his youth, hearing people who would later become world renowned, but at that time were still "home folks".  From what he told me about this or that artist, I began to branch out and listen to all kinds of music.  

Fast forward to 1994, when I was working in Charlotte and talking one morning to my friend Lee, who owned an enormous collection of LP's and 45's.  Lee and I started talking about memorable records from our past, and I told him my story of becoming addicted to "That's Why" at the ripe old age of six.  He thought for a moment and then said, "Yeah...that would have been on the Brunswick label."  I was impressed that Lee knew this much detail about a particular record but didn't think much else of it until the next day, when he showed up at work with a vintage press of "That's Why", packaged in its original paper sleeve.  Lee handed me the record, and I said, "I'll pay you whatever you want for this...", to which he replied, "No, you don't owe me anything...I know what this record means to you."  

And so, that record, pictured above, became the star of my collection.  I've only played it one time, but that has been enough, because in that record, I have memories -- the memory of the first time I was ever hooked on a song, the memory of the music that always filled my home, and the memory of my dad, who gave me that special gift of music appreciation.

I guess you could say that I've still got a thing for vinyl.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do-It-Yourself, Ltd.

Truth be told, I don't so much mind doing the occasional home project now and then.  That being said, I also know that I am among the worst procrastinators about this sort of thing, but there's a reason for that.  Over the years, I have found that the most successful home (and car) repair efforts are those accomplished when I'm in just the right frame of mind.  The problem is, my mind has many frames, and I'm generally in the wrong one.

My approach to home (and car) repair is that I will only take on that which I know that I can do without a) hurting myself or b) doing something which results in property depreciation.  I know this to be true, because I clearly remember hurting myself on more than one occasion, and those cabinets I put up in Roswell...mmm...well, maybe no one noticed.

I could wax on all day and night about the nature of various home (and car) repairs, but I think it's probably best to highlight a few specific instances where I realized that my repair knowledge was "limited".  You may have noticed that I've put "(and car)" in parentheses in each instance where repairs are mentioned.  The reason for this will become clear in DIY Story #4 below.  So, here we go:

DIY Story #1
For some odd reason, most likely due to creative experiments I performed as a child, electricity does not frighten me.  Plumbing does.  With plumbing, you never know when a well-intentioned replacement of a pipe or tightening of a washer will result in a slowly developing leak.  You will only realize that a leak has developed when you return home from a Disneyworld vacation or something of the like.  Electricity, on the other hand, sends out a clear signal that something is wrong.  One day back in the early 90's, I was installing a dimmer switch, and as soon as I had the wires all connected and went to throw the switch, a magnificent ZOT was emitted from the switch assembly, followed by a profusion of acrid smelling smoke.  At that point, I went back to Home Depot and picked a three-way switch instead of a two-way switch...or maybe it was the other way around...I can't remember.  Anyway, installing the second switch worked, and we sold the house shortly thereafter with no complications.

DIY Story #2
One Sunday in the late 80's, I decided to repair a leaking toilet.  In those days, I was but a novice at toilet repair (I am now practically licensed in this endeavor).  Having previously purchased a fine little volume entitled "Basic Home Repairs - Illustrated", I looked up what I would need for the task, went to Home Depot, purchased all the right parts, and brought them home.  For a while, the repair went smoothly, and then, due to my lack of knowledge about how much to tighten a retaining bolt, a small leak appeared beneath the toilet.  No matter what I did, the leak continued.  Finally, I was at the point where I realized that this task would have been better accomplished under the influence of alcohol, but of course, by then it was too late.  After wrangling with the thing for about five hours, I finally managed to get the leak to stop.  By this time, my wife was ready to contact a local mental hospital to see if I could get an express admission.

DIY Story #3
Several years ago, we renovated two bathrooms.  In my defense, I installed a lovely vessel sink and faucet assembly...in fact, I am so proud of this that I have posted the picture over there on the right side of this article.  Professional plumbers have remarked when making other plumbing repairs at our house that for me to have installed something this complicated was pretty remarkable.  What I haven't told everyone is that when my daughter Hannah and I were installing the vanity (which we actually fashioned from a night stand) over the water pipes, we bumped into one of the faucet valves by accident, and water shot up to the ceiling with tremendous force, in the style of Old Faithful.  This caused us to simultaneously, in one rapid motion, lift an entire piece of furniture off the pipe faster that I could ever have imagined, and then to soak up the spill with many beach towels.

DIY Story #4
Everyone has a grandaddy of a repair story, and this is mine.  In early 1987, I owned a snappy little Datsun 200SX sports car, and it began to leak oil with a vengeance.  One day, I popped the hood, looked around as if I knew what I was doing, and could see that the oil was leaking from around the deep-seated head gasket, which lay at the bottom of the engine block.  My friend Butch offered to help me change the gasket, saying it was something we could do ourselves, especially since he had a Toyota pickup truck on which he had recently done "the very same thing".  That sounded like a plan to me, so on a bright Saturday morning, we began to disassemble the engine.

By about 3:00 PM, we had gotten all the way down to the gasket, and we methodically removed the old one, cleaned the area, and installed the new gasket.  Then we began to reassemble the engine.  At approximately 6:15 PM, we realized that we could not seat the timing chain on the cam sprocket, because the tension on the chain was too tight.  What this meant was that the car would not "go".  We tried everything, but we could not reseat the chain.  Exhausted, we threw in the towel for the day, and feasted on some Chicago-style pizza that my wife Karen had made for us, vowing to resume our effort the next day.

Sunday rolled around, and after hours of futile attempts to reseat the chain, we decided at about 5:00 PM that it might be time to purchase a Chilton repair manual to see what we had done wrong.  (It is worth noting that by this time, Karen was no longer speaking to me, and Butch did not feel all that welcome, either.)  We opened the manual, and there at the beginning of the section on head gasket replacement was a note that said that unless a retaining block was placed alongside the chain at the beginning of the repair, it would be impossible to reseat it on the sprocket without taking the engine apart all over again.  So we put all the leftover parts (and there were several) into a large black plastic bag, and on Monday morning, I had the car towed to the dealer.  At the end of the day, Butch took me back over to pick up the car, and the mechanic told me that I had probably saved about $250.  I told him it wasn't worth it, and he just kinda laughed.  Six months later, I traded that Datsun for an Audi.

I guess that sometimes, you just have to know when to limit yourself.  Wait...why are the lights dimming?  Oh, well...I'll look at it tomorrow.  Until then, happy home repairs!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stairway Remembered

Heading out to lunch today, I plugged my iPhone into my car stereo and put it into shuffle mode.  It began playing "Stairway to Heaven", which I've heard (and played) hundreds of times.  But today, I couldn't help remembering the first time I heard the song.

