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.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Think-A-Tron

Growing up, I don't recall ever making Christmas gift wish lists. I'm still slow to complete them, as my family will attest. I think this is because in my early years, my parents were just humdinger Christmas shoppers. We weren't a wealthy family, and during the year, we didn't exchange extravagant presents, but at Christmastime, my parents always amazed me with the gifts they found and gave me, many of which I did not know were on the market until I actually found them under the tree. One such toy was the Think-A-Tron. I received one for Christmas in 1962 and was immediately taken with it.

The toy had been developed by Hasbro and introduced onto the market sometime during the late years of the Eisenhower administration (an era which I actually remember, although that is material for another blog post). Anyway, the Think-A-Tron was something of a magical device. It consisted of a gray box resembling a computer punch card reader -- all computers used punch cards, or "Hollerith cards", at that time. The idea was that you slid a tiny punch card containing several questions (A/B/C or True/False) into a tray, then pushed the tray into the machine. Once the card had been fed, the machine would begin whirring, and a "digital" display would flash, finally settling on the letter of the correct answer.

This may all sound incredibly simple, but the Think-A-Tron came with about 500 punch cards, so running through them was a pretty good mental workout, and some of the questions were actually a bit challenging. They were all sourced from the Book of Knowledge, a popular children's encyclopedia at the time. and each card had questions printed on both the front and rear sides. One side contained the A/B/C question, the other the True/False question. Each card was pre-scored with paper dots which could be punched out to resemble a Hollerith card, but those dots weren't what actually controlled the Think-A-Tron; rather, a small notch on the side of each card determined which letter the toy would display. Once the player figured this out (and it wasn't readily apparent), determining the correct answer became something of a no-brainer. Still, the machine, with the commotion it created, was endlessly fun to watch, and I remember that most of the time, I purposely did not look at the notches so that I could test my answers.

The Think-A-Tron was my big present that year, and it was somewhat expensive for the time, ringing in at around $10.00. In today's currency, due to the calculated 713% rate of inflation since 1962, it would be worth about $81.00. In those days, people didn't get iPhones for Christmas; there were no credit cards, so things had to be bought with cash. Given that, I was eternally grateful to have received my Think-A-Tron, and I'm pretty sure that I stayed on my best behavior well throughout 1963 and maybe on into 1964.

Having worked in the information technology field since 1979, I'm wondering if that Think-A-Tron had anything to do with my eventual chosen profession -- I think it probably did. I remember the nights of studying for midterms and finals in college, memorizing those organic chemistry reactions, analyzing nervous system action potentials, trying to visualize objects in multidimensional calculus, that sort of thing. I was actually a serious pre-med student for most of my time at Northwestern. But it's interesting that in the end, what won out for me was a field I'd never considered, one for which my interest was most likely sparked at an early age by that clever little Think-A-Tron, with its two D batteries and its flashing lights. If I ever find one of these things in an antique shop, it's a done deal.

Note: Click here if you'd like to see a working demo of an actual Think-A-Tron.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Band on the Run

Yesterday, we were dodging the remnants of Hurricane Irma, and for much of that time, I was checking Facebook to make sure that our friends farther south were weathering it all without damage or injury. Once the downgraded tropical storm arrived here in Atlanta, it was a case of staying put and hoping for the best. But in the early morning, while the winds were still rather calm, a high school friend of mine posted a note on Facebook, looking for people who had been in our high school band. That set off a chain reaction of nostalgic posts which ended up putting a nice polish on an otherwise stressful day.

The Treadwell High School Band, 1972-1973
The Treadwell High School Marching Band was an institution in my hometown of Memphis. Under the direction of Dr. Harlo McCall, an accomplished musician who had graduated from the Chicago Conservatory of Music, the Treadwell band had truly "gone places." The band played all around the Mid-South, toured in Mexico, and even played in the Rose Bowl Parade one year. But Dr. McCall, or "Doc" as we called him, suffered a heart attack when I was in ninth grade and ended up leaving his position at Treadwell. Since he was such an icon at the school, the future of the band was somewhat up in the air.

Mr. Wilson took over the band when I was in ninth grade, and for a time, chaos ensued. It wasn't necessarily Mr. Wilson's doing, but some people had taken Dr. McCall's absence as an opportunity to turn the band period into a free-for-all. I distinctly remember one day when an exasperated Mr. Wilson stood on the podium as band members yelled and threw smoke bombs across the floor. The rehearsal had been an unmitigated disaster. Someone must have called their parents, because a few minutes before the end of the band period, one of the band moms suddenly appeared at the door to the band room, and looking on in horror, she yelled, "What are y'all doing to your BAND?" That was a low point, but it was also a turning point.

Mr. Cleotha R. Strong
We finished out that school year, and on the first day of the fall semester, we had a new sheriff in town. His name was Cleotha R. Strong. He was a tall, stylish man who bore a striking resemblance to Richard Roundtree of "Shaft" fame. We were somewhat intrigued by his calm, yet commanding, demeanor. Mr. Strong ("C.R.", the other teachers called him) told us that he played electric bass in what he called a "jazz combo." His appointment to the position so long held by "Doc" was to some students and parents controversial, but my friends and I noticed a few things about Mr. Strong: he was always willing to help any band member, he liked exploring new music, and he could talk about almost any subject.

Our Treadwell cafeteria was adjacent to the band room, so fairly soon into the new school year, several of us started finishing our lunches early and heading to the band room to hang out with Mr. Strong. He would bring all these albums from musicians we'd never heard, but he could discuss the music of any current band we happened to be listening to at the moment: he was equally as comfortable with Led Zeppelin as he was with Blood, Sweat & Tears. Most of all, he seemed to enjoy spending time with us, and fairly soon, the band as a whole began to pick up on this. He was nice to people, and he gained a following among Treadwell students, regardless of whether they were members of the band.

Mr. Strong could be a strict disciplinarian when necessary, but that firmness was always complemented by a desire to make us better musicians. Many afternoons after school, we would line up outside to practice marching, and for some otherwise well-mannered students, the idea of behaving during this time simply proved too demanding. I remember that my friend Mike, an honor student when not in band, would taunt Mr. Strong about staying in line, to which Mr. Strong, from behind his ultra-cool wraparound sunglasses, would reply with some admonition that generally kept the rest of us in stitches. My friend Charles was an excellent trumpet player, but he loved to talk. When this would happen during rehearsals, Mr. Strong, without missing a beat, would say, "Charles, shut yo' mouth." Business as usual.

