Friday, September 29, 2006


In Which I Hang Out With BB and Bobo...

My brother had never mentioned that he lived with the creature we would come to call Bobo Jones. The fact that Bobo didn't actually exist may have had something to do with it.

I discovered this myself as I edged closer to the figure slumped in the chair. Of course, it turned out he was nothing more than a stuffed set of clothes with an impressive latex gorilla mask for a head. He had no more substance than a scarecrow. And in fact, that's exactly what he was.

Before I could give my brother some well-deserved shit about having too much free time, he explained--in case we hadn't noticed on our way in--that this wasn't the safest neighborhood. All of the apartments in the building had been broken into at one time or another and BB determined his wasn't going to be next. It helped that he worked nights--most of the apartments were rifled during the day when folks were out at work, but my brother was generally at home during daylight hours. Still, for those savvy criminals who he imagined had cased the place and watched his movements and determined nighttime was the time to break in, BB had conceived of Bobo.

At around 5, just before he left for work, BB slid Bobo over to the front window, positioned a swivel-arm lamp behind him and turned it on for the night. This projected Bobo's impressive silhouette on the curtain where it was clearly visible from the street below. As a final touch, my brother ran a small fan on the floor near the window. This caused the curtain to ripple slightly at random intervals, which gave Bobo the illusion of movement. From a distance, he could have been some large, crazed insomniac, shifting in his chair, turning a page of an unseen book. Much as it galled me to give my brother a scintilla of credit, I had to admit I was full of admiration for his invention. And the fact that his place hadn't been robbed thus far seemed to be the proof of it.

I would come to learn lots more about my brother, but not until my mom left us later that afternoon. She still had a job back in New Jersey and had to finish getting our house there ready for sale. The hastily sketched plan was that she would spend the next month to six weeks finishing this up while I stayed in Providence, helping BB. When she finally wrapped things up in New Jersey and came north to New Hampshire for the summer, she'd collect me along the way. It was exciting to have my summer plans change so quickly, but it was also a bit of a challenge too. With my brother almost completely incapacitated, I was going to have to drive him to doctor appointments (I was late getting my driver's license and had only just earned it a month earlier. I was nervous driving anywhere, let alone in a city of any kind); I was going to be in charge of the apartment, cooking meals and paying bills.

That last one was going to be the biggest challenge of all. Because of his inability to work, BB would have to quit his catering job and find a new one when he got back on his feet. Meanwhile, he had no money in savings (natch) and my parents certainly had none to speak of--my dad had been in detox or out of work for almost a year, and my mom's job barely covered household expenses back home. We were lucky in one respect--when my brother had rented the sublet, he had had to pay for the whole summer in advance. At the time, my mom thought he had been railroaded, but now it seemed a genuine boon that we didn't have rent hanging over our heads. We still had to pay the phone bill and buy food and gas, though, and between us we had my brother's last paycheck and about $85 in my checking account.

With everything I had to do for BB, I didn't really have the freedom to get a part-time job, but I did find a few ways to supplement our income. One was picking trash. I had worked long enough for my uncle to know there was plenty of treasure to be found if you were willing to get your hands dirty. In my case, I had especially good luck loading up on books--paperbacks, castoff textbooks, you name it--by trolling the neighborhoods around Brown University. Most of what I found I was able to sell to used bookstores or the campus bookshop. It never amounted to much--I think I made about $100 that whole month--but it paid the phone bill for the summer and it bought a sack or two of groceries.

Another way was selling comics, which was something of a first for me. Generally, and because of my inherited C.R.A.P. tendencies, comics flowed one way into my collection. But that summer, with my family's financial straits fast approaching dire, I realized that I was going to have to thin the herd a bit if I wanted to keep money in my pocket. So in addition to a few clothes and books, I had lined my duffel bag with comics I was willing to sell or trade.

This was just before the rise of the boutique comic shops. Back then, comic stores were few and far between, usually in a low-rent section of town, often within orbit of the area college. Finding the local shop was the first challenge. Finding it open was the second--these places always had the oddest hours. But once you cleared those hurdles, they were wonderful places: dark, dusty storefronts perfumed with the pulp of ages. Row upon row of scuffed boxes held back issues that really were back issues, not just last month's new comics stuffed in bags and jacked up a dollar in price. Over in a corner by the door, there was the glass counter that held the real gems--what few valuable issues the owner had cobbled together over the years. And there, within arm's reach of those treasures sat the owner himself with his scraggly beard and his unkempt hair and his John Lennon glasses. Usually he was engaged in conversation--of varying degrees of animation--with some shopfly who always remarked on the comics you were buying, which would launch him into a diatribe about the parlous state of the comics industry, which usually led him to a monologue about how comics had reached their apex in the 1960s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were still doing the Fantastic Four--in particular FF 48-50--as if he were the first person to make this observation in the history of comics-shop loitering.

But these shopflies had their uses. When I brought my comics in, I timed it so that the maximum number of flies were around, which was just after the rush on new comics day (nowadays, it's always Wednesday. Back then, it varied from store to store, city to city). After the new books were put out, the owner usually had time to shoot the shit with the flies and to look at new stuff people brought in. In Providence, I didn't have much that the dealer needed--he picked a few books and offered me 8 in cash or 10 in trade--but a few of the flies followed me out and we did some business on the street. I didn't make a killing, but I ended up getting about 60 or 70 bucks and that, coupled with my trash-picking, was enough to get us through the summer.

I've heard people say "I was happiest when I was broke." I don't know that I'd go that far. In my experience, anyone who could say that with a straight face probably had a rich relative somewhere, a trust fund that would kick in in a few years, or some other escape hatch that they simply hadn't used yet. I certainly wasn't happy to be so desperate for money. And yet, I must admit there was something immensely satisfying about that month I spent with my brother. It was a real turning point in my sense of self-sufficiency. Sure, I'd already had a year of college under my belt, but dorm life was substantially different from trying to make do in a strange city, and having to take care of someone else on top of it.

And I have to admit, I rather enjoyed living with my brother. It had been a few years since we'd shared the same living space and it was interesting to see how we'd changed in that time. He was surprised at how responsible I'd become and I think it weirded him out to have our roles reversed, to have me taking care of him. For my part, I was six kinds of impressed with his culinary skills. I had basic water-boiling skills at that time, but in the space of a month, my brother taught me how to really cook, and especially how to improvise meals with whatever ingredients you have on hand (my triumph was the night I made fried chicken using plain yogurt and the crumbs at the bottom of five boxes of cereal in the pantry. We called it Cereal Killer Chicken. Har har).

But this was us, after all, so I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that month was one big love fest. We got in more than a few squabbles, such as when I learned that after three weeks BB was well enough to lurch out into the kitchen for a midnight snack that he could take back to his room. But instead of lurching back out with the dirty dishes, he stuffed them under his bed and kept doing it until we had almost no plates and cutlery left in the kitchen. Or there was the time BB got an unexpectedly prompt notice from the city about an unpaid ticket that I managed to get my very first day in town, when I drove to the grocery store for supplies and parked in a no-parking zone.

Then there was Bobo.

Our third roommate enjoyed a more active lifestyle once I moved in. Since BB and I both hung out in the apartment and didn't need a scarecrow much, I had taken to moving Bobo around the place, usually without bothering to inform BB. My first week there, I laid Bobo in the bathtub and pulled the shower curtain closed, placing one of his gloved hands discreetly on the edge of the tub, just poking out of the shower curtain. BB didn't notice it until I had helped him into the bathroom for his morning sitdown, and when he did spot the hand, he yelled in a very satisfying way (although he claims my prank caused him undue pain to his affected area. And stopped him up for the rest of the day). Another time, I put Bobo in BB's bed and covered him up with rumpled blankets and pillows.

This freaked BB out more than the bathroom incident, but not because he hadn't seen the telltale form in bed. No, BB was afraid he'd finally been cornered by his downstairs neighbor, a fellow summer subletter whose identity I will obscure by calling her Ellie. She was a substantial woman, to put it delicately. Not that the men in my family--me included--have ever had a problem with that. "A big woman is shade in the summer 'n warmth in the winter," my dad has always said, and I happen to agree. But Ellie was in a class by herself. When she trod the floor in her apartment below us, you could hear the entire house shake and creak. She was very open and self-effacing about her size, though. In fact, when she met me that first week, she introduced herself as the "biggest girl a little peckerwood like you will ever meet!" And then she laughed a high, sneezing laugh.

Despite her size, Ellie was a skittish creature. Her ground-floor apartment had been burglarized her second week there and she had been constantly knocking on my brother's door ever since, asking him to check out suspicious sounds, or nail fresh two-by-fours over her boarded-up back door. It was no secret that she had developed a crush on BB and when I remarked on this fact to him, he snorted. "Crush is right!" he cried. "Between the two of us, if she ever climbed on top of me, we'd collapse the floor!"

We saw quite a lot of Ellie that summer, and not just because there was quite a lot of her to see. Once she learned of BB's injuries, she assigned herself the task of coming up every day to check on him and baby him. In a curious coincidence of timing, she often managed to show up just as I was finishing supper preparations and, gentlemen that we sort-of were, we always invited her to join us. She never refused the invitation. I didn't mind so much--I was always a light eater--but BB had designs on my leftovers. "Maybe we should start eating supper at 4," he said once, after she'd matched BB bowl for bowl on chili night (and BB can put away five bowls, easy). "We can't afford this. And she's not even putting out for us!"