It was a chilly Memphis afternoon in late 1971, and I had just arrived at Mullins Methodist for our weekly rehearsal with the One Way Singers.  While we were setting up our equipment, one of our sound guys told us he had this new song we just had to hear.  He put "Stairway" on the turntable and played it through the church's PA system.  Immediately, we all stopped what we were doing and listened to the song straight through to its conclusion.  At the end, we all just stood there speechless, somewhat amazed that a rock song this original, and yet this flawless, could have been written.

And today, almost forty years later, I found myself doing the same.  For just a moment, a brief moment, I was transported back to that time.  Two things became abundantly clear today: time passes much faster than I could ever have imagined, and some memories are indeed a joy to unearth.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four...

Since birth, I appear to have been obsessed with potatoes of all types.  Indeed, I cannot remember a time when they were not an integral part of my diet.  I must have passed through a rice cereal phase, and I'm sure there were forays into strained apples, but in the end, and prior to the dawn of my conscious memory, I came to my senses and began consuming potatoes in earnest.  It must have been a day of celebration in my toddler life.

I actually came to know potatoes in stages.  The earliest tater memories that I have are of french fries.  When we moved to Memphis in 1960, my parents took me to a McDonald's...it had been years since they'd lived in a place with Mickey D's, and I think their craving got the best of them.  So from that point forward, I became seriously involved with the lovely russet potatoes used to fill those red boxes.  There was no going back, I soon discovered.

Back in the day, Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants were largely independently franchised, and the owner of our local establishment was one Jack Pirtle, which I always thought was a particularly fitting name for a chicken man.  Pirtle served up the trademark chicken with these limp, but quite tasty, crinkle cut fries, served in a loose-fitting paper wrapper that resembled a modern day coffee filter.  One night, my parents decided to step out on a limb, and instead of french fries, we ordered mashed potatoes, which I flatly refused to eat.  But this being the 1960's, there was no alternative offered, so I finally gave in after about an hour and tasted them.  It was a pivotal moment in my life -- these wonderful soft potatoes, covered in a tasty brown gravy, were something I had missed for ten years, so believe me, I made up for lost time.

In the early 1970's, company-owned Kentucky Fried chicken restaurants began to appear, and they did not offer french fries of any type.  Instead, they replaced them with tater tots.  Let me say that for whatever reason, it took me quite a long time to warm up to tater tots, but eventually, as with mashed potatoes, I discovered that with just the right proportions of ketchup and salt, these too could be made into edible delicacies.  To this day, I still like to know where my tater tots came from.

And then there is the entire universe of potato chips, invented by one George Crum (pictured at right) on August 24, 1853.  Let's face it, 87% of people on the planet, regardless of what they say, can eat mass quantities of potato chips without feeling any guilt whatsoever.  They might say, "Oh, no, no chips for me," but seriously, even the strongest of naysayers will still reach into a freshly opened bag and stealthily grab a couple of chips.  You can always tell the chip dilettantes, though...they're the ones who bring off-brand chips to social functions.  Local brands such as Cape Cod or Laura Scudder's are perfectly acceptable, but the house brands of major grocery chains will cause the seasoned potato chip aficionado to look askance and perhaps even ask for potato salad instead.  Poor form, indeed.

Among the finer things in life, the simple baked potato must truly stand alone.  What other creation can be brought home, placed in the microwave, then split open, buttered and seasoned, and consumed with such pure delight?  One of our favorite meals is "potato night", where we simply bake the potatoes, then put out bowls of grated cheese, broccoli, and bacon, which each person measures onto their potato in their own customized ratio.  When I know that potato night is on the horizon, I have no concentration during the day, instead thinking ahead to dinner.  When I'm out at a restaurant, I will order a baked potato "with all the stuff on the side", then systematically proceed to add all that same stuff (except sour cream) to the potato, with extra butter for good measure.  With baked potatoes, I almost always end up eating the entire potato, skin and all.  I read once in the 1970's that eating the potato skin has benefits, so I've followed that advice ever since.  The 1970's were a great time for learning things like that.

Surely, no reference to the potato world would be complete without the inclusion of hash browns.  Indeed, hash browns alone can turn a mediocre breakfast into sumptuous splendor.  My home city of Atlanta is also home to Waffle House, and according to one meticulous researcher, there were at last count 1,572,864 ways to order hash browns at WAHO.  Some of the more popular variations are "scattered" (spread on the grill) and:
  • smothered (with onions)
  • covered (with cheese)
  • chunked (with ham)
  • topped (with chili)
  • diced (with tomatoes)
  • scattered (with jalapenos)
  • capped (with mushrooms)
I generally order my WAHO hash browns "smothered", and they are simply divine.  The key to good hash browns seems to be to cook them until the edges and tops turn a medium toasty brown.  They are the ultimate breakfast side dish experience, and I'm convinced that they were invented by a higher power.

We cannot have a fancy dinner without someone suggesting "cheesy potatoes", which are diced potatoes mixed with cheese and other "nutrients".  I have seen many people eat the cheesy potatoes, and regardless of age, gender, national origin, religious beliefs, or shoe size, I have yet to see anyone exhibit any degree of control in eating them.  It appears that when it comes to cheesy potatoes, there are truly no known limits.

In one potato arena, I am severely deficient: sweet potatoes.  This is not because I do not like them, but rather, they do not appear to like me...they give me headaches, regardless of how they are prepared.  On one unusual occasion, I had a strong craving for baked sweet potatoes, so we had them with dinner, and I gobbled mine like a freed prisoner.  However, two weeks later we had them again, and this time, I could not put down the first bite without sustaining a pronounced headache.  I can only assume that on that first sampling, my body was craving something in the sweet potatoes, but I'll never know.  I nibble around the currently popular sweet potato fries, but something in them strikes a chord of dissonance within my system, so I leave them to those who truly appreciate them.

A few weeks ago, I heard on the news that potato growers are concerned about a marked decline in french fry consumption within the last couple of years.  According to the people who study this kind of thing, consumers are a) opting for alternative side dishes, and b) declining said side dishes because of the added expense in this fragile economy.  Most people seem to think that when the economy bounces back, so will french fry consumption.  In the meantime, restaurants are offering interesting french fry variations, such as Wendy's Natural Cut Fries with Sea Salt, in an effort to keep sales level.  Who knows what will happen?