(L to R) Neil Conner, Charly McClain, Anne Freeman,
Richard Brooks, Tim Howard, Lewis Wright
The long and the short of this story is that we came back as a serious high school band. Under Mr. Strong's leadership, we entered all kinds of band competitions, marched in parades in Memphis and elsewhere in Tennessee and Arkansas, and played at every football game. We played on nights when it was below freezing, and we played on days when it approached a hundred degrees. It was like we never stopped playing.

I was very honored during my senior year to serve as the drum major for the band. I will never forget the experiences I had: keeping track of who was looking faint (and who fainted) during lineups for parades, making sure we knew where we were going when we marched down Main Street, and keeping track of everyone who was supposed to be on the buses. One night late in my senior year, while we were at a band competition in Knoxville, I pulled out my acoustic guitar and started playing in our hotel room. A few other people joined me, and within about a half hour, almost all the members of the band, along with our chaperones, were either in or just outside the room, singing along. Right in the midst of our spontaneous merriment, Mr. Strong appeared, smiling from ear to ear. That moment absolutely made my senior year.

In my time in the band, I played trumpet, flugelhorn (Chuck Mangione's favorite), and French horn. I found, and still find, the performance of music fascinating, but equally as enjoyable during those band years was just being part of that group. People who use the term "band geeks" may be missing out on the true spirit of being in a band. There's a camaraderie in a band that is born of hours of rehearsals, physical exertion and exhaustion, and riding bumpy buses to and from performances. For me, at least, it was one excellent period of my life, and that Facebook post yesterday brought it all back.

To those of you who may be reading this and who enjoyed being part of the Treadwell band, you know what I mean: our shared experiences were demanding, yet incredibly rewarding. In my own case, I emerged from junior high a bit timid, but by the time I completed my years in band, I had the whole social thing down, and I suspect that holds for many of you. The good times we all shared were something that we might not be able to replicate, but in those days we grew, we forged friendships and respect, and we definitely made some memories.

Sending peace to all you Eagles, wherever you may be.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Steeling

I am reading and rereading the Facebook posts of several friends who are talking about Steely Dan in the light of Walter Becker's passing yesterday. It is almost impossible to describe how influential this band was to the music scene of the 1970's. Few musicians before or since have attained their level of technical excellence and originality, but even at the time, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were known to be unabashed perfectionists.

Back in the day, we would sit around and talk about their music, how it so perfectly blended jazz and rock, how it spoke a language, both musically and lyrically, that spanned from the East Coast to the West. No one else seemed to be doing that. I have such good memories:

  • Hearing that unbelievable "Reeling in the Years" guitar solo for the first time while driving to high school my senior year and just sitting there frozen in place until the song was over
  • Listening to the "Countdown to Ecstasy" album on the roof of my friend Paul's house while sipping cheap beer
  • Asking that same Paul to play "Midnite Cruiser" over and over on his Marantz quadraphonic receiver
  • Hearing "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" in Klein's car one night on the way to dinner in Chicago and not finding out until twenty years later that the opening keyboard riff was actually taken from an old 1960's Horace Silver jazz tune
  • Witnessing my friend Dan's excitement when he burst into my dorm room at Northwestern waving his copy of "The Royal Scam" and yelling, "This is the best thing I have ever heard!"
  • Purchasing my very own copy of the classic "Aja" at Peaches Records in Memphis and taking it home, marveling at the glossy cover finish and impeccable music within
  • Listening to the cuts of "Gaucho" while driving up and down Manchester Boulevard while working in L.A. in late 1980, thinking how this band had taken me from high school to the working world

The music was, of course, only part of the magic. Consider the lyrics...even if you don't understand them all, which we didn't at the time and may never:
Double helix in the sky tonight
Throw out the hardware
Let's do it right
Aja, when all my dime dancin' is through
I run to you
Are you with me Doctor Wu,
Are you really just a shadow
Of the man that I once knew?
She is lovely, yes she's sly
And you're an ordinary guy
Bad sneakers and a Pina Colada my friend
Stompin' on the avenue
By Radio City with a
Transistor and a large sum of money to spend
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don't take me alive
Who is the gaucho amigo
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
And your elevator shoes?
I suppose I could go on and on, and even now as I type, I'm listening to "Aja" again. Every time, it's like the music is brand new, fresh and sophisticated. It made a difference. Generations of musicians will feel that influence, and we will go on listening. Donald Fagen says he will keep the music of Steely Dan going for as long as he is able. I hope that is a very long time, indeed.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Willard Swamprats

Imagine, if you will, the year 1973. Paul McCartney was cranking out hit songs without the Beatles, the Vietnam War was still going on even though Nixon had stopped the draft, Oscar de la Renta fashions were all the rage, Watergate was still an unknown entity, and double knit polyester was in full swing. There was a lot to take in, but for me, if was also the year I graduated high school and headed off to college. For many reasons, it was one of my favorite years of all that I remember, and when September rolled around, my life changed rather dramatically.

I left my home in Memphis and headed to my freshman year of college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is a suburb of Chicago, but it does not look like one in the traditional sense -- it is located immediately north of Chicago, and its border is contiguous with the city. If you've been to Chicago and have taken the El trains, you may know that the Howard Street station marks the border of Chicago and Evanston. These days, it's not such a big deal, but I when I lived there, Howard Street was the "libation destination." Evanston was a much more reserved and conservative community than its urban neighbor to the south; for example, you could not buy alcohol at a restaurant unless over half the tab was comprised of food. This made for lots of unusual orders at local cafes: heaping plates of french fries with a pitcher of beer, for example. And so, it was into this environment that I matriculated. I had family in California and so had done some traveling, but this move was my first time living up North, and it was initially quite an eye opener.

Our dorm was named Willard Hall, in honor of Frances E. Willard, who had served for almost twenty years as president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and was a notable champion of women's rights and labor reform. The WCTU itself battled in her words "the devastation caused by the legalized traffic in strong drink." The cause was admirable and garnered widespread support. For our part, our dorm hosted an annual Frances E. Willard Birthday Party, at which a different beverage was served on each of our six dorm floors. Even though the legal drinking age in those days was 18, and especially because of that, I'm certain that Frances would not have condoned our celebration. (I still remember that time during the 1974 Party when in a state of artificially induced paranoia, Pete Birschbach and I thought we had seen a government spy.)

