Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013

    On Christmas eve I drove to Harrisburg to attend a karaoke event, the only one relatively close that I knew about. I had planned on singing several Christmas songs from my repertoire but as the evening progressed, the mood of the room though festive was less Christmassy. It was more like a gathering of comfortable friends and acquaintances than a Christmas eve gathering. Although I was a total stranger, I was made to feel welcome by the other visitors and the wait staff.

    A present offered by the management was their purchase of a drink for anyone in the military or who had served in the military. It was totally unexpected and not at all required but it was a warming gesture by the management and spoke well for the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center.

    The entrance to the Center was on a side street off of Third street and at first was not readily apparent so a couple trips meandering around the side streets gave me a reminding glimpse of the neighborhood I once lived in while working for the Department of Labor and Industry. The streets were deserted though on a cold winter's eve that was not to be unexpected. Plus, people with families were probably snuggled in their warm homes enjoying together time on a special evening at home.

    I was able to park nearly in front of one of my former addresses on Third street. I shuddered as I remembered that experience. I saw the apartment during the day time before moving in and it seemed cozy, reasonably priced and conveniently close to my job. It didn't take long for me to realize what a horrible mistake I had made. When the roaches climbed up on my easy chair and started reading the newspaper over my shoulder I knew it was time to leave. I joked with co-workers at that time that the bugs were rearranging my furniture without my permission while I slept and that did it!

    I had never before experienced a roach infestation and, initially, my naiveté allowed me to believe I could get them under control. During my several weeks at that address. I accumulated 20 adhesive roach traps filled on all sides with the unwelcome guests. I stacked them on the kitchen counter as a heads-up for the next unwary apartment shopper. I moved out completely one night in several hours. Fortunately I found a nicer, bug-free apartment in Steelton and, though farther away, it was much more suitable. Also, fortunately, I completed the move without any 'hitchhikers". I was relieved.

    Before finding a parking spot my drive around the neighborhood put me in sight of the high rise which was my first residence in the city directly across the street from the Labor and Industry building. I remember looking out of that 11th floor window over the Harrisburg rail yard and even though I've enjoyed railroad locales all my life, I had a dark sense of unexplainable foreboding. The culmination of that ominous feeling was a series of events (beyond the scope of this narrative) which changed my life forever. Oh how I wish I had learned to listen to my inner voice sooner rather than later.

    Even though I had a very pleasant time last evening, I was struck with how quickly the feelings of emptiness and sterility return every time I visit Harrisburg.  It's the same now as it was then. When the thousands of state employees have left for their homes in the suburbs or the country, only a sinister skeleton remains behind. It gives me the chills regardless of the season.
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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mimi, A Tragedy

    Mary was her name. How she came to be Mimi to all who knew her I never learned. In our early school years, we were class mates. Too young for anything as complicated as an infatuation we were simply class mates who grew to like each other. One day she to asked me to visit her home to play a game of Monopoly.

    Her father was one of the dentists in our small town. Their home was on the top of a hill just outside the town. Looking north from her front, tree-filled lawn the town filled the panorama with all its landmark structures, the tall smokestack outside the Anchor Packing department of the asbestos plant, the elevated water tank on struts nearly as tall as the smokestack, the church on the town square with its steeple clock easily visible but too distant for the time to be read.
    The railroad tracks running east and west through town near the factories were visible in the foreground and depending on the time of day, a steam locomotive could be seen shifting railroad cars to and from the industries, empty cars out, loaded cars in. Once the crew had finished their work in town, they assembled the cars into a train and moved east toward the next town to complete the shifting operation in that town repeating in every small town along the way on their return to Reading. Further in the distance was the manned fire tower in a clearing along the Horseshoe trail meandering over the hills far north of the town.

    In one of her trees lived a squirrel who would make an occasional appearance dashing across the yard, warily in the presence of non-squirrels, seeking whatever squirrels seek on a warm summer afternoon. Mimi told me the squirrel's name was Nicky. She explained that there was a nick in one of his ears. She surmised that Nicky had survived a hunter's assault but suffered the nick from narrowly escaping the full load of shotgun pellets. Flitting about as he did, it was not possible to get a closer look at the nick so her plausible assumption became the accepted explanation.