Just this evening, I had a meal at Chick-fil-A with their fabulous waffle fries.  I know they're probably not all that healthy an option, yet it makes me feel good to know that in some small way, I'm helping to stimulate the American economy.  I can't buy a new car or a new house right now, but I can certainly eat me some waffle fries.  And on that note, I say a hearty bon appétit!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Passing Muster

We may call this the United States, but one thing these states are not united about is vehicle inspection.

Here in suburban Atlanta, a yearly emission inspection is all we need in order to be able to drive a car, truck, SUV, crossover, or minivan.  The emission inspection is due before one's birthday, which makes it easy to remember.  Once a year, we take each vehicle to any of about a thousand tiny emission checking stations, where we pay up to $25 (it's almost always $25, except for my friend Jean's $20 location, which she claims is "in the 'hood") for our inspections.

The minimal inspections that we have here are fairly methodical and predictable.  The inspector connects the emission check computer to the vehicle's on-board computer to get a direct reading.  For older vehicles, a "sniffer" device is inserted into the car's exhaust and the tires are run on a roller mechanism to achieve enough RPM's for the emission computer to register the emission levels.  An example of the latter can be seen in the picture above.  This is all very mystical, and when it is finished, the inspector hands you a sheet of paper indicating whether your car passed, and that's it.  The brakes could be failing, or you might not even have any working headlights, but if the emission check goes OK, you're good to go.

The other day, I was thinking back fondly on the vehicle inspections of my youth.  In the 1960's, Memphis required vehicle inspections several times a year.  Going to the inspection station was always something of an adventure, because there was no certainty, even with all visible parts functioning, that your car would pass.   The inspection station itself was a cavernous old building which reminded me of a retrofitted airplane hangar.  There were half a dozen or so lanes in which cars lined up, and often the place was packed, especially as the inspection deadlines drew near.  I remember heading out sometimes after dinner and making a night of it in Midtown at the inspection station...ah, the simplicity of youth.

The Memphis inspection was designed to ensure that a car was road worthy: the headlights were checked to make sure they were aimed properly, the steering was checked, the windshield wipers were inspected for signs of wear, and all the vehicle parking, brake and turn signal lights were checked as well.  My favorite part of the inspection was the brake meter, which was an adventure unto itself.  The idea was to accelerate for a short distance, then brake as hard as you could to see how well the brakes stopped the car.  The brake testing machine consisted of sensor plates tied to fluid-filled meters that shot up a wickedly red viscous liquid, and the degree to which the fluid would rise would depend on how effectively your car braked.  My dad said that when he was younger, he and his friends would try to hit the brakes hard enough to max out the fluid.  He said that some of it even escaped on occasion, although I'm pretty sure he was making that part up.

Once you passed the inspection, assuming that you indeed passed, the inspectors would apply a new inspection sticker to the lower right side of the vehicle window.  This task had to be performed with a certain orderliness.  First, the old sticker would have to be scraped off with a razor blade, then the window cleaned of any remaining adhesive (lazier station employees would sometimes skip this part), then a new sticker would be applied.  Once the new sticker was in place, you would feel totally legitimate driving said vehicle.  Nothing could stop you.

It's been many years since I've lived in Memphis, and I see from rambling about online that there is a new inspection station (see photo at right).  Clearly, this new station looks to be a thing of beauty.  But I wonder if the brake meter is still there, and if the guy walks out to tell you how out of line your headlights are.  I'm thinking that the whole thing is almost certainly far more automated these days, but at any rate, it is a nice looking building.

Now, all this inspection business may have seemed back in the 60's and 70's to be a bit extreme, but consider the alternative nature of inspections in Chicago during that same period.  When I lived in Chicago, you could basically drive anything from a Soap Box Derby car to a saltine cracker box, as long as it had four wheels.  I remember these antigoglin cars rolling down the road, sitting at an angle, and wondering how in the world they passed inspection.  In Chicago, it was all about buying the "city sticker", which essentially gave you license to drive your vehicle through the ice and snow, regardless of the percentage of Bondo and duct tape.  But on one occasion, even I violated the Chicago rules.  Let me explain.

It was a leisurely Sunday afternoon in 1980, and my wife and I were driving our 1970 two-tone Chevy Nova north on Sheridan Road, through the tony North Shore community of Kenilworth, on a cold winter's day.  (All the winter days in Chicago are cold, so that is a rhetorical statement if I've ever heard one.)  The Nova had belonged to my dad in Memphis, and he'd always taken good care of it there, but I recently had inherited it and moved it to Chicago.  Several weeks prior to the said Kenilworth sojourn, I had been in a minor collision where I'd been hit from behind, but I had since affixed the license plate to the its bracket on the rear fuel door with a piece of string, so it wasn't going anywhere.

Anyway, there we were, motoring along through the slushy roads at about 25 miles per hour.  I looked in the rear view mirror and spotted a police cruiser following me, lights flashing to beat the band.  I double-checked the speedometer to make sure I hadn't been speeding, but when the officer approached the car, he simply said, "Sir, I'd like to inform you that your license plate is not properly affixed to your vehicle.  You need to get it fixed as soon as you can."  And that was it...no ticket, just a gentle reminder that I had strayed over the line of Illinois vehicle propriety.  Of course, it was true that the slush had discolored the plate slightly.

Having been moved to Chicago, the Nova had basically taken on a new life, where inspection became a relative term.  I sold it to a fellow some years later for $400, and he tried to sell me cocaine at the same time.  I refused, of course, thinking that none of this would have happened had I kept the car safely in Memphis, where every few months, it could visit the inspection station to get its shiny new sticker and a little pat on the back for having all its lights in order.

So, happy motoring, and good luck with your next inspection, in whatever form it takes.  I have confidence that your car will pass...I think.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fish Fry

Maybe it's some sort of great Southern family tradition, I don't know. But it seems that since I could remember, my great Aunt Mary and Grandma hosted a sort of joint gathering known only to us as 'The Fish Fry'. It always seemed that the event was held when the weather was nothing less than perfect -- a cool, dry afternoon at their charming old bungalow, which was literally steps away from Overton Park in midtown Memphis.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Clay sold real estate for a living, and their work schedule was such that they could afford frequent weekend trips to Florida and points in between, where they would catch the fish themselves.  So the fish they cooked up at our dinners was no ordinary store-bought catfish -- it was always fresh, and you knew where it had been.