So, let me bring this back home. Here we all were, tossed from afar into this malaise that we called New Student Week, looking to put down temporary roots and find some direction before classes started. I believe it all started one evening when a group of us started talking and realized that the dorm name was the same as that of the 1971 horror movie "Willard," about a young man who has an unnatural fascination with rats. The theme song of the movie, "Ben," was sung by Michael Jackson and was essentially a love song to a rat, which in itself was weird beyond belief but was endlessly amusing to our young, malleable minds.

And that's when the idea hit.

Looking for something to bind us all together, someone suggested that we call our loose association of freshman males the "Willard Swamprats." One of our group, Rogoff, was an amateur cartoonist, and he sketched a dodgy-looking cartoon of a rat in a trench coat, wearing sunglasses, and that was it: we had an instant mascot. A few days later, my roommate Klein (some of us went by first names, others by their last) and I went to Chandler's stationery shop in Evanston and had custom t-shirts made. Klein's was dark green, and mine was orange. I still have mine, and it is pictured here.

There were seven Swamprats: Klein, Scott, Rogoff, Ron, Cliff, Danny and yours truly. We came from all over the eastern United States and brought our own idiosyncrasies with us, which we happily shared amongst the group. For a few months, almost everything we did was with the Swamprats or some subset thereof. We attended movies, lectures (well, we did have a somewhat genuine intellectual bent), went shopping, greeted the omnipresent Krishnas with "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama" when we would see them, and generally enjoyed each other's company. In many ways, it was like the cast of "Seinfeld," in that we would go off on some tangent and explore it to the point of ridiculousness, then move on to something else.

The Swamprats were a diverse group: among us we had pre-meds, pre-law students, journalism majors, radio/TV/film majors, and even a philosophy major, so honestly, we could, and did, discuss just about anything, and it was indeed a learning experience, albeit a casual one. Northwestern did not offer food on Sundays, so we were left to our own devices, and one Sunday, my fellow Rats decided that we needed to visit Askkenaz Deli on Morse Avenue in Chicago. This was only a 20 minute train ride, so it worked out perfectly. That first night that I went to Ashkenaz (there were to be many others), I had to study the menu. All the other Swamprats were raised in Jewish families, and since I was the lone Protestant, I was not familiar with many of the items offered on the menu. My fellow Rats were more than helpful: they steered me away from dishes they knew I would not like, and suggested that I stick with corned beef, which to me sounded perfect. Our waitress, a sweet older lady, presented me with an interesting beverage option:

Waitress: "So what would you like to drink, honey? Have you ever had a phosphate?"
Richard: "No, ma'am...what is a phosphate?"
Swamprat Member: "It's like syrup with fizzy water."
Waitress: "I'll tell you what, honey...you order it, you don't like it, you don't have to pay."

Perfect. I ordered my first chocolate phosphate and was both intrigued and delighted. The sandwich was one of the best I'd ever put in my mouth. Ashkenaz became a fast favorite of mine.

We went through the fall quarter, an inseparable bunch, attending movies, talking until all hours, and making runs to Howard Street for cheap beer. We all went home for the holidays and returned in January to an ice cold dorm that always took a day or so to heat back up. This Swamprats thing was quite the life, and unlike anything I had experienced in my only-child upbringing in Memphis, but it was good.

One afternoon in February, 1974, we decided to go to the movies in downtown Chicago. We wanted to see "The Exorcist," which had only been released a few days prior. Scott had a friend in town, so we took him along. I remember waiting in line outside the theater when suddenly, out of nowhere, a Chicago Police paddy wagon came down the street with its siren blaring. Within seconds, a group of policemen emerged from the van and approached an older black man. For what seemed to us no apparent reason, they began striking him with billy clubs, then threw him into the back of the paddy wagon. I was startled and upset by this, because he reminded me so much of one of one of the older men who hung around my dad's store in Memphis, carrying home groceries for the ladies. Within a minute or two, the van had driven away, and we moved on up in line to take in the trials of Father Damien Karras, but the incident we had witnessed was unsettling.

That night, we came back to the dorm and talked about the movie. Some of us had been scared out of our wits, and others had been amused, but it had made an impression on each of us. We stayed up until about 3:00 AM, imbibing and talking by the weird glow of a single desktop fluorescent light, and as we sat there, I began to notice that I didn't feel quite right.

The next morning, I awoke with a searing sore throat and headed to Searle, the student health center. Searle was always staffed with a group of physicians who looked as if they'd rather be anywhere else, but on this occasion, it made no difference to me -- I just needed a doctor. I was admitted immediately to the infirmary and shortly thereafter diagnosed with mononucleosis. I missed three weeks of classes, and even though I tried to keep up by getting notes from friends, staying in touch with my professors, and reading all the assignments, those three weeks hurt my grades, and it took a while to catch up.

When I returned to the dorm after my ordeal, the Swamprats were of course still there, but the wind had been taken out of my sails, and the group as a whole had frayed a bit as we all started to assimilate ourselves into college life. Danny had friends way up on North Campus, Scott had debate team gatherings, and others, including me, were going this way and that. We continued to get together for dinner or the occasional movie, but the Swamprats as a group had served its purpose, and I think we were all ready to move on.

In this age of social media, it's interesting to see where everyone has landed: one of the Swamprats is a public relations executive and published author, another is a teacher, and two are attorneys. One, sadly, passed away several years ago. I've seen a couple of the guys in recent years, and we still have that bond that came, strangely enough, from being a freshman Swamprat (although I would have to say, I think we've cleaned up fairly nicely).

Ashkenaz suffered a destructive fire in the 1980's and is no longer a presence on Morse Avenue, but I still think about that chocolate phosphate. I ended up paying for it.

Oh, also...we attended classes.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Imitation Game

I have this thing for accents. I love listening to them and imitating them, sometimes in my own head, sometimes out loud. I have to be careful when I use them in the latter context, so as not to offend anyone, because that is never my intention. I simply find speech patterns a fascinating subset of sociolinguistics. I've done this for so long now that our daughters call it "doing The Voices."

I've tried to remember when this habit started. I don't recall imitating accents as something that I did in my high school or college days; rather, I believe it began when I was traveling for business in the early 1980's. In those days, I was the information technology manager for a Chicago company with five regional offices across the country: two in Chicago and one each in Boston, Los Angeles and Atlanta. I spent significant time on the road, typically visiting each location several times a year for the better part of a week at a time.