    The bicycle ride to her home was easy until the last quarter mile which required me to push my bike up the steep hill. Reaching the top of the hill I was rewarded with the restorative coolness of the shady grove and a gentle breeze and usually some lemonade prepared by her mother. On my first visit I was struck by the sight of a wall bookshelf filled from floor to ceiling with books of enough variety that the study might have been used effectively as a mini-library. She ushered me to a table in the adjacent sunroom where we would begin our game.

    She sat with her back toward the windows which allowed the sunlight to filter through first the trees and then through the curly strands of her neck length curly blonde hair. She had a fetching smile as of one who was comfortably confident going in to this game of the afternoon.

    Her confidence was not misplaced. Though I had played monopoly many times with my buddies and had come out on top once in a while I never, ever won a game with Mimi. In fact, I was so bad that she set up a Curtis fund for me. Every time I passed 'Go' she'd throw a dollar into my fund for later use to keep me from going bankrupt.

    We repeated these game afternoons often and I looked forward to the visits. As time went by her father grew fond of me and offered to let me borrow books from his library to be returned on my next visit and traded for another. I believe I read every Hardy Boys book published to that time. The Hardy Boys and their detective father, Fenton, became almost real to me as if I had met them and become one of their companions helping them unravel whatever mystery they were helping their father with.

    During these visits I came to know that Mimi had two older brothers, James and Robert if I remember correctly. Both had graduated from Oberlin college and that is where she would eventually go after graduation from high school. Sadly, she told me that all three of them had inherited a recessive gene which would ultimately kill all three. In the 1940s, not much was known about treating leukemia.

    I knew nothing about leukemia. I knew that people die. To hear her calmly tell me that she would not live long enough to have a 'normal' life was a shock I wasn't prepared for. Ultimately her brothers died and she continued on as though she wasn't affected even though she knew she was. We passed through our pre-teen years and at some point, she transferred to another school that would, perhaps, offer her a better preparation for Oberlin. I lost contact with her but learned from people who knew her that she graduated from high school and went on to college. I also learned that she had married while in college. From that point on I know nothing.   

    Over the years I have thought often about my superior Monopoly opponent with her curly blonde sun-lit hair and remember how precocious she was. Reading Salingers short story "For Esmé - with Love and Squalor" set in a tea shop in Devon, England in WW2 reminded me of Mimi. Esmé, too, was precocious and near Mimi's age the last time I saw her.

    Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane" provided me another reminder the first time I read it when he speaks of Jane's neck curls while he mourns her deadly fall from a horse summing up that [He has] "no rights in this matter, neither father nor lover".

    The smokestack is gone, the water tower is gone, the trains no longer go to Reading, both her parents are gone and Nicky's dead, too.
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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tales From The Friend Zone

    Advice from experienced writers to beginning writers: "Write what you know about". I know about the friend zone. At first, upon arriving here on several occasions I accepted that I wasn't being dismissed out of hand but held in some degree of reserve, perhaps. As time passed and seniority in The Zone grew, it became easier to see that it was in fact a kind of dismissal to a special purgatory. However, on closer examination I discovered I had misread the sign over the door. It wasn't purgatory at all. The sign over the door said Welcome to HELL.

    Alas, even in a state of grace, I wasn't given an opportunity to expiate my sins whatever they might have been. It became imperative for me to discover what wrongs I might have committed which put me in this despicable, forlorn place with no hope for expiation. The first one was easy. I had lived long enough to become too old for consideration as a viable alternative for any candidates out there. No expiation warranted or possible there. It was the natural flow of life.

    The next one was a bit more elusive since it seemed to contradict everything I thought I knew. Thanks to some postings on Facebook, I began seeing some of the misguided notions I was laboring under, such as "The Right Way to Kiss a Girl: Push her up against a wall, hold her arms above her head and kiss her like you mean it!"

    Well that kind of throws the old "sugar and spice and everything nice" out the window. Pushing her against the wall sounds mildly like assault. Hold her arms above her head sounds like borderline restraint. Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart could do that and it would have been romantic, I guess, but a woman who appreciates that kind of approach is definitely not going to consider a kiss meaningful if it's initiated with gentleness. Live and learn.

