Friday, August 31, 2012

Tight Asses

Mrs. Chatterbox and I just returned from four days of rare sunshine on the Oregon Coast. We had a great time. On the drive back to Portland I was reminded of this incident from my childhood after spotting two pairs of jeans flapping on a clothesline.

The Holloway twins lived across the street from the house where I grew up in the 50s and 60s. Janice and Janet Holloway were blond, sported bouncy ponytails and were high school cheerleaders. Ricky Delgado, my best friend and neighborhood delinquent, claimed the twins put the wood in his bat, whatever that meant.

Janice and Janet knew they were hotties, and to increase their allure they competed with each other to see who could wear the tightest jeans.

Janice concocted a way to make hers look painted on, and Janet followed suit. They got up early before school and soaked in the tub for half an hour while wearing jeans that were then dried with a blow-dryer. This process shrank the denim and made the jeans incredibly tight. Janice claimed victory in the tightness contest saying her jeans were so snug you could pick out the mole on her behind. Janet claimed Janice lost the sexiest jeans contest because she had a mole on her behind.

I wasn’t yet old enough to appreciate the twins, who I could never tell apart. They usually looked at me and Ricky like we were bacteria. I can’t remember having the courage to speak to them directly. They were high school seniors when I was a freshman and I remember them parading down the corridors with boys in tow, their steps as tiny as a geisha’s because of those tight jeans.

During my freshman year a famous incident involving Janice and Janet occurred one afternoon in biology class. Janice suddenly looked at Janet, and Janet looked at Janice, and they both started screaming. They sobbed and shrieked. Then, like they were still connected to each other through a shared nervous system, both passed out. The twins’ jeans were so tight that circulation to the lower halves of their bodies had been cut off. An ambulance was called, but Mr. Scanlon, the young biology teacher, decided not to wait. He ordered everyone out of the biology lab, and proceeded to cut the girls out of their skin-tight jeans with dissection scissors.

He may have saved their lives, but the twins were anything but grateful. When they regained consciousness, under blankets rushed in from the nurse’s office, they were humiliated and angry at the destruction of their personal property. They threatened to sue Mr. Scanlon but this became complicated when the local Fire Department issued him a commendation for quick thinking and heroism. I’m told the horny guys at school couldn’t have cared less about the award, but Mr. Scanlon’s stock soared because he’d accomplished what many of them had only dreamed of—getting the Holloway twins out of their pants.

Submitted to my friends at Dude Write.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tires And Truffles

“Dad, did you have your tires rotated like I suggested?”

“No, haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

“If you don’t do it right away you’ll need to replace them in a few months. Les Schwab will rotate them for free if we promise to buy your next tire from them. Let’s go do it now.”

We piled into my RAV and headed to Les Schwab Tires. My dad was a professional mechanic, but I detest car maintenance and never look under the hood of my cars. The universe has decided to laugh at me by giving me a son who lives and breathes automobiles.

We pulled up to Les Schwab and I followed CJ as he strutted through the front door. This was his world and he was right at home. I felt like Sasquatch at Babies-R-Us. “We’re here to get our tires rotated,” CJ said to the fellow behind the counter. CJ reminded me so much of my late dad.

I looked around at the squad of mechanics, clad in overalls and changing tires in numerous stations, the shriek of their hydraulic tools punctuated by loud rock blaring from greasy speakers in the rafters. My nose twitched at the manly smell of rubber and grease, not an unpleasant smell and one I always associated with my dad.

We handed over the RAV’s keys and were directed to a waiting room. My car would be ready in thirty minutes. The windowless waiting area had a coffee pot with paper cups, a dozen plastic chairs and a flat screen TV. Three unshaven mechanics, tattoos peering out from beneath the cuffs of their overalls, were taking a break, swigging coffee while staring intensely at the screen. I managed to contain my laughter. They weren’t watching Top Gear or Pimp My Ride; they were tuned in to the Food Network and watching Barefoot Contessa.

CJ and I sat down and stared at freckle-nosed Ina Garten assembling ridiculously expensive lobster sandwiches for her rich friends in the Hamptons. Mrs. Chatterbox is a big fan of Barefoot Contessa and I must admit I’ve watched her program more times than I care to admit. Thanks to Mrs. Chatterbox, I’ve enjoyed many of Ina’s recipes—even though I think Ina’s quite full of herself, especially with her insistence on using only the finest ingredients, even if it means your kids can’t go to college because you’ve pilfered the college fund for extra, extra, extra virgin olive oil. I mean really, how virgin does olive oil or anything else need to be? My experience has always been that something is either virgin or it ain’t!