My job was very interactive. Unlike today's IT jobs, which are largely defined by remote access to servers, cloud-based applications and toolsets, much of the work in those days was done on site or over the phone. I was in charge of the company's systems development and operations, so I spent tons of time talking to people, and aside from the knowledge I gained by sharing in the day-to-day experiences of my fellow employees, I also began to appreciate the stories they would tell at lunch or after work. The essence of some of their stories simply could not be communicated without occasionally using their own words, with their own inflections.

I learned that every region has an accent and cadence that is particular to its manner of speaking. It's actually quite humorous to witness those situations when the speaker denies that he or she has a regional accent, because we all do. There's nothing wrong with it, because truly, there is no right or wrong in speech patterns. But I still marvel at the fact that people in some parts of the country believe themselves to be accent-less, while many others, although fully appreciating their own lingual specificity, believe that there is one bonafide Southern accent. I mean, we must have over a hundred Southern accents, dag-nabbit.

Back when our daughters were younger and we were taking extended car trips to places like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Vermont, I would occasionally lapse into an accent typical of the region to which we were traveling. I saw it as my bounden paternal duty to give our children a taste of what to expect so that they wouldn't arrive at their destinations as strangers in strange lands. This technique alternately delighted and horrified the girls.

On one particular trip, as we drove through central Mississippi on our way to New Orleans, I began speaking with a Justin Wilson accent. Wilson, as you may recall, had a long, successful career on public television as the host of "Louisiana Cookin'," a show that we watched almost every Saturday. His favorite expression was, "I gar-on-tee." I spent the larger part of our drive to "Nawlins" that afternoon sprinkling my language with faux-Cajun talk, which came to me somewhat easily, since a) it was something my dad used to do, and b) I had watched so much Justin Wilson. Anyway, Sarah, who was 16 at the time, finally had enough of it and said, "Dad, stop it. They don't talk like that down there." I knew better, but I acquiesced.

Several hours later, we pulled into New Orleans and checked into the Pontchartrain Hotel, road-weary but with still enough energy to do some exploring. Our younger daughter Hannah and I went one direction, while Sarah and my wife Karen headed the other, and after about an hour and a half, we reconvened at Jackson Square. Sarah pulled me aside and said, "Dad, I apologize for what I said earlier...they do talk exactly like that down here." I laughed and for a moment felt that rush of endorphins that accompanies every successful parenting effort.

Hannah also has a regular line about my habit, and it never fails to make me laugh. We'll be walking somewhere, or maybe sitting down to dinner in a remote location, and I'll break into an accent. She'll say, "Stop it, Dad! People actually talk like that here!" This causes me to either immediately cease or continue at an accelerated pace, depending on the situation and/or local population density. I do try to exercise discretion in these situations, however, because Hannah has a very good sense of timing and has probably kept me out of many a sticky and potentially life-threatening linguistic confrontation.

Probably at no time did this habit of mine provide more delight to my family than one Christmas season about ten years ago, when the girls, Karen and I visited the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. After a grand tour of the beautifully decorated mansion, we opted for dinner at a local Carrabba's Italian restaurant. Although we were in an artsy town in the middle of the mountains, something made me use (unconsciously, I might add) my Old Jewish Man accent, which I learned from my friends in college at Northwestern, many of whom were Jewish and would lovingly imitate their older relatives all the time. Every time the waitress would stop by our table to ask how the food was, I would answer with phrases like "Such a lovely meal" or "It's unbelievable...I can't get enough of it," always intoned in the style of Jackie Mason or Henny Youngman.

We finished our dinner shortly before the restaurant closed, and our waitress made one last loop around the dining room to pick up everyone's check. As she stopped at each table, she said, "Merry Christmas!" Finally, it was our turn, and as she approached the table, she paused for a moment and, obviously thinking twice, said, "Happy Holidays!" The girls looked at me with this "Oh, my God" stare, but all I could do was laugh. The story has since become a classic in the annals of our family history, and I have to admit to being somewhat proud of myself for sounding so convincing.

At any rate, I have this habit, and I don't know if it will ever stop. When Sarah brought her new boyfriend Tom to our house for dinner one night in 2008, she asked me to do The Voices. I was a bit hesitant, because I didn't want to do anything inappropriate, but she assured me that Tom would like them, and he did. They've now been married almost five years, so I guess I'll keep doing them. Besides, my own accent is somewhat distilled and needs a little spicing up now and then.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Biltmore House

I wish I could say that the neighborhood has weathered the years well, but it hasn't. This morning, I used Google Maps to find my grandparents' old house on Biltmore Street in Memphis, and then I zoomed in for a street view. I almost wish I hadn't looked. I'm certain that the "Beware of Dog" sign affixed to the chain link fence surrounding the front yard is there for a reason, and from the looks of things, I'm thinking that these days, having an aggressive canine in that neighborhood is not so much an option as a necessity. But it wasn't always like this.

In the early 1960's, my grandfather Leslie, a grocery store owner, suffered a massive stroke which left him confined to a wheel chair. Five years later, he would suffer a second, even more serious stroke. It was sad, because Leslie was a rather quiet, calm man who always had something nice to say and was something of a practical joker. Some aspects of his life were quite interesting; for example, he had married his wife Estelle when she was 14 and he was 26. I didn't find that out until years later, when my grandmother told me that 14 was, in her opinion, just way too young to get married.

Because of my grandfather's condition after his first stroke, he needed to move back into Memphis from his country house to be closer to good medical care, so he and my grandmother (with some financial assistance from my father, I believe) moved to a tidy white frame house on Biltmore Street in North Memphis. The house was typical of many in the area, three bedrooms, a bath, a generous kitchen, and a big front porch that spanned the width of the house. Swings hung from each side of the porch, and an array of comfy chairs were placed alongside them. We spent a lot of time on the porch.

It seemed that everything happened at the Biltmore house. Whenever my aunt, uncle and cousins would visit from California, Biltmore was their headquarters. On one of their visits, my uncle, a Methodist minister, baptized me, since I had only been christened as an infant when we lived in California and was still left religiously hanging, so to speak. It was also the house where I "gently" persuaded my grandfather to surrender the TV to me for a few minutes so that I could watch The Beatles in their American TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Biltmore was where I would play with the next door neighbor Billy, at least until that one day when we were exploring under the house and Billy, in his words, "broke" his head and therefore became somewhat wary of any future associations with me.

It was the house where I played with my dear friend Sandy when she was visiting with her family from the West Coast. Sandy died from leukemia in her mid-teens and was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. I still remember the afternoon we spent spinning Duncan tops on the sidewalk on Biltmore.