"I'm sure she would if you asked," I said.

"Jesus H. fuck!" he cried, shuddering at the idea. "Please. I'm not that desperate."

But Ellie was. As the weeks wore on, she came for supper and stayed later and later into the evening, often snuggling up against my brother's helpless form as he watched TV. Once or twice, she slept on the futon in the front room--or claimed to. I didn't stick around to confirm it. I holed up in a back bedroom with my Walkman turned up high so as to mask out what I was sure would be the impending sound of leviathan lovemaking.

Whether she and BB ever hooked up that summer, I'm not entirely sure, and really, I don't want to know. But I can tell you that their relationship--whatever its nature--was short-lived. And it was all Bobo's fault...

(Now don't get your undies in a bunch. I'll post the conclusion over the weekend.)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


In Which We Get Down to Some Monkey Business...

First, just a little housekeeping note. It galls me ever so slightly that I've been posting less frequently the past few months. Between work and the kids' school schedule and a few odd and wonderful details I'm not ready to share yet, I've been the busiest I've ever been in my life. Ever. Something has to give and sadly, my sleep and this blog have suffered.

I've made an effort to post every other day on average, but I think I'm going to be cutting back to about 3 times a week on average. Just for a while. Rest assured, I still plan to make my presence felt here, and I have no shortage of material to share. Aside from the next Giveaway of CRAP (which should start in October this year), I need to recount some tales from my fateful internship and share with you my recent adventures bicycling with the kids. I'm also in the process of doing assorted housekeeping duties, including scanning all the old family photos my parents left me and also transferring some ancient home videos into digital format.

Most of the video was taken when I was 19 and 20, and includes all sorts of odds bits--my dad telling a story about burying a cat alive; a cooking show spoof involving a pudding cake and an underwear drawer; a series of violent and violently incoherent action/adventure movies that I allowed my Big Brother to direct; and my own ongoing serial involving a trio of heroes known as "The Three Comedians."

Much of it is unwatchable--aside from the degenerating quality of the videotape (the content of which was already pretty degenerate to begin with), the audio is terrible and the editing is completely absent. Still, there are some noteworthy anthropological artifacts in there and you may be assured that I'll show you only the very worst of it.

On top of that, I still have lots of your questions to answer, so I'll pick one that came to mind last night, as I was salvaging videotape.

Sharfa asked what was the worst/best prank I ever played on someone. I played most of my pranks on Big Brother, but which one was the best? That took some pondering. As a young boy, I was always especially proud of the time I put soap on BB's toothbrush--he foamed at the mouth just like a rabid beast! Then there was the April Fool's day that I removed one bolt from the toilet seat so that when BB sat down he slid sideways and ended up making quite a mess.

In the end, I decided to put it to BB himself, and he responded, without hesitation, "I STILL haven't paid you back for the incident with that fucking gorilla."

Which I had almost completely forgotten about, to tell you the truth. It hadn't been a prank so much as an impulse thing, but it obviously made an impression on my brother, so:

It was the summer of 1986, just after my freshman year of college. My Dad was just checking out of detox and beginning his long tenure of sobriety that continues unbroken to this day. He was working up in Maine, I believe, while my mom and I were back at our place in New Jersey. My folks had decided to relocate to New Hampshire for good and so we had lots of work getting our neat old, slightly haunted house cleaned up and ready to put on the market. The plan was that we'd spend June and July doing the work that needed doing, and then go to New Hampshire for the rest of the summer.

Instead, I ended up in Providence, Rhode Island.

BB was still there, finishing up his degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales, which required him to work so many hours--practical credit--at a hotel or restaurant in order to earn his degree. So he was working nights at a catering kitchen. One morning, after he got off work, he decided to go down to the beach with some coworkers. In short order, he found himself sitting on a lawn chair by the water's edge and it was there that he promptly fell asleep. Five hours later, he awoke to find the tide had come in and his legs were just starting to float in the surf. He got up, drove home, showered, and prepared to go back to the kitchen. But as he was driving, he became aware that he was extremely uncomfortable. His pants seemed to be a size too small and his legs were really starting to hurt. By the time he got to the parking lot at work, he couldn't pull himself out of the car without help. Coworkers got him to the bathroom and that was where he discovered that his legs were beet red and swollen to almost twice their size.

Someone got him to the ER and that's where he was told he had second-degree burns on both legs from his snooze in the sun (having his legs in the water apparently only magnified the sun and worsened the effect). Thankfully, he'd been wearing a shirt and shorts and his arms were covered by a towel, but he also had pretty bad burns on his nose and scalp. The doctors at the ER assumed he'd spilled hot grease on himself in the kitchen; they had never seen that kind of damage from the sun. They admitted him to the hospital.

By two AM, large, pus-filled blisters were forming on his legs and BB was in such excruciating pain, they had to inflate him with morphine in order to slather his legs with Silvadine, a protective ointment used for severe burns, and to wrap him in gauze.

At 2:30, someone at the hospital called my mom and told her what had happened.

At 3:30, Mom and I were on the road heading north. In the back was my old military duffel bag, hastily packed with enough clothes and books to last me a month--the minimum time my brother would need live-in care until he, quite literally, was back on his feet again.

By around 10 AM, we found the apartment my brother was subletting for the summer. He was living on the second floor of what had once been a stately old home about a mile from the Brown University campus. But now it was clearly a neighborhood whose main characteristic was that it offered thugs a chance to perfect their breaking-and-entering skills. As we parked on the street where my brother lived, it seemed that every other car had a window punched out and its radio missing. Most of the other old houses or apartment buildings in the area had bars or plywood stoutly bolted over the windows of the lower floors. My mother swore quietly as we found the house. Our family never failed to find the Worst Neighborhood to live in, and my brother had clearly been carrying on the tradition.

The front door was unlocked--actually, there was no kind of hardware to lock at all on the front door. Where a doorknob had once been, there was now just a big splintery hole, as if a large, feral creature had taken a big bite out of the wood. "Jesus, I wonder how many times this place has been broken into," my mother hissed as she wedged her car keys between her fingers and made a fist (her ultimate defense against attackers). We lumbered up the stairs to the second-floor landing, where we found another door ajar.

We pushed it open and there, splayed on the floor like a corpse, was BB.

He looked like he'd been the victim of a botched mummification, and that whoever had attempted the job had left in a hurry. He was naked from the waist up, a horrific, eye-bleaching sight in itself. Below the grimy dishtowel that covered his nethers, he was wrapped in yellowing, crusty gauze. All we could see were his toes and they were horribly bruised, purpled and distended.

He opened one bleary eye as we stared at him.

"Kill me NOWWWW!" he croaked. The morphine had worn off an hour earlier.

Poor BB. He really was in excruciating pain. He couldn't sit or get up or walk or crawl without help. Together, Mom and I managed to get him into the bathroom so he could sponge off and change the bandages he'd been wrapped in at the hospital (he would end up needing new bandages three or four times a day).

While Mom got BB situated, I tried to make myself useful by cleaning up the kitchen, which seemed to be nothing so much as an exhibit on the subject of How Dirty Can Dishes Really Get? At work, my brother didn't have to worry about dirty dishes. When he sullied a pot or pan or plate, he just dumped it on the poor bastard who had to spend his working days up to his elbows in soap and slops, washing the stuff. Since one of my most recent jobs had been as a dish-jockey in a college dining hall, I had some experience with this sort of thing. And I had better get used to it. If I was going to be living with my brother for a month, I was going to be chief cook and bottle washer and without either of us working, we sure as hell wouldn't have the money to order takeout.

I rolled up my sleeves and got busy. First, I cleared the sink and counter of existing crockery. And ants. Once that was done, I began picking up glasses and plates and cutlery from odd corners of the house. There were plates and a bowl on the floor where my brother had collapsed. From the bathroom, my mother handed out a stack of cups and saucers, which she had found on the toilet tank. It was like a horrid little scavenger hunt.

I went into the front room of the apartment, which had a large bay window in it. I parted the dusty curtains and saw that, even with the bug streaks and the large cracks in the glass, the window commanded an impressive view of the street below and the small square of parkland beyond it. The room was dark and cool and furnished with an assortment of thrift-store cast-offs. As I collected dirty dishes from rickety, cigarette-burned end tables, I suddenly stopped. I had the strangest feeling someone was watching me. It was an old house, and I had grown accustomed to the sensation living in our old, slightly haunted house in New Jersey. But this was different somehow. Or maybe I was just tired from driving all night with my mom.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark form sitting in a lumpy old arm chair, partially hidden by the door that opened to this room.

Stifling a whimper, I yanked the curtain open behind me and dusty light shone in, revealing a man dressed in combat boots and camouflage fatigues, sitting cross-legged behind the door. In one black-gloved hand draped across the arm-rest, he held a glittering, Rambo-style hunting knife. He was wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap.

And a gorilla mask. An enormous, matted, hairy rubber gorilla mask.

I screamed so loud that the cracks in the window behind me elongated by about five more squeaking inches.

"What in the name of God--?" my mother cried from the next room. She was just emerging from the bathroom with my brother in tow.

BB, the big turd, was chuckling weakly.

"I think MM just met my roommate Bobo," he said...