As Ina took a break from her immaculate kitchen for a quick trip to her local fishmonger (who she knows by name) to purchase fresh lobster meat (notice that she leaves without paying) I studied the mechanics whose eyes were riveted to the TV. They hardly looked like the type to watch the Food Network and I could only suppose the TV was broken and only received this channel.

I realized I was wrong when a mechanic with a skull and crossbones tattooed on his neck said, “You want that lobster to be fresh. It’s shit if it ain’t fresh.”

“How many tires you think we need to sell to pay for all that lobster? That stuff don’t come cheap,” said a dude with grease smeared on his forehead.

The third mechanic must have already seen this episode. He pulled a toothpick from his mouth and barked. “Shut the f*ck up. This is where she makes the aioli.”

“Aioli?” asked Skull & Crossbones.

“Yeah, fancy homemade mayonnaise. Steps up the flavor. Damn, that looks good.”

During a commercial break, three stomachs growl beneath overalls with as much harmony as The Three Tenors.

“What are we havin’ for lunch today?” the dude with the grease streak wondered out loud.

“We sure as hell ain’t having lobster sandwiches,” growled Toothpick.

Skull & Crossbones checked his watch and announced, “Break’s over. Back to work.”

“Hey, I got here late,” said Grease Streak. “I still got a few minutes left.”

Moments later only one mechanic remained, but another soon appeared, fingers darkened with grease. He nodded at me and CJ, dropped into a plastic chair and said to no one in particular, “Did I miss the part where she adds the truffle shavings to the aioli?”

On screen Ina reached for a three hundred dollar truffle. The mechanic who’d just arrived smiled and let out a sigh….

Blogger friends: I’ll be away from my computer for a few days. Mrs. Chatterbox and I are taking a trip to the southern Oregon coast. I hope everyone has a great week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Sphinx of 22nd Place

In 2005 Mrs. Chatterbox and I decided to explore urban living; we bought a hundred year old house on Northwest 22nd Place in downtown Portland. The neighborhood, dotted with late Victorian houses, had a shabby chic quality. Our street was slightly run down but our realtor convinced us to overlook the decay. The area was adjacent to the trendy shops and restaurants of Northwest 23rd only a block away. Our street had seen its ups and downs over the years but our realtor told us it was about to experience gentrification. By gentrification he must have been referring to all the money we would need to invest to keep our house from falling down.

Not long after moving there I decided to explore our new neighborhood; I made a closer inspection than I had before deciding on a home purchase there. I walked a hundred yards until 22nd place ended at Burnside, a crowded thoroughfare lined with tattoo parlors, flop houses and cheap restaurants, a far cry from the trendy establishments only a few blocks away. I quickly began to question the local color Mrs. C. and I had decided to immerse ourselves in.

As I retraced my steps home I paused in front of a house half a dozen doors from ours. The structure was rundown, the elaborate trim and molding in need of attention. Weeds sprouted from the rain gutters on the roof. But I was intrigued by the plaque near the sagging porch. Along with a picture of a winsome woman it read: Hazel Hall House.

I was determined to find out who Hazel Hall was and asked around. No one was aware of her, not college kids renting cheap rooms or folks old enough to have waved when Lewis and Clark when passed through. I began to think of Hazel Hall as a mysterious sphinx, and I was determined to know more about the person behind the enigmatic face.

I decided to Google her and discovered that Hazel Hall was an Oregon poet who died in 1924. Little was written about her but I managed to pick up a few facts. Hall was born in 1886. As a young girl she moved to Portland from Minnesota, but at the age of twelve she contracted scarlet fever and used a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

According to Wikipedia, Hall was an exuberant, unusually sensitive, and imaginative child. Like Emily Dickinson, who had died several years earlier, she would live out her life in an upper room of her family’s home. To help support her mother and two sisters, Hall took in sewing and gainfully occupied herself embroidering the sumptuous fabrics of bridal gowns, baby dresses, altar cloths, lingerie, and Bishop’s cuffs that would figure so lushly in her poems. Hall took up writing poetry only when her eyesight began to fail. What must it have been like, I wondered, to sew dresses for brides from wealthy families when she herself would never marry and have a family of her own?