Not only had I first seen The Beatles at Biltmore and collected John/Paul/George/Ringo trading cards with my cousin Debi during one of her visits from California, but on one memorable day, the daughter of my grandparents' next door neighbor, a girl six or seven years my senior, spontaneously donated to me all her Beatles albums. I hadn't asked for them, but she just did it. I thought that was amazing, and I still have all those albums in my collection.

It's funny how a house, a place built of bricks, wood, and mortar, stitched together with plumbing and wiring, can mean so much and carry so many memories, but truly, a home is of course much more than a physical structure, it's what we make of it. I would have to say that given their limited means, my grandparents kept a pretty nice house for us all. They sincerely loved us, and we sincerely loved them, and that's what the house on Biltmore was all about.

So, it may not be the prettiest house at the moment, but then again, I don't know the whole story. I'm just glad I own a piece of its history, and I hope that its current residents are making memories of their own, because that, my friends, is what seems to me to constitute living.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mother Machree and Helen Lucille

My Aunt Ida Mae outlived three husbands and one boyfriend. Divorced at 47 and living in the small Tennessee town of Trenton, she took it upon herself to enroll in a local beauty school and ended up opening her own shop, "Coiffures by Ida," in the mid-Sixties. At the time, we all asked her what "coiffures" meant, and she said it was just a fancy French word for hair styles and that she thought people would notice it more than "Ida's Beauty Shop."

Ida's business flourished. She converted the living room of her High Street house into a salon, and she proceeded to build a loyal contingent of customers who would walk up the steps to the front door, then come in for their scheduled appointments and of course, a little bit of socializing. Ida had a great air conditioner in the salon, so people liked hanging out there to take a break from the Mid-South heat. All the customers (except for her son Marion) were women, but one day, a well-dressed man came up the steps, and Ida introduced him as her new boyfriend Mac.

It's important at this juncture for me to create a mental image of Mac. Think Monopoly Man. Mac stood only about five foot six, just a bit shorter than Ida, and always wore a starched white shirt, suit vest, and trousers. He generally opted to forego the suit coat, owing to the heat, but he always wore a pocket watch attached to his vest, and he would pull it out to check it from time to time. A retired insurance executive who apparently had lived life on a schedule, Mac was well off and lived in a tidy brick house just down the street from Ida, which made walking to her house his preferred method of "courting." He was, of course, always impeccably dressed.

To say that Mac was entertaining would be a vast understatement. He was a natural comedian who spoke in a rather hybridized accent that was some mysterious fusion of Southern, Cajun and a few other things which would be hard to categorize. His expressions were punctuated by long, drawn-out vowels more reminiscent of the South Carolina Lowcountry than our part of West Tennessee, so I had to believe that he had spent some time there or in some place with a similar accent. We never got around to discussing that, though, because it was his humorous exclamations that preoccupied us. My favorite of his was one that I've never understood, even after years of searching for the meaning online. When Mac was truly surprised by something, he would contort his face into an expression of astonishment and exclaim, "Mother Machree and Helen Lucille!" He drew out the phrase so that it actually sounded more like, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL!"

The only consistent reference I've found to either of the two ladies mentioned in this expression is a definition for Mother Machree. This was the title of a 1928 silent film about a poor Irish immigrant who moves to America. Helen Lucille was not the name of any other character in the movie, and a web search only reveals obituaries for people by that name, none of whom seemed to have acted in movies, although I suppose that would have been possible. At any rate, this Helen Lucille appeared to have had quite an influence on Mac.

# # #

The green neon lights shone against the black night sky on the quiet highway outside Milan. Mac had decided to take Ida, my mother Peggy, my cousin Marion and me out for ice cream, so here we were, off this deserted highway at some place that had "Freeze" in its name. Marion and I ordered soft serve cones dipped in chocolate, and as soon as we had them in our hands, we started devouring them. Mac, on the other hand, ordered a large cone of plain vanilla soft serve, and when the server handed it to him, we all stopped to behold its glory: there, resting upon the top of a humble wafer cone, was a veritable tower of ice cream. It must have been at least eight inches high. Mac looked at it, then with a swipe of his right hand, removed the top half and dumped it onto the ground as he exclaimed, "Motha Ma-CHREE and Helen LU-SEAL! No way I can eat this much cream!" We laughed so hard and so long, until we finally jumped back in Mac's Caprice Classic and returned to Trenton, full of frozen deliciousness.

Mac was not a good driver. My mother especially hated riding with him, and for good reason. He would run out in front of other motorists, veer intentionally off the side of the road, and jiggle the steering wheel back and forth, all the while saying, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me!" Mac loved to go to buffets on Sunday, so whenever we were in Trenton, he would take us out, insisting that he drive one of his Caprice Classics (as you may have imagined, he had several over the years). These trips were always nerve-racking ordeals. One day, Mac wanted to take me out for a personalized tour of Trenton, and my mom reluctantly agreed. Our brief expedition was highlighted by a drive through the town cemetery, where at one point, as the car veered off the drive, Mac commented, "This car's tryin' to play tricks on me, right here in the graveyard!" We got back home, and when my mother found out where we had been, she was not amused.

But despite his reckless driving, Mac had a good heart. He and my Aunt Ida had some fabulous times together, and until his passing in the early Seventies, he was a constant source of companionship and amusement, not only to Ida, but to us all. Mac was really and truly Ida's boyfriend: after her divorce, she focused on making a living for herself and raising the one of her two sons who still lived at home, and she did well, so Mac was like the icing on the cake. He was a classic gentleman who would come courting at predictable times, and even though not formally a member of the family, he seemed like one to us. After he died, his survivors had little to do with Ida, and although at first she was hurt by this, she recovered in short order and found another husband, and when he died, yet another.

Which brings me back around to the point of this story: we all encounter people in our lives who leave on us a lasting impression. At the time, it seems that they will be with us forever, but in truth, we must take advantage of the time we have with them. In my case, I have never met another Mac, although my eyes are always open for someone else of that ilk. I would love it if that were to happen.

Oh, and one more thing: If you know or can find out who Helen Lucille was, please let me know.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Random Access Memory

In the 1970's, there were no such things as iTunes Radio, Pandora or Spotify. The concept of digitally stored, streaming music was unimagined. Besides, computers hardly seemed an appropriate delivery mechanism for music -- they were used for things like sending people to the moon and back. Those of us who liked to browse music just for the sake of the auditory experience had to use turntables or tape players.