Thursday, September 21, 2006


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #11: Greens Guardian, Final Hole

They say young people think that they'll never die (which explains why they end up getting themselves killed doing stupid things). Not me.

I wouldn't exactly call myself a fatalist, but I was more than capable of imagining my death in all sorts of ways, both heroic and stupid (usually stupid). No doubt this was inherited from my mother who, despite being generally unflappable in any crisis, has made a lifelong hobby of envisioning untimely deaths on anyone close to her in just about any circumstance, from drowning in a glass of water (hey, if it was a big enough glass, or you had a small enough head...) to being suffocated in our own refrigerator (which never made sense to me because my entire life, we never had a fridge that had those impregnable latches such as my parents' generation grew up with. And anyway, our icebox was packed to overflowing with food. There was no room for my blue corpse in there).

As for me, I had less mundane visions of death, and as a child I spent many a wakeful night thinking about my options:

--Driving over a bridge just as it collapsed into the water, leaving me to gasp my last up near the ceiling of our old Volkswagen. My last vision on this earth would be of that strange, slightly sagging, pinholed ceiling cover.

--Falling off a ledge in the hills near the house and impaling myself through the back (or worse!) on the very sharp top of an evergreen tree, where I'd hang, flailing slowly to death like one of those wooden dancing clog dolls.

--Being buried alive. In any way, shape, or form. Including: being mistaken for dead and buried in a coffin and everything, even though I was just asleep (my uncle, during his stint as the town grave digger, had told me such a thing was common. He neglected to mention it was common only in the previous century and I didn't know much about embalming when I was little) Dropped into the drying cement of a concrete building or bridge abutment. Sucked underground by quicksand.

That last one was just the worst, especially the quicksand option. I had seen it almost happen to Jeff or Timmy on an episode of Lassie. The idea of being just pulled into the dirt and getting mud in your mouth and up your nose still makes me shudder.

So you can imagine that I might get a little panicky to find myself in an almost identical predicament out there on the World's Biggest Compost Pile, as I felt a shoe get pulled off me with surprising suction and then found myself being slowly swallowed up above my knees in a hot, fetid, nauseating pile of decomposing grass.

I didn't scream. I was 20 years old! Little boys screamed. I was a big boy. So I swore really loud.


Next to me, Mike had just reached the hidden booby trap of dead wood and he sank up to his ankles too. He shrieked like a little boy and leaped backwards, falling on his ass and crawling back to the cart. I think he started crying, "What do I do? What do I do?" to no one in particular. I say "I think" because I wasn't really paying attention. My legs felt like they were being burned. When I was a kid, I had such bad athlete's foot, I scratched both feet until they were absolutely dripping with blood and flesh fells from them in tiny squiggles. I didn't think they could hurt any worse. Until my Dad, in a drunken moment, poured half a bottle of vodka on my feet, saying, "If it stings, you need it!"

The boiling-hot grass wasn't burning me quite as much. But it was close.

I belly-flopped onto the grass in front of me and slowly windmilled my hands, trying to get traction enough to pull myself out of the hole I was in. My other shoe went and then my socks. My jeans, soaked through by hot water, seemed ready to go next, but then I got my knees up over the depression and suddenly I was out.

Mike had the right idea crawling, I decided. So I crawled the rest of the way over to the stricken Jason. I sat next to him and tried to catch my breath. Like him, I was wheezing too, but not nearly as much as he was. I wondered if he had perhaps aspirated a little smidge of vom (yet another scenario of death my mother imagined, whenever I was sick). Without thinking, I pulled out my rescue inhaler, something I rarely used but kept handy because I never knew when something at the club would trigger my allergies and leave me feeling a little short of breath. I took a couple of quick puffs, which solved the breathing, but did nothing to stop my eyes from itching (or my legs from burning). Jason looked at me.

"You have asthma?" I asked.

He shook his head. He either didn't have it, didn't know if he did, or didn't understand me. He looked awful. His eyes were swelled almost shut and he had a long, nasty rope of spittle hanging from his mouth. Yum. He had welts on his face, too, and that really worried me. Up until now, I had assumed that he, like me, was just reacting to the allergens in the grass. But I had seen a kid in the hospital after having an allergic reaction to getting stung by a bee. Jason looked like that kid, swollen eyes, welts and all.

Somehow, I got Jason to stand up, but I was nervous about heading back the way we had come. If we both went in the hole, I didn't know what I'd do (oh yes I did. He'd fall on top of me and it would be a race to see what suffocated me first: him or the grass. But hey, at least I'd die a heroic death. Or a stupid one).

But before I could wonder too much about this, we heard a voice say:

"Over this way, fellas!"

Through bleary, watering eyes, I could just make out a short, stocky man, waving something at us (golf club, probably. Duh.) As we edged towards him, away from my gas-powered utility cart, I could hear him saying, "Friend had a ball roll in here and he went in this way. Grass is older and more tramped down." I guess he was talking to Mike (who had stopped yelling in his panicky way), although he might have been talking to me. In any case, he was dead right: all the grass in the back was old and well-packed and nothing like the hideous springy, wet Loam of Doom we'd been on. In a moment, we were on solid ground again. The old gent looked at Jason, then walked around the gully to our cart. We seemed to be upwind of the smell now, and my vision was a lot better. But something about this old man was quietly setting off alarm bells, and it took me a moment to realize what it was.

For one thing, it was blazing hot out on the course, and almost no one was playing that day. This guy appeared to be well over 70--maybe even over 80--and he was out here in what appeared to be heavy clothing--

Then I realized what it was that really bothered me.

The guy was wearing old-fashioned golfing clothes. His pants were especially dated--a pair of plaid plus-fours or knickers as they are sometimes called (though that makes me think of the British term for underwear). In fact, he looked like he'd stepped whole and breathing from some of the old black-and-white photos they had back in the clubhouse, of golfers playing the game back in the 20s.

Jesus, was I having an October Moment, right there at the 9th hole?

But then he came back and I saw that he had a club golf towel in his pocket, which he had taken out and was now soaking with water from one of the bottles we kept in the utility cart (but where was this guy's cart and clubs? Surely he hadn't walked this far out on the course). He handed it to Jason, who wiped his eyes furiously with it. I got pretty focused with getting him into the cart and keeping him from clawing his eyeballs out. When I looked up, the old fellow who had helped us was gone.

The whole encounter didn't freak me out til later that night. In the moment, I was a little preoccupied. We drove back to the barn that served as the office for the grounds crew. Jason still sounded and looked awful. Despite my memory of the drool, I had been tempted to offer him my inhaler, but I didn't want to screw things up even more.

We had a couple of hours till quitting that day and Whitey, who surely didn't want the hassle of dealing with a sick or injured employee, wondered if Jason could drive himself to the hospital up in town. But Jason didn't have a car. Neither did Mike. Whitey, with his broken leg, was being driven to work every day by one of his kids. I had been driving my dad's old Ford Galaxie for most of the summer, but in a moment of hellish coincidence, I didn't have a car that week either. Several key pieces--the manifold, for example, and some sparky thing that allowed the car to start--had gone bad or fallen off the previous week so I had to wait until my Big Brother picked me up before starting his night job up at the college where he was a security guard.

With the rest of the crew out in the field and with Whitey highly resistant to calling an ambulance (yet more hassle!), we ended up piling Jason into--you guessed it, sports fans!--the gas-powered golf cart and riding that damn thing on the gravel shoulder of the road, all the way up the hill to the hospital. After Whitey made us punch out first, the prick.

Much later--a few years after that job, in fact--I learned that we probably should have called an ambulance. I had been right but for the wrong reasons when I guessed at what was bothering the young man. He was having an allergic reaction all right, not to an insect sting, but to some particularly toxic form of mold that was in the grass and which Jason had apparently stirred up while he was looking for the missing flags from the first hole. I'm allergic to mold, too, and I certainly felt bad from my own exposure. When I got home that night, I drank half a bottle of Benadryl before I felt halfway better. But I was the lucky one. Jason had respiratory problems for years afterward. My mom has since theorized that my recent bouts with bronchitis and deadly pneumonia may be tied to the same thing, but as I've said, she rarely misses an opportunity to predict my demise.

When I finally found out what was wrong with Jason, I told this story to an allergist and he confirmed that some people can go into anaphylactic shock and die from a severe allergic reaction to almost anything, but especially molds. He reckons if Jason had been alone or stayed longer out there in the grass-filled gully of doom, he might have died.

But at the time, it was just one of those things. We dropped Jason off at the hospital. We stayed til his parents came (I was braced for them to yell at me, like worried parents always did on TV when their children were in the hospital, but they barely seemed to notice me, just asked where he was). Once they arrived, we drove back to work and finished out the day. Some time the next week, Whitey told me Jason was fine, but he wasn't coming back to work, and that was that. I never thought to call Jason up or wonder what had really been wrong with him (had not even thought to ask Whitey about Jason until the middle of the week, so how's that for giving a shit?). I was 20 and at the peak of my selfcenteredness (hard to believe, huh?). Today, you know, I'd probably be writing a story about him. But back then it was just something that happened at work. You punched out and got on with your life.

Which included removing your clothes and putting them in the back of your brother's truck when he came to pick you up and complained about how much you reeked (actually, his exact words were, "Jesus, you smell like piss and old salad!") and then riding back to the house in your underwear, or knickers, as the British prefer (boxers, by the way. Someone asked).