Aunt Mary always used the same ancient electric deep fryer. For some years, I had no fondness for catfish and was content to gorge myself on hush puppies. I have eaten hush puppies from the Tennessee River to Florida, but I have never had any quite as good as the ones Aunt Mary and Grandma prepared in that fryer. The cornmeal was mixed with the grated onions in the most precise configuration, so that the taste fairly leapt off the plate and into my mouth. I simply couldn't get enough of them and would eat far more than I should have. I was young and skinny, so calories and carbs didn't matter. Honestly, I could eat hush puppies (and still can) with the best of them.

The fish fryer generally sat out on the screened back porch, and the smell would waft throughout the neighborhood. We would set up picnic tables in the back yard and feast all afternoon and into the evening, downing catfish, corn on the cob, token green vegetables, fried chicken, and gallons of iced tea. And then there was dessert, at which Grandma and Aunt Mary excelled. "You don't want that mix cake, honey. This is real chocolate cake," Grandma would say. The cakes were typically either dark chocolate, milk chocolate, German chocolate, or coconut. The grownups would always have coffee, and I'd get (more) iced tea. The feast just went on and on.

After the dinner dishes had been moved off to the kitchen, we would make short work of the cleanup. I would help clear the table and sometimes dry the dishes, then head off to the huge living room, where my Uncle Clay would be ensconced with some literary classic which he would encourage me to read. I remember that I first became interested in Steinbeck after a fish fry. My uncle and I would discuss books we both had read and what we thought of them. What music was to my mother, good literature was to my Uncle Clay. He was quite the eccentric, but I liked him very much.

And so the years passed, with my eventual departure from Memphis to attend college in Chicago. It seems that we had a few more fish fries when I returned home on breaks, but ill health started to catch up with my older relatives, and the gatherings became fewer and farther between. But I just know that wherever Aunt Mary, Uncle Clay, Grandma, and Mom and Dad are now, they are enjoying catfish, fried in that heavenly batter, with unlimited glasses of iced tea and cakes that simply cannot be contained by any cardboard box.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Just Call Me Road Food of the Morning

Like many of us, I enjoy a good road trip now and then.  The destination doesn't always matter, because getting there can be fun -- sometimes there are challenges, but generally, a voyage is a nice change of pace.  Something about propelling oneself across the network of highways to another place, under one's own steam (and a few tanks of $3.99 per gallon gas), is gratifying.  Of course, one delightful element of travel is so-called "road food", assortments of edibles that we probably wouldn't indulge in at home, but which, given the freedom of the road, we eagerly consume on the way to and from our destinations.  Besides, calories don't count as much when you're traveling, because you're burning them off as you...oh, wait...never mind.

But today, I'd like to focus on one particular type of road food: the "free breakfast" included with hotel stays these days.  This concept is eminently likable, if only for the fact that it's so easy...you can show up down in the dining room, completely unannounced, in whatever you'd like to wear.  Personally, I always try to look somewhat respectable (and I'll provide an example later in this post why this is sometimes a good idea), although I've noticed that not everyone follows this same line of thinking.

By the way, we all know that this breakfast isn't really free, but there's no one standing there to take your money at the time, so it feels like you're actually getting away with something, which I think makes us all feel somewhat dashing and ready to face the new day.

I have observed that at hotels across America, there are several common denominators which constitute the typical hotel free breakfast.  See if you spot anything you recognize here:
  • Six-ounce containers of fruit-flavored yogurt in an ice bowl - The yogurt can only be provided in six-ounce containers, and it must be strawberry, peach, or blueberry -- nothing else is acceptable.  The two favorite brands are Yoplait and Dannon.
  • Two orange juice spigots - Although other kinds of juice are often provided, there are generally two spigots for OJ, owing to its relative popularity in the juice world.
  • Coffee in the dining room, but also in the lobby -- You're never really sure where to get your coffee, but it doesn't matter, and I've noticed that those tiny cups fit quite nicely into the minute BMW cup holders.  Getting my coffee in the lobby makes me feel quite daring.
  • Fruit that is not really ready for prime time -- As my friend Tanya (who also provided this post's picture) says, "inedible bananas" are the rule here.  The fruit is often highly polished, which makes you wonder where it's been.
  • Instant oatmeal, a.k.a. "glue" -- Oatmeal is pretty safe, but face it, it doesn't make you feel daring or dashing.
  • Generic cereal -- From looking at the cereal offerings, one would surmise that Froot Loops and Raisin Bran are the two largest selling cereals in America.
  • Make-your-own waffle machines -- The MYOWM is is probably the greatest invention since the light bulb, as long as you're careful.  Once, in a grand faux pas, I almost set the Boone, NC, La Quinta on fire by forgetting to flip the waffle thingie after I put the batter in.
  • Prepackaged sausage biscuits -- Now, you may say "gross", but let me tell you, for those of us who are Southerners, these things can be our saving grace when we're traversing uncharted waters in other parts of the country.
  • Donuts/danish -- I believe there is one supplier for donuts and danish across the United States.  I have seen exactly the same cheese danish from Massachusetts to Florida.  I believe the frosting pattern was identical, which makes me wonder if it was actually the same danish.
  • High concentrations of styrofoam -- The amount of styrofoam in the typical hotel breakfast bar pushes the envelope for safe limits set by the EPA.
  • Tongs with everything -- If you stood at the breakfast bar long enough, a hotel employee would emerge from one of those secret doors (where do those go?) and put a set of tongs around your neck.

This all being said, I have to admit that I have had some nice experiences in breakfast bars.  On one occasion, while traveling with our daughter up to Boone for her freshman year move-in weekend, our reservations at the La Quinta were lost, but we were able to procure a room at the nearby Fairfield Inn.  I went down to breakfast the following morning, and the dining room was mobbed, but fortunately, I managed to get a seat.  

Shortly after I'd started sipping my "lobby coffee", a nice lady about twenty years my senior asked if she and her husband could join me, since the place was so crowded.  They were a charming couple, and while we were talking, I asked them their names and then suddenly realized that her husband had been chancellor of Northwestern University during my years there.  Small world, I thought, and wow, was I ever glad I didn't wear an old t-shirt...he would have thought I had not made the best of my education.

So, with that being said, I hope your next road trip includes a morning of pleasant refueling at one of these uniquely American oases and that you will have the chance to bask in the plethora of entertainment options offered therein.

Bon voyage, everyone!  Oh, and don't forget the antacid.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Store

"I got him, Mr. Bob!  Want me to shoot him again?"

It was a balmy fall Saturday in Memphis, and my dad's grocery store had just fallen victim to yet another petty thief, this one having made a failed attempt to flee the store with pockets full of bills. The problem was that Pat, our meticulously uniformed security guard, kept a loaded pistol which he was not afraid to use, and on this particular day, he had elected to pepper the guy's ankles with bullets. It worked.