    As far as the age thing, that's probably the first, unchangeable item that gets me thrown into the friend zone dungeon. I'm not a violent person but the next time someone tells me that age is only a number or that you're only as old as you feel they'd better be prepared for a denunciation the likes of which they have never before experienced.

    Another volunteered gem coming my way from time to time is to look for someone my own age. Logical you think. Well the fact is for me I don't care about the numbers. I do care about appeal. If the appeal, the magic, that indefinable spark is there, the age doesn't matter. In reality though the only women I've met close to my age all seem much older than their numbers might say. I live, act and feel 20 years younger than I am which makes them too old for me. And the spark is not there.

    Still another gem is to "be happy". Duh. Flip a switch and choose 'happy' mode, eh? Or do what you like to do. Of course. What I'm happy doing is sharing and being half of a couple. Any other activity is a time-filling substitute, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes less so but it's kind of hard to be a couple when you're only one. It's like telling 6 eggs to go forth and be a dozen. Don't invite too many people to breakfast. I try to maintain a positive outlook but self-delusion is not in my repertoire.

    In a previous blog entry I spoke of seeing so-called Bad Boys making all the headway. I jokingly talked about taking a night course on how to become a 'Bad Boy'. Of course I was kidding. There's no bad boy in me. Some of the ones I've seen in operation are obnoxious jerks and it's easy for me to believe that the women who respond to that don't possess the depth of character that I hope to find in a significant other.

    So, what's the answer? The answer is, there is no answer. What to do? Keep on keeping on just like I've been doing. Tomorrow's another day. Maybe the sun will rise.
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Pirandello, Where Are You Now When We Need You

   The world today is like a play from the Theatre of the Absurd. We are millions of actors in search of a Playwright. We have neither script nor playbill. The author is not available to explain or answer questions. All we have is a CliffsNotes collection of inferences.

    Borrowing from Kurt Vonnegut's, Books of Bokonon , "Beware of the man who works hard to learn the right way, learns it, and finds himself no further ahead than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who ignore the right way and are at the head of the pack without even trying to do it right."
    There was a time when young men were told that being courteous, polite and respectful was the way to achieve harmonious interactions with young women and that 4-letter-word vulgarity and grossness particularly in the presence of women was totally verboten. Yet today it seems the vulgarity formerly to be avoided is now issuing forth from the mouths of those very same women. Is this equality gone too far? Are the gals trying to be one of the guys?

    I’m no prude and as a former sailor and a truck driver, I doubt there are any verbal constructions or collections of formerly vulgar words that I haven’t heard. I don’t cringe. I’m beginning to expect it. Yet what I find baffling is that not only are the encouraged behaviors absent, but the completely opposite behavior is being adopted and is achieving what the good behavior was supposed to. The observation that ‘Nice guys finish last’ seems increasingly truer every day.

    I recently overheard a young man recounting an experience he had with an attractive woman who he asked, point blank, "Do you like bad boys?" Whether he got anywhere with that opening was not revealed but to hear that the 'bad boy' description he labeled himself with was expected to gain him more ground than previously acceptable behavior was enlightening in a sort of negative way.

    I'm often told that "I'm too nice" and "I'm too old". Maybe I should paraphrase Charles Schulz' Peanuts character, Snoopy, and say, "Yesterday I was an old man. Today I'm an old man. Tomorrow I'll probably still be an old man. Sigh! There's so little hope for advancement."

    I can't do a damned thing about being older. Being nice? Maybe I should look for a night course on how to become a 'Bad Boy'. Even-79 year old Charles Manson has had a girlfriend for more than 5 years. She's 54 years younger than him. Although I seriously question her mental stability and definitely could not consider someone so young for a date, I have a hard time understanding why an older nice guy like me can't escape the friend zone. Manson's a monster. I'm not.
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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Tending Bar, Bartending and Tipping

   Anyone can tend bar by simply being there. Not everyone can be a bartender. Bartenders are professionals and should look like professionals. Attire is very important and can help to create a professional image — dark slacks or skirt and clean white dress shirt with or without a tie were at one time the standard uniform even in a local neighborhood bar. Today, holey jeans or short shorts or statement T-shirts or cleavage-revealing tops seem the uniform of choice. Looking professional adds an aura of respectability and emphasizes the authority of the position .