Meanwhile, your brother didn't take the highway home, oh no.

He drove straight through town.

Stopping at every crosswalk and yellow light, waving and calling to friends and passersby, lingering long enough for them to poke their head in the cab and pass the time of day.

"How you fellas doin?"

"Oh, good. Hot weather, ain't it?"

"Oh, tain't the heat so much as the humdidy."


"Say, BB, whyn't your brutha wearin' naught but his scivvies?"

Then, when you got home and your mother wondered what the hell was wrong with your clothes, you told her only that you fell in some grass--not that you almost got suffocated in a fetid, sweltering, hellish swamp of grassy putrefaction.

I have since been told by those who golf that no matter how many people you play with, success at golf is dependent on looking at it as a solitary act. If you want to do well, you have to narrow your focus until you've blanked out everyone around you. Until it's just you and your hole.

Yeah, that about summed me up back then. I was at a point where life felt like a series of holes, only I wasn't so much putting balls in them as trying to get out of them. But whether it was a hole dug by lack of money or worry about what I'd do when I got out of school next year, or in the case of that day, an actual, physical hole, I did my best to narrow my focus, to drown everything else out. Until it was just me and the hole.

Guess I knew more about golf than I thought.

As for our golf ghost, I bumped into him a few days later, when I was doing some work over by the first tee and saw him come out of one of the houses in the development nearby. I knew who he was by now, only because I had asked Whitey--in the most casual, I'm-really-not-crazy sort of way--that I had seen a funny old man in old golfing togs and he just chuckled and said that I had met Gene Sarazen, the club's star summer resident. He told me a little bit about him--his early victories, his double eagle whatever at the Masters in 1935, his invention of the sand wedge--but I knew next to nothing about golf and it didn't make much of an impact on me.

I've since told this story to golfers and they are more incredulous about this meeting than about other incredible meetings I've told here. One guy--by his own admission a bit of a golf fanatic--put it into perspective for me. "It's like saying you spent the summer mowing the outfield at a baseball field and bumped into some old guy everyone kept calling 'Mister DiMaggio!'" Of course, my friend assumed I was just dismissive of the old fellow, when in fact I wasn't. I was raised better than that and called senior citizens "sir" and "ma'am" and certainly never referred to them as geezers until their back was turned.

I dug out the golf towel from the back of the cart--I had taken it home and washed it along with the rest of my clothes--and brought it over. We shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries ("Hot weather, isn't it?" "Oh, not the heat so much as the humidity.") and I thanked him nicely for the towel. He ushered me around to the front of his house and I dutifully followed. There in the driveway were some fairly large suitcases sitting next to an even larger luxury sedan. He asked me to help him wedge them into the trunk and while I did that, he asked after Jason and that was pretty much the extent of our talk.

I'd love to tell you golf-history buffs out there that I pumped him for choice anecdotes about playing against Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen, but I didn't. Truth is, I got preoccupied with something else. For no sooner had I said my preliminary goodbyes than I turned around and walked straight into a small metal pole on the edge of the driveway.

It was a flagpole. With a flag on top. With a #1 on the flag.

An identical twin to this flag was flanking the other side of the driveway.

I have no idea where the third flag was, but I bet you anything it was in his garage. I might have even worked up the nerve to ask, if the Gene Sarazen himself hadn't just gone back into the house and left me alone in his driveway with the flags.

Now, I'm not saying he took the flags. But I could easily see one of his admirers--a fellow player, one of the guys in the pro shop, or even the club's owner himself--planting them there. Not only would it be a token of admiration to the man, it probably kept the old fellow from rolling onto his lawn or over the curb when he backed out of the driveway.

I could also see any one of those people--even the owner, his own brother-in-law--forgetting to mention it to Whitey, who drove himself nuts the rest of that summer, wondering where those other "stolen" flags had got to.

It occurred to me to tell Whitey. But that would have been a lot of hassle, you know? Anyway, he had his holes to play. And I had mine.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #11: Greens Guardian, Second Hole

"So, do you play?"

I was looking out the window of the basement office of the manager of the country club near my house. The main building, which housed the restaurant and a modest hotel, had once been a Colonial era farmhouse, and despite all the extensions and tasteful additions, the remodelers had run short on space. Thus the manager of the club and grounds had his office in the dank basement. His window looked out between two overgrown hedges. From this vantage, I could see the scraggly bottoms of the hedges, as well as a really big hornet's nest depending from one branch. And, naturally, a couple of lost golf balls, which had evidently rolled over from the putting green long ago.

I looked back at the manager, Wally. His face was droopy and lined, every wrinkle etched deep in skin. He puffed away on a Camel cigarette, although he had one other in the ashtray on his desk, forgotten and slowly burning its way to the filter.

"Do I play golf?" I repeated. "No. Never have. I'm pretty good at pool, though." This made Wally laugh in a great, braying puff of smoke. I thought to explain that when I was a kid I believed golf was just a variation on pool, only outdoors and bigger, you know, more spread out. But even at the tender age of 19 going on 20, I had come to learn a valuable lesson about myself, which was that I talked too much when I was nervous, and I was still young enough to be nervous in any kind of job interview. Even this one.

To be honest, I had no particular interest in working at a golf course and country club. I just needed a job, and badly. I had spent every last cent of my savings--and all of the savings bonds I had amassed from relatives since birth--to afford a few months of living and travel expenses in London. But now that I was home, I was heading into my senior year of college with no money whatsoever. I had a few scholarships, but even with that and the increasingly large student loans I was taking, I still had to pay several thousand dollars a year to afford room and board and books and beer. My parents had always helped out when they could, but ever since my dad had finally quit drinking a couple of years earlier, he had made a decision to move back to New Hampshire full-time and that meant taking on construction work that was sporadic at best. He and my mom had just enough money to pay their own bills. To top it off, my brother had just moved back to New Hampshire and he was constantly sponging loans off of them in order to make the rent on his own apartment (eventually, they would all find it cheaper if he just moved back home, and that's what he did about a year later. He remains there to this day).

So I needed a job, and one that paid well. For an unskilled undergraduate like myself, that meant an internship was out of the question, although that's what most of my friends were doing that summer. The problem was, most professional journalism internships were unpaid or paid in partial credit, which just meant that companies could pay you less than minimum wage ($3.35 an hour back then). I couldn't afford that. I needed a job that paid at least $4.50 an hour, and that offered overtime. The bank I had worked at the previous summer was paying five bucks an hour, but by the time I arrived in New Hampshire that May, all the summer teller slots had been filled, a fact I didn't learn until I showed up at the bank one morning a week or so before my birthday and saw my old manager. She felt bad for having to turn me down (and later, after I got out of college and found myself unable to secure employment in my chosen field, she would rehire me), and so by way of throwing me a bone, she mentioned that she heard the country club on the edge of town was hiring wait staff and groundskeepers. If there was a place in town that had more money than the bank, it was that country club. I had known a couple of guys who had caddied there in previous summers, and they made a small fortune on tips alone.

As I drove straight from the bank to the club, I realized that I probably wouldn't be qualified for a caddy job. I didn't know a nine-iron from a steam iron. Like a lot of working class folks, I bought into the stereotype that golf was a game for the rich. And it certainly was expensive. The one time I had accompanied some college friends on a golf outing, I was amazed at how much everything cost, from greens fees to cart rental. My friends had their own clubs, but I sure didn't, so I had to rent a set from the pro shop. Unfortunately, I was left-handed and the shop only had right-handed clubs for rent. By day's end, I had a terrible sunburn and a crick in my back and neck from swinging clubs wrong-handed and my wallet was about 10 pounds lighter, all for an experience that was unsatisfying in the extreme.

Luckily for me, Wally didn't care about my lack of golf knowledge. In fact, he considered it an asset.

"Well, good!" he puffed at me. "I have too many caddies as it is. And the whole grounds crew is made up of high schoolers from the golf team. Whitey can't leave em alone for a minute because they're always sneaking off to the putting green or the driving range, when they should be mowing or raking or trimming the goddamn hedges outside my window."

"Whitey's the head groundskeeper?" I asked.

Wally nodded. "He's the brother-in-law of the owner and his office is in the barn on the other side of the course. I'll show you where the service road is so you can go meet him. He needs some help and that's for sure. Last week, one of the kids on the crew ran him over with a golf cart. Broke his leg in five places so he's going to be in the office for the rest of the summer. What he needs is an assistant to run the crew and make sure they do what they're supposed to. You have any management experience?"

"Sure," I lied, and then talked about my time as a security guard, which was about the most responsible sounding job I had on my paltry resume up to that point. I followed that up by talking about last summer's work at the bank--handling money without losing any is always responsible-sounding, and it didn't hurt that the owner of the bank, an old family friend, was also a member of the country club. Then, to demonstrate my ability to do hard work, I shared the fact that I had spent several summers hauling trash and doing general construction and landscaping work for my uncle. Wally sat up when I mentioned his name.

"You're David's nephew?" he asked. My uncle knew even less about golf than I did and had never set foot in the club, but he was a local legend nonetheless. "Well," Wally said, gazing at me with new eyes. "I guess if you could ride shotgun with David for five summers, you can handle anything these kids can dish out."