One day, way before I was old enough to drive, my mom took me to the downtown branch of the Memphis Public Library. I can't recall exactly what prompted this trip, but that's how we were, striking out every now and then on a mini-adventure. My parents had always encouraged me to read, so I was a regular at the library's Randolph Branch, within walking distance of my house, and the Highland Branch, a favorite of mine owing to its tall, dark shelves and the overarching scent of old books which permeated the place. But on this one particular afternoon, my mom and I headed to the Main Library at McLean and Peabody for a little something different.

The downtown library was quite large compared to the one in my neighborhood, and after we finished selecting a few books to check out, I happened to look through this one doorway and found something I hadn't expected: a music room that was absolutely chock full of LP's. There were walls of them, and a card catalog which helped to locate the album you were looking for. I felt like I had found a pot of gold.

I had studied piano since I was eight years old, but I'd always played only the pieces given to me by my teacher, and I hadn't had the chance to broaden my horizons that much, so when I discovered this vast repository of music, I was enthralled. It's hard to understand today, given our ability to invoke random access to anything at any time, but finding all this music in one place was actually somewhat overwhelming. I browsed for a while, then selected a couple of albums to take home for a listen. Two weeks later, I brought those back and checked out more, and the process continued.

Before long, I was driving, and together with my friends Tim and Lewis, fellow school band members since seventh grade, I would head to the now newly remodeled Main Library and its large, quiet music listening room, which now housed all those earlier albums and more. For its day, the music room was well outfitted and featured rows of study carrels for private listening. You would select an album, then take it to your carrel, where you would play it on a individual turntable through headphones which were massive by today's standards. You could listen to any album in the room, of which there were thousands, at random. It was very much like today's music streaming services, except that you had the added bonus of holding a physical album cover and reading the liner notes while the music was playing.

In the next few years, Tim, Lewis and I made excursions to the Main Library a regular part of our city explorations, and in this way, we expanded our listening habits in a way that I suppose otherwise would have been impossible. For me, I think those early days set the precedent for how I would later seek out new and unfamiliar music while still maintaining respect and love for the old stuff.

Today, streaming makes almost any form of music readily accessible. I can only imagine what would have happened had we had these kinds of services in the 70's. I probably would have become permanently attached to headphones and would never have left the house, except to go down to the coffee shop. Wait...we didn't have those back then either. Come to think of it, how did I make it this far anyway?

Happy listening, friends.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Driving Mister Bill

Bill, my driving instructor, bore an uncanny resemblance to Hunter S. Thompson, right down to his ubiquitous cigarette holder.

If you don't know who Hunter S. Thompson was, let me give you a brief introduction. Thompson was the counterculture creator of "gonzo journalism," a style of writing in which the reporter becomes involved with a story to such a degree that he or she ends up becoming an integral part of the action. He was something of a folk hero in the 60's and 70's, an edgy writer who served as the inspiration for Doonesbury's "Uncle Duke" character. He once went so far as to tell Garry Trudeau, the comic's creator, that he would set Trudeau on fire if the two ever met.

Bill, on the other hand, worked for the Tennessee Driving School on Summer Avenue in Memphis. He was originally from Detroit, a factor which most definitely influenced his driving techniques, but he had relocated to Memphis some years before he took me on as a student, and he knew the city upside down. Bill was absolutely unshakable, and that was one of the reasons he succeeded at his job. The other reason, I always thought, was that he had a biting but strangely likeable sense of humor.

Nothing phased Bill. I was a somewhat tentative driver initially, but on my first lesson, Bill took me out onto Summer Avenue, a rather major road in our neighborhood, full of commercial distractions and lots of traffic lights. He was patient, funny, and gave me all kinds of pointers: using the car's hood to align where I was in the traveling lane, watching whether people's wheels were moving at intersections, looking over my shoulder when backing up, that sort of thing. The lessons he taught me must have stuck, because I use them all even to this day.

Humor came in handy during my driving lessons. I recall one day that I stalled a manual transmission car at the intersection of Poplar Avenue and Yates Road, and I couldn't figure out how to start it. The problem was that I had the car in the wrong gear, but Bill sat there patiently as I was practically reduced to tears, while impatient motorists behind me began to show evidence of their discontent. By the time we got back home, I was laughing at myself, but I never made that mistake again, and Bill never reminded me of it.

Probably my favorite Bill memory was during an early morning lesson, when we were traveling westbound over a viaduct on Chelsea Avenue, a heavily industrial section of Memphis. Out of nowhere, another motorist suddenly ran out in front of me. I applied the brakes quickly but carefully, thereby avoiding a collision, but Bill shook his head and said, without missing a beat, "Next time, hit the SOB." I laughed, he laughed, and we drove downtown to continue the lesson.

Bill was not what you would call politically correct, and he had entire categories of drivers whom he believed should be monitored and avoided at all costs. The problem was, his list encompassed the vast majority of drivers on the road, in effect all of us, so as with many things I heard back in those days, I took that advice with a grain of salt. I don't think he meant all that stuff, anyway --  even at the time, it seemed more for comic effect.

My time with Bill was brief, but I thanked him mightily when within a decade of his lessons, I found myself commuting on some of the nation's busiest highways in and around Chicago and Los Angeles. Bill was actually very good at what he did, and some of his pointers came in especially handy when dealing with the inherent whims and weirdness of urban traffic. It's almost as if he wanted you to get inside the heads of other drivers and anticipate what they might do. Whatever his method, it worked, and before long, I found myself driving all over the place, beginning what would become a lifetime of urban exploration.

So thanks, Bill, wherever you are. I don't know if you're still alive, but if you are, I hope your driving days have been uneventful, that you haven't skidded in the rain, and that you still have your cigarette holder. Without your tutelage, I might never have driven past the city limits.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Fear and Loathing at the Drive-Thru

It happened again this morning: I experienced acute schizophrenia at the drive-thru.

I'm a Baby Boomer, which means I was born before 1964 -- how long, I'm not saying, but some of you already know. In that substantial length of time, I feel as if I've seen it all in one form or another, and that includes the evolution of fast food restaurants, the likes of which I have probably visited far too many times. But let's face it, sometimes you're in a hurry, and fast food fits the bill: it's either that, or hold off eating until 11:00 PM, at which point your stomach (see the post "Who's the Boss?") will once again assert its full leadership potential. To avoid such a catastrophic situation, one sometimes finds oneself taking fast food a step further by not even going inside and instead using the drive-thru. And here's where it all breaks down for me.