From the time I could remember, my dad's side of the family had been in the grocery business. My grandfather owned a series of small country stores where you could pick up basic canned goods, a limited selection of fresh produce, and such beatific treats as Stage Plank cookies. The men in my dad's family were always talking about this or that broker or salesman, or what was or was not selling at this time of year. It was and is a built-in frequency in my head -- I cannot go into a modern grocery store without wondering how much stock is on hand and whether there's enough back room freezer space to store what won't go on the shelf.

In the sixties and early seventies, My dad managed a Hogue & Knott (#3) market on Lamar Avenue in Memphis. Lamar starts as a trucking highway coming in from northern Mississippi, and then it becomes the typical urban boulevard, passing through some truly tough turf en route to hook up with Crump Boulevard downtown. My dad's store was at the nucleus of a mixed neighborhood -- black and white, rich and poor, decaying and sublime. He had a loyal customer base of moms, dads, maids, tiny children, preachers, winos, pimps, artists, and affluent professionals. Opera singer Marguerite Piazza was one of our regular customers, as was Robert Jones, who drank too much but was always there to help the ladies take their groceries home for a dollar.

To a sixteen year old like me, this was a veritable cultural smorgasbord. My friends at Treadwell High might be spending the weekend down at Sardis Lake or revving their cars over at Gaisman Park, but I was getting to sample life in a way that perhaps only blues music can truly communicate. And the funny thing was, I think that even back then, I realized and appreciated what I had. Interestingly enough, so did my friends -- whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would receive a surprise visit from my northeast Memphis compadres, who marveled at our vast selection of smoked meats (using parts of the pig heretofore unseen by us) and our stunning array of Shasta soft drinks. Sometimes, a little boy or girl might come up to my register just shy of the money needed to buy a candy bar, so I always kept a little spare change in my pocket to make up the difference.

From time to time, an errant out-of-towner would wander into the store, generally having stopped to pick up something in an emergency. However, our store was not laid out with emergencies in mind, and these people often became frustrated when they could not easily find the bread aisle. I recall in particular how on one Saturday morning, two women from Ohio (they made it a point to tell me where they were from) lamented at the layout of our store and how things were so hard to find. I was informed that where they came from, every aisle was clearly marked with the contents of that aisle. What fun was there in that?  It was evident that many of these people did not realize what kind of market (or what part of town) they were in.

But times were not always good. Owing to the store's location and its late operating hours, we were often the target of serious criminal activity. My dad worked long hours, and my mom was often quite worried when he would come home later than usual. To this day, I have a special sensitivity to people who work in places like this, trying to make ends meet.

In retrospect, Hogue & Knott #3 was a learning experience. It provided me a lasting dose of humility and an appreciation for what I had. The lessons I learned at the store have stayed with me all these years. Stocking a walk-in freezer made me appreciate the summer heat, and burning trash at the incinerator taught me to anticipate that first chill of autumn. And, in those days of spiraling inflation, when I dug into my pockets to make up the penny or two that a little kid might need, I realized that we were all in this together.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Birds

It was the summer of 1969, and I was in California with my aunt and uncle at their home in Camarillo, a Ventura County community about an hour northwest of Los Angeles.  Camarillo was a pretty town with a gentle Mediterranean climate -- it was possessed of an unassuming, natural beauty.  On any given summer morning, I would awaken to the smell of fresh eucalyptus and the soft cooing of hundreds of pigeons.  My uncle, a Methodist minister, had raised pigeons since his teens.  During his tour of duty in World War II, he had even raised pigeons to be used as message carriers.

Back in 1969, I was still bicycle bound, and generally by eight or nine in the morning, I had made my daily pilgrimage up Anacapa Drive to a small parking lot outside the local elementary school.  From that lot, I could look down on the entire Pleasant Valley. In those days, development hadn’t quite made it over from Thousand Oaks and past the Conejo Grade, and all the houses in town were forties to sixties vintage, some marked by creative scrollwork and soft pastel colors.   Landscape plantings were generally tasteful, and in a few cases, somewhat extravagant.  The fog would burn off by about 9:30, and then, looking down over the valley, I would marvel at the beauty and peacefulness of it all.   A great time and place to be a kid.

Some days, my uncle and I would leave the placid neighborhood for a little bit of adventure.  Among the many varieties of pigeons provided for by my uncle were the racers, who had to be trained in the fine art of flying back home from afar.   Getting up well before sunrise ("before day", as my uncle always said), we would place all the birds fit to fly into four to six specially made wooden crates, each with a little trap door for inserting or removing the unwilling participants, and then we would load them into the bruised old white Ford F-100 pickup and clamp the tailgate shut.

Most days, we headed toward the community of Ojai, then through the backcountry to Goodenough Road, which ran alongside a lively little mountain stream leading into the Sespe Condor Sanctuary (in those days, only a handful of condors remained).  We would hop down from the truck, pull out the crates, and then give the birds a couple of minutes to acclimate to their surroundings before opening the carriers.

Once the birds were released, they circled the immediate area for several minutes, and then they headed off in the general direction of home.  Some birds were leaders, others were stragglers.  There was, of course, no way that my uncle and I could ever consistently reach the house before the birds, so we took our time getting home.  Sometimes we would stop for a cold, frosty glass of A & W root beer at the little stands on the fringes of the smaller towns.  On other mornings, we might stop and chat with a perfect stranger out doing some morning field work at the Julius Goodman egg farm.

As the birds became progressively more experienced navigating the route home, we would take them farther away.  Eventually, by the end of the summer, we were heading up into the coastal mountains.  A favorite release site was Mount Pinos, with an elevation somewhere between eight and nine thousand feet.  This was truly wild, spectacular country, with crisp, clean air and almost ethereal light and color.  I felt as if we were closer to heaven.

There are several theories addressing how pigeons return home.  At least one of these involves the birds’ ability to map spectral contours, following patterns of visible and invisible light.  Now, looking back on summers with the birds, it occurs to me that on those crisp, crystalline mornings, the world looked so pure and bright that I could almost see that light myself.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Contraband

Back in the 1950's, my family experienced a significant life event which is now commonplace but in those days was not an everyday occurrence -- one of the kids moved across the country.  My uncle, a young Methodist minister, had been serving for some time as a "circuit rider" in three small churches around Black River Falls, Wisconsin.  (This practice was de rigueur in those days, particularly in areas with small towns and few pastors.)  I don't know the exact circumstances, but at some point, my aunt and uncle got the opportunity to move to California.  Since my aunt was a native of Bakersfield (home of country music legend Buck Owens), I believe this was probably a good opportunity to get closer to her family.  Given that my uncle had grown up in Tennessee, I guess you might say he already had a head start on the rest of the family when it came to relocation.