And just like that, I was hired. The job paid five dollars an hour and time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 hours. Even better, the work day was from 6 to 2, so I'd be working outdoors in the coolest part of the day, a lucky stroke for me. That summer had been particularly hot and humid so by 11 it was getting up into the 80s and 90s, not the best working conditions, especially out on the course where there tended not to be a lot of shade.

"Great," I said. "Guess that means I can look for a second job in the evenings, unless you have something else here I could do." I had been thinking about waiting tables, but Wally had another surprise in store for me.

"If you want more work, son, I'm going to send you upstairs to Nicole," he said. Nicole, as it turned out, was the manager of the hotel. There were only five or six rooms, but the club did a brisk business with them, and Nicole was plenty busy running the reservation desk and serving as the receptionist for both the pro shop and the restaurant. Her mother had just come home to live with her and her husband, though, and she needed to reduce her schedule. Which meant that four days a week, from three til eight, the club needed another receptionist. It made for some seriously long days, but the club had a brand-new central air system, which was absolutely delicious after a morning of working out in the sun. Better yet, the extra work meant I was working close to 70 hours on a five-day work week, which translated into a payday of about $400 a week, a princely sum for me at that age.

But I surely earned my wages. Not that the actual work was terribly grueling. As Whitey's assistant, I had access to all the power tools in the barn (which served as the garage, equipment shed, and office for the grounds crew), as well as the gas-powered utility cart that Whitey used to make his rounds. This made any labor fairly easy. If there was mowing or brush-clearing to be done, it was simplicity itself to load a mower or a chain saw or clipper into the bed of the cart and drive off to some distant corner of the golf course.

The real challenge, as it turned out, was riding herd on those damn kids.

My crew consisted of about a half-dozen boys and one girl, all from the local high school, all around 17 years old. I was only a couple of years older than they were, but it sure didn't seem like it. Except for the girl--who was quiet and diligent and spent most of her time in the barn, organizing files for Whitey--they were a pretty irresponsible bunch and Wally wasn't exaggerating: it seemed most of them did take the job so they could play golf on the sly. Over the summer I ended up retrieving each of them at least once--usually multiple times--from the driving range or some other area of the course. I got pretty annoyed with it after a while, but Whitey, the head groundskeeper, made it clear there was nothing to be done about it. All of the kids' parents belonged to the club. Some even lived in the development that abutted the property. Whitey didn't want the hassle of firing a kid or even docking his pay and then having to listen to his mom or dad come down to the barn and give him an earful. Whitey was allergic to hassle, I would come to find out. Even without the good excuse of his leg in a cast, Whitey spent most of his working days on the sagging sofa in his office, up close to the air conditioner, reading Zane Grey novels and occasionally bestirring himself to sign off on the payroll.

Whitey's no-hassle approach to life extended to his care of the grounds too. While the fairway and green of each hole was generally well-tended, everything else went to pot. It explained why the hedges were trimmed so seldom and the pools were scrubbed only once a season or so. Whitey was also not the most forward-thinking of fellows when it came to disposing of trash. It cost a lot of money to empty the Dumpster behind the club and would have cost more to haul all the grass and course debris away, so instead all the dead branches and grass clippings and leaves ended up in one of several "landfills" on the edges of the property. The biggest one was a fairly large gully--as near as I could tell it had started as a stream of run-off water from the nearby mountain, and the water had eroded a 20-foot ditch not far from the 9th hole. Several times a day, I or one of the kids on the crew would take a load of brush or grass over and tip it into the gully. Whitey had been doing this for 10 or so years and the gully was pretty near full. At some point, it was going to be graded over and would eventually become part of Phase 2 of the housing development. But at that time, it was mostly a big, steamy, swampy mess. Early in the mornings, when the air was still cool and brisk, you could see waves of heat and great plumes of thick steam rising from the gully, as though there was an active volcano under there. In fact, between the water that still ran at the bottom of the gully, and the pockets of air that would seep into the enormous pile of debris (the branches and deadwood often formed those pockets), the place was one giant compost heap, albeit a compost heap with way too much grass. Some days, especially after a good soaking rain, you could smell the strong odor of decaying grass all across the back half of the course. I didn't notice it so much because I rarely spent more than a few minutes at a time at the place, usually only long enough to dump a load and go off to the next job.

But one morning, Whitey wanted me to pass along an unusual set of instructions to the crew.

The instructions stemmed from a mysterious and aggravating circumstance over at the first hole, which I learned about not long after starting the job. "We got a prankster on the course," Whitey announced to me one morning as I punched in. He looked up from his book and eyed me. "You much for practical jokes, MM? You know anything about this?"

"About what?" I asked.

Turned out that somebody had walked off with the flag on the first hole. Three times. Whitey had just had to order yet another flag, and apparently they weren't cheap, what with the cost of the pole and the cost of the custom-made flag with the club's logo on it. Considering the money the club made off its members it didn't seem like a big deal to me, but it annoyed the club owner, Whitey's brother-in-law, and he made his annoyance clear to Whitey.

"So here's what we're going to do," Whitey said. And by "we" I knew he meant "me." "We're going to have that hole under constant surveillance. I want someone from the crew near that hole until we find the bastard who's stealing the flag."

I nodded, but of course this was one of those classic Whitey orders that sounded decisive but not terribly practical. "You mean you want one person from the crew hiding in the bushes all day?" I asked. Whitey nodded. "But surely whoever's taking the flag isn't doing it doing business hours when people are on the course," i said. Whitey nodded and allowed that every time the first-hole flag was discovered missing, it was usually first thing in the morning. "So," I said, not wanting to point out how stupid Whitey was being, but hey, if the cast fit, "so how will having someone on stakeout during the day help?"

Whitey just kept nodding. "Okay," he said. "Well, we have the crew there at night. Round the clock. We can afford to pay a little over-time."

Yeah, Whitey was that stupid. "But Whitey," I said, "no one on the crew is going to stay out all night waiting to see if someone steals a flag. Their parents will freak out."

"Okay," said Whitey. "Well, what about you? You could do it."

"If I didn't have to get up for work the next morning," I said, but what I was thinking was Jesus, you are such a frigging idiot. "I just don't know that it's very practical."

"Well, what do you suggest?" he sneered, as if I were deliberately obstructing his perfectly good plan to capture the flag thief.

"Um, couldn't the crew just bring the flags in from the course every night and set them back out in the morning? It'll take a little extra time to do it, but that's cheaper than paying overtime for them to sit out all night," I said. Never mind that the club would be liable if any of the kids got hurt while they were out on the course in the middle of the night. And never mind that Whitey's vague plan had "DUH!" written all over it from start to finish.

That didn't stop Whitey from scoffing at my plan--after all, it was only the first-hole flag that was getting stolen; he didn't see the need to have the crew go around gathering and setting out the other 17 flags each day. I mean, that would have been just dumb. In the end, he simply ordered another flag and instructed me to keep "an extra eye out" (sure, Whitey, got that third eye right here in my forehead) for anyone suspicious around the first hole.

Of course, nothing suspicious happened for the two weeks it took for the fourth replacement flag to come in, but while we were waiting, Whitey became increasingly obsessed with finding the missing flags or the person who had taken them. Every time one of the crew came back from some job or other, he'd ask if we'd checked around in this sand trap or that culvert for any sign of the missing flags. I don't know what made him think the thief had stashed the flags on the property. Maybe he suspected one of us was behind the thefts and this was his way of demonstrating that he was nobody's fool, that even though he'd been stupid enough to step in front of a golf cart and spend the summer in a leg cast, he still had the mind of a master detective and he was going to get to the bottom of this mystery.

And it was this obsession that led to the incident at the gully.

It happened just after lunch one Thursday. I was over at the hotel pool, extracting a dead frog from one of the skimmers (always fun) when one of the kids on the grounds crew came tearing across the fairway in the motorized cart. Turf was flying as he careened in front of a quartet of old guys in plaid, who all jumped and shouted and waved clubs at him. The kid--Mike was his name, I think--wasn't much of a driver and the cart was an old model with a stick-shift, which he spent a lot of time fiddling with, so much so, I thought he was going to plow through the hedge that surrounded the pool and drive the cart straight into the water. But at the last minute, he got it in neutral and yanked on the emergency brake, skidding to a stop on the gravel walk in front of the hotel.

"What the hell--?" I asked, waggling the dead frog at him.

"Jason's sick or something," he said, panting. "He's barfing all over and acting funny."

Oh boy, barf, I thought. Let's put the pedal to the metal. But I flipped the frog into the back of the cart and climbed in.

As we drove to the service track between holes, Mike filled me in. After lunch, Whitey had sent Jason and him to the gully. He had become convinced somehow that the flag thief had tossed his stolen treasure into the gully, where it had been thoughtlessly covered up by the grounds crew. So he sent the two boys out with pitchforks and rakes to start poking around the vast grassy expanse of the gully, hoping to hit something metal under all that debris.

"You ever walked out there on that shit?" Mike asked me. I shook my head. As I mentioned before, I had never spent more than five minutes at a time out at the gully. I had certainly never walked out into the stuff. It struck me as looking extremely unstable, like a great green squishy mattress.

"Well, Jason and I were out in it, digging up all that grass. It smells awful. And it's really HOT out there. I went over to the cart to get a drink and that's when he started puking and stuff and said he was too dizzy to walk. I came to get you."