Armed with this information, I walked back to Hazel Hall House and examined it more closely. An attempt had been made to create a memorial to her in an empty lot beside the house, an unkempt spot where a house had probably burned down. On a path now used as a shortcut to a nearby Goodwill Center, three granite slabs had been placed with Hall’s poems. The words on two were covered with moss and graffiti, but the third was legible.

After reading the poem I turned around and glanced at Northwest 22nd Place, trying to see it through the eyes of a young woman, confined to a wheelchair and trapped in that upstairs bedroom, imagining a world far away from this shadowy street. Her gifts with needlework and words must have been meager compensation for her limited mobility, isolation and loneliness. Still, she managed to transform her grief into poems of remarkable originality and durability.

Hazel Hall was in her twenties when she began writing poetry. She died in her thirties. Shortly before her death she published a collection of poems called Walkers. (Interesting since she couldn’t walk.) She didn’t live long enough to hear critics call her: The Fresh Voice of Female Poetry in America. Her work drifted into obscurity, her stanzas obliterated like the words on the slabs beside her crumbling house. But words can withstand the vicissitudes of fortune when they are stitched to truth and honesty.

Sphinxes can be dug out of the sand. Houses can be restored and granite slabs cleaned, but poems are only immortal while they live in memory. Hazel Hall deserves to be remembered.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Today I’m sharing two of my favorite things. The first is the poem Clipper Ships and Captains by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét. I was compelled to memorize and recite a poem in front of my fifth grade class. I was already keen on the idea of exploring the world and selected this poem. Yes, I was a nerd. I was terrified I’d forget the words, but fortunately I didn’t. In fact, I can still recite Clipper Ships and Captains in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Clipper Ships and Captains

There was a time before our time,
It will not come again,
When the best ships still were wooden ships
But the men were iron men.

From Stonington to Kennebunk
The Yankee hammers plied
To build the clippers of the wave
That were New England's pride.

The "Flying Cloud," the "Northern Light,"
The "Sovereign of the Seas"—

There was salt music in the blood
That thought of names like these.

"Sea Witch," "Red Jacket," "Golden Age,"
And "Chariot of Fame,"
The whole world gaped to look at them
Before the steamship came.

Their cargoes were of tea and gold,
Their bows a cutting blade;
And, on the bridge, the skippers walked,
Lords of the China trade.

The skippers with the little beards
And the New England drawl,
Who knew Hong Kong and Marblehead
And the Pole Star over all.

Stately as churches, swift as gulls,
They trod the oceans, then
No man had seen such ships before
And none will see again.

Continuing the theme of ocean travel is Sunset at Sea, painted in 1911 by American Impressionist Childe Hassam. During the previous administration you might have seen photographs of the Oval Office that included one of Hassam’s famous flag paintings. The Impressionists were famous for banishing black from their palette, but Hassam couldn’t resist using a dash of black for the tiny ship. This painting delights my senses and propels me into imaginary voyages of adventure and discovery.

Did you have to recite a poem in front of your class? What was it and can you still remember it?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Excess Baggage

Her name was Julie Ruzinski, and in 1976 she befriended me and Mrs. Chatterbox while we were backpacking through Greece. Julie, a blond blue-eyed Aussie, was enjoying a last fling before settling down and marrying. Her fiancé was waiting for her in Melbourne. It seemed odd that she was traveling alone, but Mrs. C. and I didn’t pry.

In addition to speaking with a delightful Australian accent, Julie also spoke fluent Italian. When the time came to move on to Italy the three of us joined ranks and boarded a rusty tramp steamer for Brindisi. Julie wasn’t backpacking like we were; she was weighed down by a regular suitcase and a larger one she struggled to carry—this in the days before luggage came with wheels. Prompted by an outdated sense of chivalry, I reached for the big suitcase and was soon lugging it from city to city. It couldn’t have been heavier had it been filled with rocks.

I remember lugging that suitcase onto train platforms and hoisting it onto luggage racks on stops from Brindisi to Rome. One day in the Eternal City the three of us paused near the Spanish Steps and ordered a bottle of Chianti at a trattoria. Somewhere around the second bottle my tongue loosened up and I asked, “So Julie, what have you got in that suitcase? Bricks?”

Her face turned crimson and she looked away. Obviously, she didn’t want to answer. I felt bad for asking and changed the subject. That evening after dinner, we were relaxing in our cramped pensione when someone knocked on our door. It was Julie from down the hall. “Come over to my room,” she said. “I have something I want to show you.”