Before too long, my grandmother and grandfather decided to follow suit.  I mean, after all, what was a simple move from Tennessee to California?  It wasn't really that far, especially in a car with no air conditioning at a time when flat tires were commonplace.  My grandmother, a wonderful storyteller, related their story to me, and it's always been one of my favorite family tales, because it truly exhibits a sense of complete disregard for stated rules, and let's face it, there's a certain amount of enjoyment in that for all of us.

It seems that the moving trip west for Grandma and Grandaddy along Route 66 was going well until they reached the border of New Mexico and Arizona...that's when everything went a bit sour.  When you travel west, you are stopped at the NM-AZ border to make sure you are not bringing in fruit, because it can introduce unwanted insects into the local ecosystems, which are heavily dependent on agriculture.  A border guard, doing his duty by checking this car with Tennessee license plates, innocently asked them what they were carrying.

My grandfather, a stern man of German heritage with an engaging Southern accent, replied, "Nothin'."  But this was not to be the end of it.  The border guard continued his line of questioning.

"Well, sir, I guess we'll need to see what's in the trunk of your car."

Not to be taken lightly, my grandfather barked back, "I ain't opening it up."

At this point, my grandmother became somewhat nervous...after all, this was an officer of the law.  Seeing a big rug that they had tied to the top of the car, she somehow could predict what was coming next.

"Well then, sir, if you won't open the trunk, you'll have to tell me what that thing is up on top of your roof."

It would suffice to say that my grandfather, a reasonable man in his way, felt that some line had been crossed, and he wasn't having any of it.  He took one more look at the officer and with a grave face, and every ounce a Tennessean, he replied, "It's mah STILL."

At that point, the border guard gave up and let them pass.  I don't know anything about the rest of the move, and Grandma didn't seem to recall all that clearly either, but I don't think that really matters.  The important thing was that Grandma and Grandaddy were allowed to pass into Arizona and on to California, and soon, they became settlers of the New West.  After a few short months of acclimation, they located some Southern food, and all was well.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Savannah Story

Despite having lived in Atlanta since 1982, except for two years in Charlotte, it was not until 2005 that we finally ventured over to Savannah as a family.  Savannah is a great town, full of color and character.  A good rule of thumb is that if you like Charleston, you'll probably like Savannah.  Anyway, we'd thought about going for years, so we finally made it down and booked ourselves into the Marshall House on East Broughton Street.  My friend Jenny had stayed there not long before as part of a wedding party, and since Jenny has very good taste, I figured this would be a great place to land, and indeed, it was.

Lafayette Square, Savannah
Savannah is dripping with history.  For those of you not familiar with the city, it is nice to know a little background.  Savannah was founded in 1733 by Colonel James Oglethorpe, and it was the first state capital of Georgia.  Today, it is a thriving seaport, and its downtown area is comprised primarily of a historic district containing 22 squares, originally designed as spaces for public military exercises, but today used as leafy oases through which to stroll or simply to sit and relax.  When you enter Savannah from the west on I-16, you are immediately deposited at the intersection of Liberty and Montgomery Streets, and right away, you feel as if you have entered "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil", the 1994 mystery novel set in Savannah.  Live oak trees span overhead, and beautifully restored historic homes face each other along stately streets.  It's something like waking up in a dream.  But as beautiful as Savannah is, this particular blog post revolves not around the area itself, but rather around one of its residents.

Gallery Espresso
On a sunny morning during our visit, while the girls were still asleep in the hotel room, I decided to venture out for a morning walk.  Most days, when I go walking, I shoot for 3.1 miles, a standard 5K walk, and in Savannah, achieving that is no problem whatsoever; in fact, just strolling from square to square, you will be surprised at how much ground you cover, since there's something to see or some shop to wander into on almost every corner.  As I made my way back to the hotel, I spotted an interesting looking coffee shop named Gallery Espresso, which fronted prominently on Bull Street, one of the major thoroughfares in the historic district.  I pulled off my headphones, got in line, ordered up a nice morning latte, and then took a seat in one of the overstuffed chairs next to a low table along the front windows, where I proceeded to peruse a book about the Civil War.  It all seemed so perfect -- sitting in Savannah, reading a book about the War, and sipping a flavorful latte.

Within a few minutes, I was joined by an elderly matron dressed in a rich pink pantsuit adorned with silver sequin appliques, who was holding in her arms an obviously well cared-for miniature dachshund.  She asked if she could join me at my table, and I responded that I would be delighted if she did.  (After all, we were in the genteel South.)

Now, it is important to the story to understand that Gallery Espresso, like a Parisian cafe, welcomes with open arms both customers and their dogs.  There is no canine discrimination here.  And truly, the little dachshund appeared to be quite at home.  I started the conversation by complimenting the lady on her adorable dog, and I mentioned that my aunt and uncle had raised miniature dachshunds in California in the mid-Sixties.  This led to some pleasant back-and-forth about the nature of the breed, previous dogs owned by each of us, and so on.  When I asked the dog's name, she replied in her undeniably Savannah accent, "Well, her name is Miss Eloise."

Within a few minutes, my companion's cappuccino was served, and as she took her first sip, she said, "I give her coffee every mornin', and she seems to like it...I don't think it hurts her," and then proceeded to place a spoon of cappuccino froth to the dog's lips.  This was met with a sense of tremendous gratitude from Miss Eloise, who obviously had imbibed caffeine-containing beverages on numerous occasions.

We continued chatting, and after a time, my new found friend remarked, "You know, the really nice thing about Miss Eloise is that she is not afraid of otha' dogs...watch this."  At that moment, she turned Miss Eloise to face a very large dog which was standing in the coffee line with its owner, a dog which was probably eight times the size of Eloise.  When the little diva caught sight of the larger dog, her ears immediately perked up, and she turned full attention to the massive new four-legged patron.  But after only a moment, she completely lost interest in the giant newcomer, smoothed down her ears, and then turned back to her owner, waiting patiently for the next sip of cappuccino.  At that point, my drinking companion casually reiterated, "See what I mean?  She is simply not afraid of otha' dogs."