I nodded, understanding why. Jason was a big kid, built like a football player. He was way too big for a skinny kid like Mike to pick up by himself. And we had been warned many times not to drive the cart out into the debris field. Its weight would cause it to sink as surely as if it were in quicksand, so picking Jason up in the cart was out of the question.

We got to the gully in a few minutes and I honestly didn't know what to expect. Jason was like the rest of the kids--a bit of a goldbrick, and no small amount of lazy. If he decided it was too hot to work, he'd go sit himself under a shade tree and have a nap. More than a few times he had shown up for work hung over and I could well imagine him barfing up a few gallons of Ripple after being asked to do some work in the sun.

Then I stepped out of the cart and got a good look at Jason. He was sitting on his butt in the middle of the compost field, about a hundred or feet from me. His head was hung between his legs and he was making awful noises. Mostly, it was dry-heaving, but there was another sound he made that worried me instantly. As he drew a ragged breath, from all the way over on my side of the gully I could hear a distinctive whistle when he inhaled. He sounded like a guy having an asthma attack.

"Come on," I said to Mike, and together we started across the grass towards him. About five steps in, I smelled that strong ammonia smell of decay that would come to be burned in my memory. All around me, I saw that the guys had turned over great heaps of grass in their dumb-ass search for the missing flags. In doing that, they had released massive amounts of heat and gas from just below the surface. The air seemed to swim with dust and debris and I found myself inhaling no small amount of grass and mold spores and ammonia. In addition to being allergic to mold and grass, I have a touch of asthma myself and almost instantly felt my eyes water and my throat constrict. In fact, I was starting to feel dizzy and nauseous too. It began to dawn on me that Jason wasn't hung over at all.

Then, about 10 steps away from the stricken teen, I heard the faint crackle of dead wood somewhere below me. In less time than it takes me to tell about it, the grass under my feet gave way and I sank up to my calves in hot, wet, putrid grass.

I tried to pull one leg free, felt my old sneaker get sucked from my foot, and now I was up to my knees in the quick-grass.

And still sinking...


Monday, September 18, 2006


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #11: Greens Guardian

(To refresh your memory about other jobs on my resume, go here.)

For years I've heard how effective smells can be at triggering memories, but I'd never really experienced it myself until last week.

It was trash day, and one of the extra duties of trash day in the summer is that I have to haul bags of lawn clippings to the curb for recycling. I get that recycling is good and all, but there is some part of me--a really large part of me, if you want to know the truth--that finds the whole enterprise useless and alien. So much of my acclimation to life as a domesticated suburban homeowner has been marked by this kind of culture shock. Her Lovely Self doesn't have this problem. She grew up in the endless sprawl of upper-middle-class domestic developments and knows well the lilt and language of local ordinances and homeowner covenants that dictate such things as, oh, when and how to install garden sheds (apparently, you cannot simply use the old siding you've just stripped off your house, nor those pieces of corrugated sheet metal you found on the highway); the rules covering height of fences, shrubs and, yes, even grass (in short: nothing over 5 feet); the legally established timetables for operating power equipment (9 to 5, unless you work for the county, in which case you can operate a backhoe to dig up the street in front of my bedroom window at the crack of fucking dawn); and the procedures for disposing of recyclable materials, including aluminum, glass and paper, of course, but also cardboard, plastic, and yard debris, assuming the debris is cut into prescribed sizes.

Thus it is that I own a lawn mower with more blade settings than a food processor and every week in the summer, I set the blade to process my lawn into the detachable bag, which I am forced to empty at intervals into other taller, flimsier paper bags. In the past, I was in the habit of mowing the night before trash day and thus could simply position my bags curbside and pour my lawn waste into them for collection the next morning (although strictly speaking, this is a violation of local law, as I am not supposed to curb any items more than 8 hours before official pick-up time, but fuck 'em).

Lately, though, my schedule has been off and I find myself mowing on odd days. Which is a problem, because if I let the grass sit around in those paper bags for more than a day or two, the clippings seem to triple their weight and then it's like hauling a corpse to the curb. Actually, hauling a corpse would be theoretically easier, since I assume I'd have the presence of mind to place it in something durable--a couple of Hefty bags, say, or a blood-stained carpet. But once those clippings start shedding moisture--as they always do--the damn paper bags get soaked through and then I might as well be hauling the grass in a couple of wads of Kleenex. Inevitably, the bag breaks and suddenly I'm caked in wet, slimy bits of sickly green vegetation, hacking and sneezing because among my many health concerns I am, predictably enough, allergic to all forms of grass.

Last week, I was the victim of my own bad timing. Not only did I mow the lawn almost a full week before pick-up, but I did so within hours of the onset of a serious amount of rain, almost three days' worth. I was pretty busy at work, so I didn't really think about the grass, until Thursday morning rolled around and I remembered the three bags I had stood under the eaves in the back yard.

What I found when I went in the back looked more like three giant brown mushrooms than county-approved, biodegradable lawn and leaf bags. Normally, that side of the house is protected from the elements, be we had got a good, soaking rain with lots of driving wind, thus ensuring that every side of the house--and anything immediately next to it--was wet through.

No, it hadn't occurred to me to throw a tarp over the things, and of course storing them in the garage was out of the question. Her Lovely Self is a gardener, after all, and she instructed me on the science of grass clippings, their high nitrogen content (which makes it useful as an ingredient in compost, but a little goes a long way), and the potential of our bags of grass to not only flood the house with ammonia (a byproduct of grass decomposition) but also to quite possibly burn the place down, since matted grass generates heat like nobody's business.

I knew this, by the way, but I couldn't begin to tell you how I came by the information. I certainly didn't learn this growing up at my house. There, our old mower had just one setting--Spew--and we never bagged our clippings. It was just part of the yard, and collecting the debris would have been as crazy as shoveling up 50 pounds of dirt and putting it by the curb for the hell of it. So how did I know about grass clippings? Well it would have been a mystery for rest of my days, if I hadn't laid hold of those soggy bags last week.

To my credit, I tried to be gentle. I grasped those big, wet, warm bags as gingerly as if I was palpating a giant's scrotum. But it didn't matter. The moment I lifted the first bag from the ground, the whole thing disintegrated and as it did, I was overwhelmed by a hot, moist, putrid smell. It was a complex aroma, that's for sure. First, there was the too-heavy, too-sharp whiff of ammonia, cascading over me like a physical thing, like a stream of dinosaur urine. My eyes--and every orifice in my body--squeezed shut involuntarily. Then the horrible, loamy, fungal smell of moldy decay hit as the grass fell in clinging, burning glops at my feet. If the old EC horror comics of the 50s could have distilled the odor of the crypt onto its pages, this is what it would have smelled like. I've smelled bad, dead things before, but this was so awful it was like a caricature of a bad, dead smell. It brought to mind the image of stacked wheels of blue-veined cheese, sitting in a greenhouse, putrefying. I imagined sick cows vomiting up half-digested grass. From all four stomachs. All over my shoes.

And then, just before I started heaving myself, I had a perfect, clear image of a hot, humid summer day in 1987, half my life ago. The memory was so vivid it felt like what I imagined time travel would be like. I mean, I was practically there, man. I was wearing my old acid-wash jeans and my sleeveless t-shirt and my hi-top sneakers with the holes in them because I had no money to buy new ones.

I remembered it all: the summer job at the country club, the unexpected task of being appointed supervisor of the grounds crew (my first management experience), my surprise encounter with a golf legend, a brief reprise as a boy detective when my crew and I had to solve the Mystery of the Missing Flags, and that weird, awful gully of doom, where I first smelled that horrible, hot, damp, deathlike smell.

And where I saved someone's life, even though no one--not even I--realized it at the time...


Wednesday, September 13, 2006


In Which You May Be Sorry You Asked...

Wow, what a bunch of great questions! And--woo-hoo!--instant blog topics for me. Why didn't I think of this sooner?

I'll tell you why: a good journalist needs just one quality and that's curiosity. But no one said anything about being the object of curiosity. It's odd, you know? Like being on the other side of the mirror.

But I asked for it, didn't I? And I need to write something for you tonight, as I'll be out of commission for the rest of the week. Turns out I'm going to be sequestered at a magazine brainstorming, the first we've had in a long while. I love brainstorming and miss it awful, so going to this will feel a bit like, I don't know, going on a school field trip. A school field trip where I have to journey into the city and find the private club to which the magazine has a membership, and where we'll be using one of the club's conference rooms. Which all sounds very swish, until you realize I'll be trapped in a room for 6-10 hours for the next few days, elbow to sweaty elbow with my fellow department heads and my bosses, all of whom will be expecting me to perform, to invent beautiful, compelling, National Magazine Award-winning story ideas at the drop of a hat. And I'll be wearing a jacket and tie the whole time (club rules). On the other hand, there'll be free lunch, and the men's room uses the better kind of ammonia puck in the urinals, so there's that.

Meanwhile, a few answers are forthcoming and, oh, here they are now. I've taken questions in no particular order, by the way. Which means if I skipped yours, I probably only skipped it today, and fully intend to come back to it. Some time.

Scruffy? What the--?

