Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Black Sheep

Every family has at least one member for whom conformity to the perceived norm is simply too much of a stretch. In our case, there was one quite memorable black sheep: my Uncle Clay.

Clay Wells was a Navy man who married my great Aunt Mary and thereby became part of our family. There's no denying that Clay marched to the beat of a different drummer, yet he was an upright, honorable man with a dry sense of humor and a passion for good living. But from the beginning, it wasn't all peaches and cream for Clay and our family.

According to Grandma Estelle, our family historian, her younger sister Mary had fallen in love with a man sometime during the late 1920's or 1930's, and they became engaged to be married. No one was really clear about exactly what happened, but shortly before the wedding was to take place, Mary's fiance committed suicide. Mary, gentle and kind to a fault, was devastated. Our family was close and offered constant support, and eventually, Mary's spirits were lifted. A few years later, she met a young man named Clay Wells, and they married.

Estelle's accounts of Mary and Clay's early years together made me realize that from the beginning, Clay was something of an outcast. In good Southern tradition, there was never anything said directly to either of them in that regard, but there were stories. One of my favorites involves an incident that occurred some time during the 1940's. 

At the time, Uncle Clay was selling automobiles at a large dealership on Union Avenue in Memphis. Union Avenue was, and remains, a major thoroughfare in the city. There are few times when the road is not busy with crosstown traffic. As the story goes, my grandfather Leslie, Estelle's husband, purchased a car from Clay one day, and everything was going well until he headed out onto Union Avenue on his way home. Before he had gone even a mile, smoke appeared from under the hood, followed by flames -- the car's engine was on fire. Leslie, furious by this time, had the car towed back to the dealership and gave Clay a piece of his mind. From that day forward, my grandfather was convinced that his brother-in-law had intentionally sold him a bum car.

Eventually, Mary and Clay settled into a comfortable life in Memphis. They became successful real estate agents and owned a beautiful home on North Trezevant Street in Memphis, only steps away from Overton Park, the city's lush in-town greenspace. In the early 1960's, we would visit with them often. Oddly enough, my kindergarten teacher and her husband lived next door, so on occasion, we would drop in there as well. Mary and Clay loved fishing and often would travel to Florida to pursue their hobby, always bringing back fresh catfish, which would be served with fried chicken and hush puppies at one of our favorite regular family gatherings, the back yard fish fry.

Fish fries were absolutely delightful, and once we had our fill of fish, we would retire to the living room, where one family member after another would tell stories. Clay was an excellent storyteller who just happened to possess a rather far-reaching knowledge of serious literature. Often, when just he and I were talking after a big dinner, Clay would ask if I had read books by authors whose names I was beginning to hear in junior high school, people like John Steinbeck and James Conrad. I found that I was beginning to develop a strong interest in literature, so I relished the opportunity to talk about it, and Clay always seemed to offer yet another author or book to explore.

Despite his somewhat intellectual bent, there's no escaping the fact that Clay, like all of us, had his unusual habits, and one of them I found especially entertaining. Back in the day, due to less than perfect preventive dental care, many people were fitted with dentures as they approached their later years. Clay was no exception, but his dentures did not fit well enough for him to make it through a meal without incident, so he generally opted to remove them prior to eating. The result of this was that he often mixed up the contents of his plate into a singular mushy entity, which he would consume while the rest of us methodically ate our easily identifiable meal elements. Behind his back, Grandma Estelle would say, "Honey, I just hate what Clay does with his food." But being good and proper Southerners, we never said anything directly to him; instead, we simply looked on in befuddled amusement.

The flaming car incident remained a stumbling block in the relationship between Uncle Clay and Grandpa Leslie. One weekend in the late 1960's, I was staying with my grandparents. By this time, Leslie had suffered two severe strokes and was confined to a wheelchair, where he would consume six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola and Pall Mall cigarettes nonstop as he sat by the front window of their North Hollywood Street home. Early one afternoon, Mary and Clay pulled up in the driveway, and Leslie said to Estelle, "Maw...get my gun." At that point, it was clear to me that the feud would never end until either Leslie or Clay had passed from this earth.