We trooped down the hall to her room. I noticed the big suitcase on her sagging bed.

“I have a story to tell,” Julie said, her voice a soft whisper.

There were no chairs so we sat on the bed, surrounding the suitcase.

“With a name like Ruzinski it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my father is Polish. Five years before I was born he was branded a dissident by the Communist government and thrown into prison where he remained for four years. Each day he awoke thinking it was his last. One day he was dragged to the prison administrator’s office and told he would be released from prison on condition that he leave Poland and never return. If he did so, he would face a firing squad.”

At this point in her story Julie reached over and ran her fingers over the suitcase’s smooth exterior.

“My father had been in prison four years and hadn’t been permitted to send word of his whereabouts to friends or family. Now he was escorted to a ship bound for Rotterdam without even being able to say goodbye. My father traveled to Australia, married my mother and built a successful business. For twenty years he has tried to contact his destitute parents and cousins, but his letters are intercepted along with the money he sends. As you can imagine, life in Poland right now is extremely difficult. Six months ago, after years of failure and frustration at not being able to help his family, Dad received word from the Polish government. One Ruzinski, anyone except Dad, would be permitted to enter Poland, alone, for a brief visit. I volunteered to go, but was informed I could not bring money into the country.”

She unlatched the suitcase and opened the lid.

When the shock wore off I nearly burst out laughing; I couldn’t believe what I saw. The suitcase was stuffed with…tampons. My initial reaction was, Holy shit! This girl must have one hell of a period. The suitcase was also stuffed with ballpoint pens. It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless.

Mrs. Chatterbox said, “Julie, I don’t understand. Why tampons? Why ballpoint pens? Does your family need these?”

Julie explained, “In four days my one week visa will admit me into Poland. I’ll be checked to see if I’m carrying a large sum of money; if I am it will be confiscated. That’s why I’m bringing this suitcase. These items are not considered contraband but they are worth their weight in gold on the Polish black market. This suitcase will feed our family for a year.”

A few days later we exchanged addresses and said goodbye to Julie at the Roma Termini, where she caught a train to Warsaw. We were sad to see her go, having quickly grown fond of her. Mrs. C. wrote her after we returned to the States. We wondered if she’d made it home safely, married her fiancé.

We never heard from her again.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Fifty Shades of Blue

A fellow blogger was recently given an award and asked to answer a few personal questions, such as: What’s your favorite color. The blogger’s answer—blue.

I began thinking about this popular yet elusive color. In spite of the fact that our planet appears to have a blue sky and looks blue from space because of the vast oceans, blue is rare in nature. Only a small percentage of plants and animals are blue. Historically, blue as an ingredient in art is rare; today blue is produced in factories from chemicals and used to color fabrics as well as paints, but during the Renaissance artists ground their own colors and blue was made from pulverized lapis lazuli, a pigment so expensive that the amount used was often specified in a commission’s contract.

Blue has fascinated writers over the centuries and the English language has no shortage of adjectives describing this obscure color: periwinkle, azure, cobalt, indigo, ultramarine, sapphire, turquoise, navy, sky-blue, powder-blue, baby-blue and robin-egg blue, to name a few. In the 1930s American illustrator/painter Maxfield Parrish became so famous for his use of a particular shade that the color was named for him—Parrish-blue.

Over the years I’ve experienced serious blues around the globe, but it wasn’t until I entered the legendary Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri that I experienced an orgasm of blue, a DEFCON #1 explosion of liquid sapphire. Tourist attractions seldom live up to their hype and I had low expectations for this one, so I wasn’t prepared for this visual feast. I was transfixed by the color beneath our boat as we passed through a small opening in a cliff and entered into a cathedral of phosphorescence. We were only in the grotto twenty minutes but the experience burned Capri-blue into my memory.

Recently, Daniel LaFrance at The Pixel Collective, a friend and renowned photographer, posted an exquisite picture of an indigo bunting (a bird) that knocked my socks off. Have you experienced an intensity of blue that took your breath away? Were you ever held captive by the power of a blue moon? A lover’s eyes? Maybe something seen during your travels?