I am not a drive-thru person. Those who have ridden with me might say that this is actually a vast understatement. I have been known to experience instant mood changes when confronted with an unfamiliar drive-thru menu, which in my mind requires minute upon minute of searching to find the desired items while impatient motorists, all of whom seem to have honed their drive-thru skills, wait patiently (or sometimes not) behind me. The only drive-thru that I've ever been comfortable with is the Jack-in-the-Box on Devonshire Street in Chatsworth, California, back in the Sixties, and that's only because: a) either my cousin Debi or her boyfriend Paul, a "Valley Couple," were driving, b) we didn't have to wear shoes in the car, and c) there were only about five items on the menu. Indeed, drive-thrus are a true test of my otherwise unwavering (ha, ha) good nature.

Drive-thrus used to be notorious for messing up your food order, so much so that McDonald's installed temporary parking spots adjacent to its restaurants so that you could dig down into the bag and check your order. Well, OK, that wasn't really the reason, but I like to use that as an excuse. It seems, and I say this cautiously, that drive-thru order accuracy has improved slightly, but it's not anything reliable enough to bet money on at this point. I always check my order, because it's almost certain that if I don't, there will be an issue. The last time I failed to check my order, I got home with cheeseburgers that were missing the meat. In the words of Dave Barry, "I am not making this up."

The other major issue with drive-thrus involves air pollution. I'll bet that if every drive-thru in the United States were to close for just a month, we'd experience enough of a hiatus in global warming that an entire glacial formation could reconstitute itself. Cars sitting there idling have to be emitting tons of pollution.

Of course, there are times and situations where drive-thrus make a bit of sense, such as when you're driving around on a July day and need a drink pronto, but the catch there is, you're only ordering one item. This works fine for soft drinks and milkshakes; however, try ordering a half-sweet and half-unsweet iced tea and watch what you get: almost guaranteed that it will be a concoction so sweet your teeth will hurt.

My most humorous experience with drive-thrus involved an evening years ago when my wife Karen and I decided to visit the Roswell Dairy Queen. I love DQ custard ice cream, and one of my favorite treats is the good old chocolate dipped cone. That evening, Karen insisted that we use the drive-thru. I wanted to go inside, but she would have none of that. The problem was that we were in my convertible with the top down, and the evening was very warm. By the time I got back home, a ride of maybe fifteen minutes, I was so covered in ice cream that my shirt and I both had to go in the wash immediately.

I wish I could get over this. I see myself making baby steps, such as using the Starbucks drive-thru. That one only makes me a little nervous, because I generally order one of several well-thought-out things, and if I freeze up and mistakenly order the wrong beverage, it doesn't make much of a difference, as long as it contains caffeine. Nowadays, I usually just go with the crowd if they want to stop at a drive-thru, then try to consume the food while it is still hot or cold, as the case may be. So, please don't hold this against me if you're a drive-thru fan -- I've tried to like them, I really have, and maybe someday, I'll put enough faith in the system to go all by myself. Maybe I should ask my doctor for a Xanax prescription first, though. You can't be too careful with this kind of stuff.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Surefooted

I'm a morning person, an early riser, up before the chickens, as they say. Maybe there's a second Richard somewhere inside my brain that wants to be a farmer...I'm not sure. I don't know about the cow milking thing, but I could envision the sun coming up over the fields with a rooster crowing. At any rate, one of the first things I do every morning, at least in the colder months, is to slip my feet into this pair of brown corduroy slippers, or as my folks used to call them "house shoes." Once I do that, I feel that the day can officially begin.

If memory serves me correctly, my corduroy slippers with plaid flannel lining were given to me as a Christmas present sometime back in the 90's. I depend on them being in my closet, except for summer months, when they work their way to the back shelf until the advent of chilly weather. I have a morning ritual: the shoes go on, our greyhound Ava and I walk downstairs so that I can let her out while my wife Karen and our older dog Payday snooze. If it's a workday, I make coffee, switch on Good Morning America, grab breakfast, play a game or two (sometimes more) of Words With Friends, then get moving. On weekends, I make even more coffee, play on my phone or read my latest book, then head out walking or whatever. It's all very predictable and comfortable.

I've owned numerous pairs of slippers over the years, but for some reason, these have stuck with me. I may have owned five cars in the same period of time that I've had these shoes, but in all that time, these well-worn troopers haven't cost me a penny. I cannot count how many times they've trundled through the back yard trying to retrieve dog toys, or more often than not, a dog who is wandering aimlessly when I have to be somewhere. The bottoms of the slippers are made of some kind of synthetic material which retains water for a short time, although I did not realize this until recently, when I noticed that the almost brand new carpet was wet owing to my hasty retreat from the back yard to the living room after a rainstorm. They're extremely durable; I can throw them into the washer and dryer with no real concern for wash temperature or drying duration, and when I take them out, they still fit perfectly.

These shoes have seen so much action. They've been with me when I've been recovering from illnesses, when nothing has seemed to make me comfortable other than being wrapped up in a blanket with the TV on. I've slipped into them when I've had to get out of bed at night because I could not sleep. I've gotten both good news and bad news in them, and through it all, they've stuck with me like the most trusted friends you can imagine.

I don't mind that my corduroy slippers are wearing a bit, because let's face it: we all get older and a little frayed around the edges. They're not particularly fashionable, but that doesn't really matter, because I'm not always runway ready myself. I wear them with gray pajama pants sometimes, but no one is looking, so I think that's all right.

I'm not kidding myself: I know that one day, these poor slippers will give up the ghost, and I'll have to go in search of a replacement pair, but honestly, I hope that's a long way off, because to me, they're just perfect. I wish I could write a song for them or buy them a gift, but yeah, that would be odd, even for me. I'll just make sure they have a reserved spot on my shoe rack and that they don't get pushed to the back of the closet this summer.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Kelvinated

Not too long ago, my friend Keith dropped over to my desk at work and asked me, "Have you tried to buy light bulbs lately?" I responded that I had, and that the array of available options was dizzying. Keith was trying to replace a five-plus year old bulb in his house with the equivalent, but nothing seemed to be a truly good match. Really, you say? Oh, yes. Light bulb buying is a rather complicated endeavor these days.

As you've probably noticed if you've tried to buy replacement bulbs lately (and who hasn't?), the plain old incandescent bulb is essentially a thing of the past. Government regulations throughout the world have prohibited the manufacture or sale of them unless they are sufficiently energy efficient, and this is probably a good thing. For years, people have used halogen or xenon alternatives for task lighting in areas such as kitchens and workshops, but in the last few years, LED (light-emitting diode) lighting has become the preferred technology. The light is pure, clean and extremely energy efficient. There's only one problem with LED lighting, and that's the Kelvin scale for color temperature. Many people who are otherwise brilliant, conscientious and informed do not seem to understand the Kelvin scale and its relation to everyday lighting options.