Despite the fact that people always saw Clay as something of an outsider, he and Mary appeared to have lived full and happy lives. From my youthful perspective, I appreciated his eccentricity, and I think that Clay was good for us -- he brought to our family a wonderful sense of humor and tons of delectable fried catfish. Intentionally or otherwise, he provided a bit of comic relief during the turbulent days of the 1960's. I miss him, and I never see a Steinbeck book without thinking of him.

Oh, and just for the record, I have a cousin who sells cars. Several years ago, we bought one from him. It has never, ever caught fire.

Friday, September 14, 2018

I've Got My Hands Full Over Here

The cleaning people were coming to our house this morning, so I started collecting items to take with me to the coffee shop where I'm now sitting. On cleaning days, I head to the shop at around 8:00 AM and remain there until around 10:00, when the cleaning is usually completed. About an hour ago, I packed my laptop and all its accessories and then started gathering everything else: walking shoes, socks, my wallet, a pair of regular glasses, a pair of computer glasses, and a pair of sunglasses. It was about then that I realized I needed to grab my flexible nylon duffel bag, the one that I got for free at my last job, for overflow. There was simply no way everything would fit into the laptop bag. Such situations are not unusual.

About twenty or so years ago, the item known as the "man purse" came into vogue. To me, it seemed like a logical thing: a tiny backpack-like invention that could be strapped over your shoulder. I bought one and used it almost every day to go back and forth to work. Mine had compartments for phones, pens, an ID card, as well as a stretchy piece of webbing on the outside that would allow you to pack a water bottle. It was made of black leather and hung comfortably over my shoulder. During the period I carried it, both the Palm Pilot and iPod were invented, and it was great for toting those around. But eventually, the cultural male gender assertion began to take hold, and the "man purse" became a thing which was no longer cool to carry. I shook my head and acquiesced, because when you're a guy, that's what you do.

Let's take a look at the obvious here. Men's pants are made with functional pockets, but for ladies, this is not always the case. Women's jeans, for example, are made with shallow pockets that are marginally functional, unless you're carrying nothing larger than a package of chewing gum. Women often end up carrying their phones in their back jeans pockets, a practice which carries its own risks, especially considering that Apple now thinks nothing of charging over a thousand dollars for an iPhone. But women also have the option of carrying a handbag (it's not a "purse", as they used to tell us when I worked at Macy's). The handbag is a completely practical, useful item. Men are not culturally permitted to carry anything resembling one, because that would not be man-like. And therein lies the problem.

If you can't carry a handbag, where do you put the stuff that you have to carry around with you? Why, in your pockets, of course. That works up to a point, but unless you are wearing cargo pants or shorts, you're going to run out of room in short order, and guess what? Men are often chastised for wearing cargo pants. I beseech you, therefore, what are we males supposed to do?

Well, I can think of only one logical answer. All that stuff you're carrying, guys? Find a way to put it on your smartphone. For credit cards, boarding passes, reward cards, and the like, you can use Wallet on your iPhone or iPad (wait, you don't have room for an iPad). You can take pictures of things that you'd like to be carrying around but don't have room for and store them in your phone's photo album -- that way, you can look at them and think about what you would do with them if you could hold them in your hand. Need a tape measure? There's an app for that. Your keys? Well, you're on your own there, and by the way, key fobs are getting bigger and bigger.

To me, it's just so obvious that guys need another way to carry stuff, one that doesn't come with any gender-based stigma against its use. How many times have you guys, fortunate enough to have a female significant other, had her tell you, "I'll put that in my bag" while you're struggling to find available pocket space? That's crazy, because if you think about it, she already has her own stuff to carry. The difference being that her gender, savvy about such things, sees no issues with carrying a handbag; designers offer bags in a plethora of styles and colors to complement almost any wardrobe. They are practical, everyday fashion accessories. Now, that rocks. The fact that males have no equivalent is just, in a word, dumb.

It's high time that we disposed of the notion of judging that a guy is less "masculine" because he needs to carry some kind of bag. If we don't do something soon, we males will be carrying our entire lives on a smartphone, which of course will make Apple, Samsung, and others even happier than they already are. Let's put our minds to a solution -- we're the same species that once sent people to the moon. But come to think of it, I don't think astronauts even had pockets. I rest my case.