Along River Street at sunset
At that point, I felt as if I had seen a little of the true Savannah, the city of legend.  I polished off the remainder of my latte, excused myself and took leave of Miss Eloise and my new friend, but in truth, I could have stayed at Gallery Espresso for a bit longer.  I could only imagine what kinds of experiences Miss Eloise might have in a typical day.  Would she dine with society ladies at tables set with antique crystal and china?  Would she go for a pedicure at precisely 4:00 PM, after the crowds had thinned?  Or would she stroll proudly past those waiting in line at The Lady and Sons restaurant, as if to say, "Excuse me everyone, but I am a local"?  So many questions, so little time, and we were only there for a weekend.

I resolved to return to Savannah soon and often.  I'm still trying to make good on that promise, but when I do, I plan to make Gallery Espresso one of my first stops.  I can only hope that I will again be greeted by Miss Eloise and her genteel owner...that would make for the perfect day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Grand Prix, Southern Style

Lately, I've been thinking of writing an article about Atlanta driving.  Many of you locals reading this blog will be quite familiar with the things I'm about to say, but for others, there may be some surprises.  Don't get me wrong, I love my home city, but we have a monopoly on novel driving techniques, and I say this having driven all over the United States.  Let's just go ahead and rev up the engine, shall we?

Headed home in the afternoon
To begin, Atlanta is one of those large metropolitan areas that spreads in every direction.  It has no natural barriers other than a couple of rivers (we would have called them "creeks" when I was growing up in Tennessee) which might otherwise halt development, so over the years, it has sprawled like a sleeping lion.  Now, getting from the farthest reaches of northern suburbia to the farthest southern counterparts requires at least two hours plus, and that's cruising at expressway speeds with good traffic.  Fortunately, our roads are in very good condition, so that helps, because we certainly see enough of them.

The problem we have is our secondary roads.  They wind thread-like through leafy green neighborhoods, and they carry an enormous amount of traffic, much more that would be expected.  When you first visit or move to Atlanta, you are always getting lost, because the major roads are laid out along the vestiges of Indian trails...there is no grid system whatsoever.  Growing up in Memphis, driving was relatively easy...I was all over town without much trouble by the time I was 17.  When I lived in Chicago, I commuted into downtown every day for years, traversing the Loop like a cab driver.  But when I moved here, it was like starting all over again, because I could not determine in which direction I was traveling at any given time.

The truly fabulous thing about Atlantans, however, is that we drive as if we know precisely where we're going, and generally, we do this at a fairly high rate of speed.  This is ironic, given the preponderance of two-lane roads throughout the area.  Tiny roads often have higher speed limits than divided thoroughfares...it's all backwards.  And navigation is off the charts, pardon the pun, because when people visit, one of their most common lines is, "I surely hope you know where you're going!"  And yes, we actually do, and that's the scary part.

Because of the difficulty of navigation, coupled with the extremely high traffic volume, Atlanta drivers have developed a keen sense of using parking lots, drive-thrus, and gas stations to get where they're going.  One day, I missed my entrance to our local mall, and I decided to cut through a bank parking lot to get there.  Before I knew what had happened, someone had actually passed me on the left while I was cutting through the lot.  Such is life.

Somehow, we make it all work.  I think we've become so inured to the whole process that we consider getting around as something of an adventure.  The best advice I can give is to grab a cold drink, crank up some decent music, turn on the nav system (if you have one), and then just sit back and enjoy the ride.  After all, you'll eventually get where you're going, maybe not quite on time, but this is the South after all, and people generally understand.

Of course, I'm still trying to figure out how to get into the parking lot of Pollo Loco on Holcomb Bridge in Roswell.  If any of you locals know the secret, please shoot me an email.  I'm desperate.

Monday, March 14, 2011

From the Ground Up

For some time now, I've been wondering whether I will ever be able to procure a vacuum cleaner which actually picks dirt up off the floor.  We are barraged with a flurry of sophisticated electronic devices which can put the world into the palm of our hands, but just try to find a decent vacuum cleaner...it's next to impossible.

Back in the day (the "day" being the late 1950's and early 1960's), the Electrolux was the king of vacuum cleaners.  Not only would this vacuum pick up any unchewed pieces of dog biscuits, it would pick up the entire dog if not handled carefully.  Its spartan appearance (see picture at right) masked its true power.  My grandmother had one of these, and when it was brought out, I remember that I tended to behave myself, because to be honest, I was somewhat scared of the thing.

For years, we've tried to find the perfect vacuum, and there have been a couple of good contenders.  Once upon a time, we purchased a Panasonic, though from our recollections, Panasonic seemed more like the brand you would rely upon for a decent clock radio than a vacuum.  But nevertheless, this Panasonic canister cleaner was a workhorse, and it survived almost thirteen years.  Granted, this vacuum was doted upon and taken to a special repair shop here in Atlanta which catered to its every whim.  When we moved to Charlotte for a couple of years, it began to exhibit strange and unpredictable behavior, due in large part, or so I believe, to a feeling that we no longer cared for or nurtured it as we had in Atlanta.  Within a year or two, it was toast.

We had an ancient Hoover vacuum cleaner which belonged to my wife's grandmother, and of course, it ran for many years, but it also weighed approximately forty pounds, so it never got to the upstairs of our house.  In fact, I think we might have given it away, come to think of it.

New vacuums come with thousands of attachments.  The average out-of-the-box vacuum cleaner contains approximately 5,710 doodads, including a couple of screws which, once loosened, can never be re-tightened to their original torque.  But that doesn't really matter, because after six months, you have lost half the attachments anyway. There are attachments for everything -- upholstery, car seats, antique furniture, shag carpets, garage floors -- you name it.  But forget all those, because you and I both know that only one attachment will really work.

Aesthetics come into play as well.  Take the Dyson, for example -- this vacuum cleaner reminds me of some type of alien life form.  The designer is evidently extremely proud of his invention and hosts a series of entertaining TV commercials, although I have heard from assorted friends that the machine itself doesn't actually suck up dirt so well.  But that's to be expected -- after all, you can't have everything.  Then there's the Roomba.  The Roomba is a robotic vacuum cleaner.  Our neighbors have one, and their house always looks nice and clean.  The Roomba just sits there rather unassumingly -- it appears to be a solitary device which does not require much in the way of human interaction.  I'm partial to the Oreck line of vacuums, because they appear rather old-fashioned and functional, which most likely means that they actually pick things up off the floor.

The popular big box electronics retailer Fry's sells a plain brown box vacuum that I like.  I can't remember the brand name, but it's made for some company in Brooklyn, and it's a totally no-frills creation.  My guess it that it will pick up anything, anywhere, forever.  This particular vacuum isn't on the Frys.com website, because you have to see it to believe how downtempo it really is.  I'm tempted to buy one just for grins.