    Greeting customers immediately upon their arrival even if too busy to serve them immediately will usually trigger their "I can see the bartender is busy but he knows I'm here" patience response. On more than one occasion I have left after the bartender walked past me several times without so much as acknowledging my presence. The professional is constantly scanning the bar to keep an eye on new arrivals, possible empties and becoming available without being pushy. People drink at their own comfort pace and pushing them might turn their visit into a battle with the bartender rather than an enjoyable pastime.

    When I began tending bar, I wanted to learn all I could to be able to do a good job behind the bar. I found Trader Vic's Bar Guide to be an invaluable resource more for his mentoring and advice in the first half of the book than for the recipes he included in the rest of the book.

    Routinely ‘forgetting’ that a customer was in with a different companion the night before is a special kind of confidentiality that a bartender must be capable of. Nothing loses customers faster than a bartender who blabs like the town gossip. And that applies to conversations quietly private between a bartender and a customer. Remembering a customer’s preferred drinks but not assuming he’ll have the same thing every time is also a sign of a professional bartender.

    Before young scantily clad females took over the field of tending bar, it was possible to have a conversation on almost any subject. Now, the girls tending bar are so guarded about being made they don’t allow any conversation to go beyond a few words fearing that every guy who comes in is there to gawk at them and imagine possibilities that will never occur. Many do the job quite adequately. There are a few who excel and do the job as professionally as possible maintaining their privacy yet interacting comfortably without undue concern about whether they’re an object.

    I was a bartender for about 5 years before resuming my studies at Penn State. I worked at several up-scale lounges and served a spectrum of customers from all occupations and incomes. One of the men I worked for was a real prince. He paid his bartenders significantly more than the minimum wage at that time and paid all benefits including two weeks paid vacation beginning the first year. During my years there I felt I was there to sell his product and to do so with outstanding service. I made good tips. In time I could predict that my weekly tip income would be at least a certain amount and always more than my net paycheck. It never failed.

    Among the people I served were college students who tipped little or nothing and retirees who tipped what they thought they could afford. They enjoyed the products and services my employer provided them through me. I never whined about the low tippers although, chatting with the other servers, it was often the subject of conversation. I served my share of OB’s and PITA’s (Obnoxious Bastards and Pains in the Ass) but considered it part of that occupation’s landscape.

    Recently I’ve begun seeing Facebook posts shared from a site with the self-explanatory title, If You Can’t Afford to Tip, You Can’t Afford to Go Out to Eat. From the posts I’ve seen, it appears this site is for whiners in an industry they don’t seem to understand. They think that the establishment with its hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property and inventory and professional staff are there purely for the purpose of garnering tips for themselves - the bigger, the better - whether earned or not. Whatever happened to the idea that servers are there to make a profit for the owner?

       There are different explanations for the origin of the practice of tipping but, basically, tips are a gratuity for the quality of service given by the waitress, waiter or bartender based on a percentage of the total bill and the percentage ranging from 10 percent (or a penny) for service so unacceptable it was lousy to 15 percent for routinely acceptable service. When the service is above and beyond, 20 percent is reasonable. For truly outstanding service, 25 percent is the norm.

    More than 25 percent used to be considered vulgar or gauche. Yet today it seems servers are insulted if they’re not over-tipped. I understand that the workers in the service industry are notoriously underpaid, but I frequently hear talk of their picking up a hundred dollars or more during their shift. Why is it then they complain about the low income customer who can’t afford to be lavish?

    What about the fixed income retirees who still have a life ahead of them? Should they be relegated to a stay-at-home existence simply because they can’t over fill the tip jar? From what I’ve seen, servers incomes, with tips, give them an income far and above the tight-budget income of retirees.

    Or maybe Logan’s Run  for old folks? Shall they be sought out and sent to “Carousel“ for “Renewal“ by being vaporized once they can no longer afford to over-tip? Or perhaps they should stay home, drink tap water, sit in a rocking chair and look over their shoulder awaiting the arrival of the Grim Reaper?

    A few words to the wise:

                                             The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
                                              Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
                                              Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
                                              Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

                                                                                                              — Omar Khayyám

    You are getting older. Should you live long enough to become a lower-income retiree, will you be prepared to spend the rest of your life at home because you can’t afford to give lavish tips? We'll see.
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