Oh, it's just stupid. Remember last winter when I decided to grow a beard? Well, you may recall that during that post I shared an embarrassing experience from high school, in which one of the priests (I went to Catholic high school. Four year of, well, sitting elbow to sweaty elbow with my fellow sufferers, while wearing a jacket and tie the whole time, now that I think of it) didn't believe that I had shaved before school. It was a requirement of the male students to be clean-shaven--just like Jesus--and he was sure I was lax, so I had to bring my razor to school and shave in front of him during homeroom so that he could check my stubble that afternoon and see for himself that my beard grew at the rate of a hirsute 30-year-old. The dink.

Anyway, a girl in my class named Gina--yes that Gina--loved to tease me about this incident and saddled me with the nickname Scruffy, a nickname only she used, by the way. I'm just one of those guys to whom nicknames do not stick. I don't know why, but it's always been that way. People have tried to use diminutives of my name, but only a very few--and usually only family members or very close friends--ever actually manage it. Most people end up using my whole long-ass first name. Sometimes they even use my whole name--first and last--when addressing me. It's very odd.

Aren't you sorry you asked?

Whassup with that secret ID, man?

Several of you asked about this, but in lots of different ways. Probably the best way to come at this is by answering Stu's question:

No, having a secret identity is NOT as much fun as you think. It's actually an awful lot of work. So why keep it up? Well, for one thing, the 20 or so people who have thus far uncovered it on their own would kill me if I told the rest of you (and since they now know who I am and where I live, they'd be in a pretty good position to do so, wouldn't you say?). It may not be all fun and games, but I will say this: It is occasionally very useful to be someone else. If you don't believe me, you haven't tried it yourself (and I heartily urge you to do so in the near-future). I wish I could give you a better answer, but that's pretty much the guts of it.

How didja get there?

Not surprisingly, there were lots of questions about my writing life, many of which I will answer in greater detail as the year progresses and I revive my Resume series to tell you all about the early days of my life as a Magazine Man. But Thimbelle phrased her query in a way I couldn't ignore: How do I know I'm a writer?

I know because I did something that's very hard for some people to do, especially people who are just out of the gate and think they might be bound for a life in letters: I made up my mind to stop being a WRITER.

Right. Confusing. I know.

But see, it's two different things, being a writer and being a WRITER. For years and years and years I was a WRITER (say it with a dramatic, deep, operatic voice, and maybe with an exclamation on the end), and I was insufferable. Not very good at it either.

My life as a WRITER went like this: I'd get an assignment, or come up with an idea, then I'd go to research it, and find myself turning on the WRITER when I got there. Or if I was in a circumstance that suddenly turned interesting, I would with equal suddenness turn on the WRITER and start taking notes in my head. And my notes were all over the place: I tried to take in every detail about what the room was like, what the people were wearing, what the quality of the light was like--endless minutia that sounded awfully important in my head but, really, was not writing so much as cataloguing. To make it worse, sometimes I would jot it all down in an important-looking WRITER's notebook--usually a Moleskine--and look owlish and thoughtful and important while I did it. That way, if someone asked me what I was doing, I could tell them, owlishly, thoughtfully, importantly, "I'm WRITING."

But you know what? Most of the stuff I wrote when I was a WRITER was absolute crap. Self-impressed copy staggering under the weight of too much detail, ultimately culminating in several thousand words about nothing. I had pages and pages of subject matter, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a single idea, a single original thought in any of that verbiage.

That's because for me, the act of transforming myself into the WRITER was just that: an act. I realized--and fairly late, if you want to know the truth--that fancying that I morphed into a WRITER at certain times was nothing more than pretense, and enervating pretense at that. I spent so much time and effort becoming a WRITER, I often missed what it was I came to write about.

Real writers, I came to realize (and not without help), don't go from becoming an ordinary person into some sort of extraordinary WRITER being. You're either a writer or you're not. If you, whatever it is that makes you a writer is on all the time. And if you're not, then you're just a WRITER, six letters worth not much more than a Scrabble score.

Eventually, I reached a bit of a crisis point where I had to decide if I was a writer or just a WRITER, if writing was something I was, or if it was just another identity I adopted, as false and as gaudy as a Halloween mask.

So, with no small amount of hesitation, I made a few changes.

For starters, I stopped taking Moleskines--or most any kind of notebook--to places where I was supposed to be absorbing impressions (obviously, for things like press conferences, or any place that matters of fact were being imparted, I took notes. That's basic reporting, not writing, and it’s something entirely different). If I met a person with an unusual viewpoint or occupation or arrangement of features, the WRITER was no longer there to self-consciously--and self-importantly--record his impressions. Instead, I made a deliberate choice to interact with the person, as myself, as MM. I talked. I listened. I gave that person all the attention I used to devote to being the WRITER.

Later, after the moment was over, after I'd digested what had happened, I wrote down what I thought of the experience. Instead of trying to write it like a WRITER might, I tried to recount what happened as I, MM, saw it. The easiest, most natural way to do it--and it's a method I still employ today--was to write it in the form of a letter to a friend, someone close, someone who already knew what an odd, wonderful, brilliant guy I was, someone I didn't need to impress, someone who neither needed nor wanted any convincing that I was a WRITER. After I wrote the letter, I'd set it aside for a bit--sometimes an hour, sometimes a day. Then I'd come back to it and see if I'd actually had anything to say. Turned out I did, but it was nothing the WRITER would have ever come up with.

That's how I knew I was there. That's how I knew I was a writer. And it wasn't a choice, really. It just...was.

And now, see, a bunch of you are scratching your heads, thinking What the hell is he talking about?

But hey, you asked.

I'll answer some more when I get back. Feel free to keep the questions coming.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


In Which We Answer Three Questions...

Well, it's the third day of my third year blogging

(which is, if I do say so myself, a well-spun way of saying "I forgot to post something on the Masthead's second birthday three days ago, so I better make it look like it was intentional")

so in honor of that fact, I will answer three questions. One of the interesting things about having a blog with such a plenitude of visitors (and believe me, starting from nothing 24 months ago to having nearly 500 visitors a day qualifies as a plenitude for me), is that I get lots of neat comments and, sometimes, even neater e-mails. About one in five poses some question or other that I either answer privately or ignore completely. So I thought it was time to give something back. Here, then, are the three most common questions that have been posed to me this year.

1. How much of the stuff you write about really happens? Come on, be honest.

Aw hell, ya got me. Well, I guess I may as well fess up:

Blaze does not write his own posts. Sorry, I know that's a real blow to some of you, but there it is. Doesn't write 'em. Has never written 'em. Has not so much as touched the keyboard.

Instead, he dictates them.

Okay, honestly: Everything else? It happens. Just like shit, it happens.

I suspect most people have their doubts about the reality of my stories because in general, they have beginnings, middles, and ends. But in real life, of course, our stories almost always lack that kind of closure, don't they? Life is messy and convoluted. It rarely progresses in orderly fashion. Which makes any stories that start and end in a few thousand words feel unreal.

Most of that is just me doing the textual equivalent of cropping photos. I trim out details that seem unnecessary or that bog the story down. I suppose in the truest sense that does make me guilty of telling lies, but only lies of omission. And I generally think what I omit doesn't change the story too much.

Take my tale about the irate driver who stopped his car and briefly considered thrashing me for suggesting he slow his car down to the speed limit. Everything that I wrote really happened, but I cropped out a few details. For example, I neglected to mention that the driver in question had sped by me twice--once going up the street and once coming back down. Both times I gave him the hand signal to slow down, but he only stopped on the second time. Now you could argue that the fact that I gesticulated to him twice was what really inflamed him enough to stop and swear at me, and that may well be, but so what? In the end, I made a decision--and I have to say, after 20 years of writing and editing, it was a pretty unconscious one--to edit out mention of his first pass. It seemed redundant and not including it doesn't substantially alter the story.

Another detail I didn't go into: the way the story is written, it's easy for the reader to infer that I was aware that the driver was going to get caught in Officer Peltz's speed trap. I mean, I say as much to the dog. But a moment later, I realized it was late enough that it was past Peltz's duty shift and he had probably called it a night. So I deleted the extra sentence I said to Blaze, which was, "Oh wait, Peltz said he was going home around 10, so I guess that asshole won't find out for himself." In fact, I didn't find out that I was right the first time until Peltz himself mentioned it a day or so later. And if you want to really split hairs, Peltz had just called it a night and was driving out of the intersection when he saw the guy tear around the corner and go the other way. Only then did the police officer swing around, follow him, mark his speed and pull him over. But see how long it takes to explain that, when the end result is the same? So I just, um, cut to the chase.

Whew, who signed up for the writing clinic, huh? Long answer to a short question, I know, but hey, this is me. What did you expect? Brevity?

2. What happened to Art Lad?

Nothing. Thomas is alive and well and doing great, thanks very much. But his blog is his blog and he dictates when it's time to post and when it isn't. I don't force him to make posts and never have (sorry to disappoint those who thought I was some pathetic Web equivalent of a Hollywood Dad, trying to push his son into the limelight and bask in his sudden popularity). It's important to remember that Thomas is a 7-year-old boy, and he will go through phases where some things interest him more than others. When he was little, he was so besotted with trains I thought he was going to change his last name to "the Tank Engine". But in fact, by the time he was 5, he had moved on to lizards, then action figures. Today, all his once-beloved wooden trains are sitting in a box in our basement, which would come as a shock to my younger self, who remembers just how much those fucking things cost.

Right now, Thomas is still seriously into baseball. Next year--or next month--it will be something else. I think most parents reading this will back me up when I say that kids are by definition fickle and inconsistent little people and they jump from interest to interest like fleas leaping between household pets.