So I'm thinking of going back full circle, with a retro approach to vacuuming, but there's still one thing that bothers me just a bit.  Back in the day, my Aunt Alma had a black poodle named Tangeroo, which she always called "Tangewoo".  Aunt Alma was the first relative I knew who owned a color TV, so periodically, we would venture over to watch Hogan's Heroes and Gomer Pyle: USMC, during which times we could always tell that Tangeroo was in the house, due to his characteristic (and unfortunately, pervasive) scent.  Aunt Alma always kept her house clean, but when we would visit, all we could smell was Tangewoo, and she had an Electrolux, as I recall.  I suppose that, after all, even the best vacuums can't fix everything.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Going Home

You guys know me by now...I'll post blog entries about anything from insects to absinthe. But I have wanted for some time to post a very personal entry about a trip I made last year, a trip back to Memphis, where I grew up during the Sixties and Seventies. This particular trip was for a reunion of the Mullins Methodist One Way Singers, a youth choir of which I was a part back in those days. Actually, I was a guitar player for the band which accompanied the group, and I suppose I wasn't always on the best of behavior, but my heart was always in the right place, and I loved this group.

Through the years, I've had several chances to attend high school and college reunions, but I have to admit that I've never gone. I've always heard stories about how people get nervous before attending, how they fret about their looks, what others might think of their accomplishments or perceived lack thereof, or whether the same petty differences that plagued them in earlier years might persist. I didn't feel any of that prior to the Mullins reunion, because I really wanted to see these friends again. I was just incredibly excited to have the opportunity to be back with this group and with people who had meant so much to me.

The musical and cultural landscape was quite different during the period this choir was active, and living in Memphis, we grew up surrounded by music. Much of it at the time was so-called "Jesus Rock", which had arrived on the scene in the late Sixties. We formed the One Way Singers one Sunday night in 1971, after collectively listening to Jesus Christ Superstar as part of our Methodist Youth Fellowship meeting program. We surveyed our skills and found that we indeed had a large enough number of people of different voices, as well as assorted crazy musicians (including yours truly), to make a go of it, and that's exactly what we did.

For the next four years, give or take a few months, we toured and performed at venues ranging from Texas to Canada to Florida. I will never forget the excitement of those days when we played our first really large "venues", churches who were eager to host a touring choir and to hear the unique blend of folk/rock that characterized our sound in those days. We rehearsed diligently, starting every Sunday afternoon about 4:00, and continuing until our evening youth programs began around 6:00. At its peak, the choir numbered over 120 people, with a band generally consisting of six or more -- two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, and percussion. I had played music for years -- piano, trumpet, french horn, and guitar -- but I had never felt such a rush as that I experienced when playing for so many people when we had the music "down", well-rehearsed and ready to deliver. The feeling was absolutely incredible, and we had experiences on those tours that will always stay with me.

So I jumped at the chance to reunite with this group last summer. A small group of us hung out most of the weekend, and we talked incessantly, staying up late and trying hard to catch up on all that had happened in the thirty-plus years since we'd been together. Each night, as we headed to our respective hotels and homes, we went back filled with excitement.

The reunion proper consisted of a barbecue dinner (after all, we were in Memphis) and rehearsal on Saturday night, followed by performance of three pieces of music at the regular Sunday service the next morning. These were three pieces that we'd sung so many years before, and it was interesting that even after all this time, the characteristic nuances of expression remained in our voices. I had brought along my Stratocaster, but I decided at the last minute to plug my baritone pipes into the choir -- I'd never sung these songs, just played them, but years of choral singing here in Atlanta enabled me to change gears on the fly, and it was fascinating to be a voice for a change. Looking out into the congregation, seeing faces I hadn't seen since 1972 or 1973, and being back in this familiar, warm, loving place, was a tremendous emotional experience, somewhat overwhelming, and also something I shall never forget.

So, "verily I say unto you", if you have the opportunity to experience a reunion of people this close to your heart, you should make every effort to attend. My weekend at home -- and over time, there have been moments when I forgot what home was about -- was an inspired gift that I will always treasure. Go home when you have the chance...go home and find peace. And when you do, remember that it is the accumulation of experiences that ultimately makes us who we are.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Freeze Frame

5:07 AM on the morning of the snowfall
It snowed in Atlanta last Sunday. Actually, it didn't just snow, but rather it snowed and snowed and stayed. We rarely have enough snow accumulation to amount to much of anything, but this was an exception. Some of the snow that fell last Sunday night is still on the ground today, one week later. What the snow created was a kind of alternate universe.

Being house bound is not really my style, but in this case, there wasn't a choice; besides, a fierce winter cold had taken hold of me, so I was effectively down for the count anyway. Having lived in the North, I've been socked in by some bad weather before, but here in the South, it's a bit more of a radical departure from the norm. The city of Atlanta and its suburbs have almost no snow removal equipment, so basically, what happens is that the snow and ice just sit there until they have melted, which in this case has taken days.

It's not like we didn't know that the storm was coming, because nowadays, meteorologists can forecast the arrival time of the next mosquito swarm -- but that didn't seem to help too much. Grocery stores ran out of milk, bread, and from my observation, chicken. Businesses either shut down or instructed their employees to work from home. Schools were closed all week, which wreaked havoc with the schedule and will probably necessitate extensions of the school year into June. In some cases, even emergency vehicles could not reach their intended destinations.

But the other side of the coin was that we got to see our city in a whole new light, that of true white winter. It was amazing to see how an ordinary field off the side of a major commuter road could be suddenly transformed into a Currier and Ives scene, or how complete strangers could run into each other and swap snow stories. One morning, I actually was asked to witness the notarizing of closing documents for a woman whom I'd never met. She and her husband were moving to Florida, and she had brought her closing papers to the UPS Store to be notarized. Since I was the only other person to have successfully navigated my way to the store that morning, she recruited me as a witness, and I was happy to oblige.

All this makes me wonder what it takes for us to gain a new perspective on the familiar. This one week was special, because we saw things that we don't normally see. It makes me think that maybe we need to look a bit harder at the daily space, maybe stop every once in a while and freeze frame what we're seeing so that we can remember it later when it's a novelty. I'm watching this last snow disappear with a tinge of sadness, but I hope that in July, I can invoke the image of a frozen white winter as I'm stepping into my 100-plus degree car. Perhaps then I can remember that there's really beauty around us all the time...sometimes it just takes a fresh, new perspective to make it truly visible.