The Kelvin scale is a absolute numeric index of temperature, and as it pertains to lighting, it serves as a color index as well. (I've included a helpful diagram with this post.) Lower Kelvin values tend to be warmer, while higher values more closely simulate daylight. As the Kelvin value increases, the light becomes more bluish. For example, soft white 100 watt home lighting is generally around 2700K, while surgery suites often utilize lighting in the 5000K or "daylight" range. The kind of lighting selected is typically based on the need: if you are looking to generate a warm, inviting feeling for your living room, select the lower temperatures; if, on the other hand, you need to simulate daylight and reflect most of the light impinging on an object back to your eyes for detailed desk or table work, select higher temperatures.

Selecting the "wrong" color temperature can have unpleasant consequences, particularly in outdoor lighting applications, where the human eye expects more gentle light. A quote from the Lightology website sums this up well:
Stay away from cooler color temperatures when lighting outdoor landscapes. The bluish tones from cooler temperatures can make environments appear sickly or unnatural, imparting a sense of uneasiness, and being on edge. Instead, opt for lighting with a very warm color temperature: 2700K LED is ideal, and 3000K is okay, too. The 2700K temperature offers a very soothing and natural tone that mimics the warm, comforting glow of a campfire. As such, it is ideal for creating relaxing, comfortable outdoor environments.
I always feel sorry for people who have selected higher Kelvin lighting, because I'm guessing that they are probably trying to do the right thing by being energy efficient, but that they haven't paid much attention to the details. Most of us consider "daylight" to be a good thing, but when it comes to outdoor environments, installation of high Kelvin options imparts a rather post-apocalyptic feeling to one's surroundings. I know that in my case, at least, I would like for my front yard to appear inviting, so that when you come to visit, you feel like you're going to be served a chilled martini instead of having your appendix removed.

That being said, there are definite benefits to LED lighting in some situations. Recently, all our incandescent choir loft lights, which sputtered and failed in a most inappropriately sacrilegious way, were replaced by LED's. The result was that we could now see our music evenly lighted without the fear that the lights would fail or that we would be spontaneously incinerated by the heat from the old incandescent bulbs. Two years ago, I saw a soprano's music almost catch fire. OK, I made that last part up, but you know what I mean.

The whole thing is fascinating in a way, and the technology available these days is seemingly limitless. So go out there when you have a chance and spend some time in the lighting aisle of your local Home Depot or Lowe's. You'll be amazed at the options available, but keep this Kelvin thing in mind, or you just may end up reawakening the spirit of George Orwell.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Denimosity

Like most people, I have owned countless pairs of jeans. I've lived in them for the larger part of my life since around 1971. For the most part, I've been satisfied with my purchases, but occasionally, a recalcitrant pair will surface, challenging all that I know and believe. Witness one such story.

Shortly before Christmas, I visited my local Macy's to buy several pairs of pants. I didn't go there with the intention of buying blue jeans, but after selecting a pair of camel colored duck Levi's and a slate gray pair of Calvins, I thought it might be a good idea to pick up a pair of dark washed Levi's 514's (number three from the top on the picture from my closet at right). I'd bought this style before, and people always said they looked good and fit well, so I banked on that. After all, I was working for Macy's at the time, and people loved to comment on each other's clothes. My female friends would not shy away from giving you an honest and truthful opinion, one way or the other, and I appreciated that. It saved me from a few potential fashion disasters such as the one that occurred around 2004, when my friend Jenny told me that she'd better never catch me wearing another pair of pants with a visible elastic waistband.

But back to the Macy's jeans. Before my purchase, I tried them on in the fitting room, checking them out from every angle, since you cannot be too careful there. The first day I wore the jeans to work (we had a casual dress policy), I noticed that as the day wore on, the jeans loosened considerably. By the end of the day, it became a struggle to keep them pulled up at the waist. They pooled over the tops of my shoes like rococo drapes in the parlor of a Louisiana plantation house. I brought them home and washed them, and the next time I wore them, they lasted a bit longer, maybe until early afternoon. This pattern continued throughout January, when I left Macy's to take semi-retirement.

Once I was not working, I had the opportunity to exercise more often, and I lost a few pounds. I saw this as a very positive thing until the next time I tried to wear the jeans. I put them on before I left the house one morning, and by lunchtime, they were sagging mercilessly. Now, I'm not a total fashion slave (okay, maybe sometimes), but this was unacceptable. It was time for action.

I bundled up the jeans in a Macy's plastic bag and headed to North Point Mall, where I had purchased them. I did this thinking that maybe the store would replace them. I wasn't looking for a refund, because I had owned them (and worn them) a few times, but I just wanted another pair like these. When I walked into the men's department that weekday morning, it was almost deserted, and within a minute or so, a male sales associate walked up to me and asked if he could help.

I was very honest with the sales person. I told him that I had purchased the jeans, had worn them on a few occasions, but that they just weren't working for me, and that I would like to exchange them. Mind you, there was basically no wear on these pants, but they seemed awfully big for the size on the label. The man looked concerned and downtrodden, and he began to ask questions. Eventually, I just said, "Hey, I used to work for the company. Tell me, is this something you cannot do?" At which point, he replied that no, since the jeans had been washed, they could not be returned. Now, I know that people do this all the time, but I didn't push the point. I put the jeans back in the bag and politely headed home.

That evening, I did a geeky thing: I looked up how to shrink jeans on the Internet. There's even a WikiHow page on how to do it. The next day, I followed the online instructions and voila, I had an almost perfectly fitting pair of jeans, except that they were still too long. After a trip to our favorite tailor shop and $16 for alterations, they were perfect. But seriously, I told myself, all this for one pair of pants. I wasn't even wearing them to a prom or anything. I had purchased them on sale, but after the alternations, any financial benefit from that had been negated.

I can only hope that all this effort is worth it, and that this pair of high maintenance jeans, like others in the past, will have a story to tell when they are retired to Goodwill or some other needy charity. But somehow, I think they'll always be treated just a bit differently from the other pairs in my closet.

I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes, you just have to work at something to get it right, or alternatively, anything worth having is worth fighting for. Seriously, there is nothing more awful than an ill-fitting pair of pants.