Thomas still likes to draw and he's uncommonly good at it, but he also takes photos and does videos too. I could post this content on his blog, I guess, but these days he's not particularly interested in sitting down and dictating to me, so it would just be me by myself talking about my son and why I think he did this particular thing, which pretty much makes the blog not an Art Lad blog, doesn't it? And anyway, I already have a place where I do that. It's called Here.

So at worst, I would guess that Art Lad is on hiatus. He may decide to post another entry tomorrow. Or next month. Or next year. I know that many of you who come here really enjoyed his posts--believe me, so did I--so I apologize if this news comes as a disappointment. But you'll still hear plenty about him over here. And if he does decide to pick up blogging again, you'll be the first to know. Fair enough?

3. Who ARE you?

Man, what a great question. I wonder if you realize what you're asking me. That question goes so much deeper than asking me, say, what my name is.

I'm a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a long-lost relation, a good friend, a watchful neighbor, a compassionate (if somewhat disorganized) boss, a dedicated (if somewhat burned-out) employee, a more or less concerned citizen of the Republic. I am The Man, the Great Bringer of Food and Giver of Scratches in The Good Spot. I am an editor. I am a writer. I am a player with words. I am, mostly, a storyteller.


I have answered to many names in my life--You Little Shit, The Kid, Ass-Wipe, Buddy, Chief, Ol' Fella, and Scruffy (don't ask). I have been called Honey, Sweetie, and You Son Of A Bitch (sometimes within minutes of each other, and by the same person). I have answered to Dadoo, Daddy, Best Daddy, Best World's Daddy, and just plain old Dad. Here, I gave myself the nom du blog of Magazine Man, but you all call me MM.

You know every name to which I answer, save one.

Really, how much more do you need to know about who I am?

Okay, so, yeah, that was a cheat.

So, as a consolation, and because I'm feeling festive and generous, I invite you to pose some questions in comments below. Go ahead, ask me anything: a writing question, a blog question, a personal question. I'll answer a few in an upcoming post. If nothing else, it will give me something to do as we head into the next 364 days.

Not that I don't have a few other things planned for you, too.

Here's to another good year in your excellent company, and thank you all for permitting me to remain,

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


In Which the Dreams Keep On Coming...

My little personal goal this year--I would never go so far as to call it a resolution--has been to take better care of myself. Well, to be completely accurate, it's been my goal to be more in tune with the warning signs my body gives me after I've abused it a little too much. One of the great but unforeseen advantages to keeping this blog--aside from your excellent company--is that it has served as a more or less accurate journal that reveals just how often I manage to fuck myself up. Which is quite a lot, actually.

There's no helping my being prone, accidentwise. And my luck is what it is: not bad, but hilariously bad. But I've realized for some time now that I ought to be able to get a better handle on being sick. I would conservatively estimate that 95 percent of my illnesses are opportunistic microscopic muggers that fall on me at some dark hour when I'm exhausted and least able to defend myself.

(The other 5 percent I chalk up to bugs brought home by the kids. Oh, and ass-strep. Can't forget ass-strep.)

It's been a struggle, but I've managed to become just a smidge more aware of the red flags my body waves when it's careening headlong into the intersection of Total and Collapse. Some of you may recall that this time last year, I spent the Labor Day holiday in bed with borderline pneumonia (one day there was fluid in my lungs, the next there wasn't). This year, I spent the long weekend engaged in labored breathing as well, but for a completely different reason: Thomas and I did a ton of cycling on local trails and Her Lovely Self and I weaned the Brownie from her training-wheeled bike to the more family-ride-friendly tandem. Which sounds positively fun--goddamn idyllic, almost--reading it above like that, but in fact featured some godawful moments even worse than getting kicked in the baseballs (of which more later, once I finish editing the video I've come to call "Worst Dad of the Year").

And here's the cruncher: Despite the fact that both kids have had some kind of sniffly cold for the better part of the week and poor HLS went to bed Saturday night (okay, Saturday afternoon) with a headache and fever, I came out of the weekend feeling pretty great. I mean, I'm a little sore and tired from assorted exertions, but it's a good kind of soreness, a please-stand-by-while-your-muscles-rebuild-and-leave-you-even-stronger soreness. Nothing like the whoops-sprung-another-rib-from-coughing-so-much soreness I felt last year.

So physically, I think I'm doing better keeping myself in fighting trim. Or at least I've tricked myself into believing that, which is close enough for me.

The bigger struggle, I have to admit, has been figuring out when I'm mentally exhausted. I don't get grouchy and snappish like other people in my family do (no names, but they know who they are). I tend to alternate between a state of total quiet and a state of babbling, hysterical amusement which, actually, is more or less how I am most of the time.

Ah, but I have noticed one thing.

I have recurring dreams only when I'm exhausted or totally stressed out.

For the most part, I don't remember my dreams, but reruns stick out in my memory, if for no other reason than I know I've seen this one before. It's as though the executive producer of Subconscious Programming up in my brain just nodded off or walked away, leaving a hapless intern in charge who, for want of knowing what else to do, grabbed a pre-recorded tape off the shelf and popped it in. Suddenly I'm back in a field in the middle of nowhere, fleeing in panic from the Cream of Wheat chef or the Quaker Oats guy, to name a particularly harrowing dream from my youth, which often recurred at the start of each school year (Please don't read too much into it. I have nothing against African-Americans or members of the Quaker faith, but I did hate hot cereal as a child and I do remember being most stressed in the mornings before school--breakfast time--so I suspect the dream was my way of coping with that stress).

Lately, the dream that has been coming back involves some variation of the wake after my grandfather's funeral. Unlike the dream of being pursued by hot-cereal mascots, the ambiance of this dream isn't particularly sinister--aside from elegiac undertone of the entire affair--but I'm convinced it's a stress-induced dream. For one thing, as the wake progresses, I become increasingly aware that a lot is going on and I'm having trouble keeping track of it. There are too many stories I want to hear, too many family friends and relatives I want to catch up with and I become increasingly desperate and frustrated about it.

Then, towards the end of the dream, a group of mourners with musical inclinations form an impromptu band and perform a song called "The Ballad of Diamond Jim," which is supposed to be about my grandfather, although it sort of isn't. It's the tale of a Boston-Irish barkeep who owns a bar in Southie (my grandfather never owned his own bar) and who never let anyone in his bar go thirsty. If you didn't have the money, you still got a drink. In fact, he never refused a drink to anyone, except the Devil, who visited the bar once. Diamond Jim tossed him out on his ass and the Devil swore one day he'd be back to get either a drink out of Diamond Jim--or his soul.

In the end, Diamond Jim dies behind the bar (which also never happened to my grandfather) and the Devil comes to claim his soul. Since he's already bound for hell, Diamond Jim admits defeat and asks the Devil to share one last drink with him after all--something on the rocks, since Jim won't be seeing ice again for a long, long while. The Devil toasts Jim, downs his drink and immediately passes out. He wakes up in Hell the next morning with a wretched hangover and it's then that he realizes Diamond Jim spiked his drink--the ice cubes were made from holy water. He can hear the funeral procession topside and rallies his hellish minions to catch Jim's cagey soul, but he's repelled at Heaven's gate by a laughing St. Peter, who informs the Devil that because he overslept, he missed catching Jim by a good 30 minutes.

In the dream, it's a really good song (although I suspect the hapless intern just grabbed a Pogues tune to fill in the soundtrack), and I do my best to remember it, but whenever I wake up, I can only recall a line or two and when I scribble them down, they sound ridiculous. But of course they would, and not just because of that special brand of dream logic that makes stupid things seem fucking brilliant, either. Alas, as some learned readers here would be only too happy to echo, I have the worst kind of tin ear and absolutely no musical ability. I could sooner build an atomic bomb from household supplies than compose music.

But every time I have this dream, I keep thinking the song is good--it certainly brings the house down--and I keeping waking up annoyed with myself for not being able to remember more than one complete verse, which is this one, one of the last ones in the song:

So raise a glass to Diamond Jim
The drunkard's patron saint
Some think he's still in Heaven
But me I say he ain't
In every bar in Southie
On up the Legion Post
There's men who'll swear they've had a drink
On Diamond Jimmy's ghost.

See what I mean about my tin ear? Not exactly Rodgers and Hammerstein, is it?

Anyway, that's the dream. There are plenty of ways to interpret it (too much going on in my life, not enough time to enjoy it all; general anxiety about dying before I get to realize my own dreams; feeling that my gifts are inadequate to the tasks I've set for myself; worrying about what to do if Satan ever shows up and wants a drink), but whenever I've had it the past few months, I've taken it as a sign that I have too much going on upstairs.

As for solutions to my mental exhaustion, I've been hard-pressed. I used to exercise a lot more than I do now, but like a million other flabmeisters in their late 30s who daily inch their sluglike way towards inevitable decrepitude, it's awfully hard to find the time. Writing here has always been a great soother, of course, but ever since I returned from vacation in New Hampshire, work has bled me dry and I find myself in a near-vegetative state when I get home. At which time I pass out on the couch or in bed and find myself back at my grandfather's wake. It's a bit of a quandary, I admit.

Which I guess means that no matter how hard I try, my reality--at least for now--is going to be at odds with my little personal goal.

But I can dream, can't I?

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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