Share it with us.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What To Give An Eighty Year Old Man

I was cleaning out my chest of drawers the other day and I came upon a pair of pajamas, still in their package. I don’t wear pajamas. Mrs. Chatterbox and I had purchased these as a Christmas present for my dad. He passed away unexpectedly five years ago. Mom was finally cleaning out his things and had been about to donate the PJs to the Goodwill when I grabbed them as a memento.

My parents seldom celebrated special events or holidays, and they hadn’t exchanged gifts in years. Dad had long since given up buying anything for Mom, who was as difficult to please as he was easy. But Mom and Dad received copious gifts after moving to Portland to be near us in their so-called golden years because Mrs. Chatterbox is an ardent gift giver.

Still, Dad was difficult to buy gifts for, not that he was difficult to please; he loved everything. A jar of apricot jam, a CD of Patsy Cline’s greatest hits or a vintage aviation jacket; he was as excited as a bear handed a picnic basket. It became a challenge to find gifts he wanted or could use. Eventually, we ran out of ideas. The year we bought Dad pajamas he was in desperate need of new ones. His current PJs had been reduced to threads and Mom didn’t shop much anymore. It’s a well-known fact that men don’t buy pajamas for themselves, especially eighty year old guys.

So Mrs. C. and I went to Macy’s and bought him a new pair. On Christmas morning his face lit up when he opened the package, careful not to rip the paper or damage the bows. “Just what I wanted,” he’d exclaimed, as if receiving a vintage ’68 Mustang GT 390 Fastback.

Weeks passed and I finally got around to asking Dad if he was enjoying his new pajamas.

“I sure am,” he said. “They’re wonderful.”

But one evening I dropped by their apartment unexpectedly (it was only 6:45 and not even dark outside) and caught Dad in his old PJs. “Why aren’t you wearing your new pajamas?” I asked.

He hemmed and hawed for a moment before admitting, “I’m saving the new ones for a special occasion.”

I couldn’t hold back my laughter. Exactly what sort of special pajama-related occasion was my eighty year old father waiting for? Did my shy dad have a secret fantasy? Was he expecting a call from Hugh Hefner inviting him to the Playboy Mansion?

Dad never wore the pajamas we bought for him. Mom says he took them out of his drawer and looked at them occasionally, but he always claimed they were too good for everyday use. Now, when I think of Dad I imagine him wearing them in heaven. No longer shy, he’s looking sharp in a playboy mansion in the sky.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Flash Fiction

Today I’m submitting Flash Fiction for the guys at Dude Write, a great site worth checking out if you haven’t already. I’ve never attempted Flash Fiction before and the dudes have set some rules. First, no more than five hundred words, a stretch for anyone with “chatterbox” in their name—I’ve managed to keep my word count to 498. Second, the first sentence must be: Never one to turn down a dare…. I’ve based this story on a piece I wrote a while back so, for some of you, parts of this might seem familiar.

Stupid Men and the Sea

Never one to turn down a dare, I climbed into the dinky boat. Two hours after departing the Santa Monica marina, I wondered if I was going to die, just another amateur fisherman lost at sea. The menacing swells had finally convinced Frank to turn off the motor. “Let’s fish here before it gets too rough.”

It was already too rough, but I baited my line and began fishing. The Coronas in my stomach rose and fell in rhythm to the swells threatening to swamp the little boat. It wasn’t long before something struck Frank’s hook—a shark about four feet long. A sane person would have cut his line, but Frank grabbed the shark by the tail and swung it into the boat.

I shrieked and kicked the snapping jaws. The shark chomped on our bag of Coronas, disappearing over the side with our beers and Frank’s rod and reel, the hook still in its mouth.

“It’s time to go home!” I said, an unrestrained edge in my voice.

Frank didn’t argue, but when he tried to engage the engine it wouldn’t start.

The sun was now a memory as wind pushed us beyond the Channel Islands. Frank opened the engine covering, poked his head into the bottom of the boat and said, “What’s all this water down here?”

Some of the liquid swishing around the engine was probably my pee. “It’s time to radio for help!” I exclaimed.

His expression made my heart sink. “I‘ve been meaning to get a radio.”

“What about life jackets?”

“They would have been a good idea, too.” He started praying in Spanish.

“We might as well start paddling, even if Hawaii is the next landfall. You do have paddles?”

He looked indignant.

My torrent of salty epithets quickly petered out. I’d climbed into this dinghy without anyone pressing a gun to my head.

Frank produced one paddle.

I grabbed it and started paddling, spinning the boat in frantic circles. As I worked up a sweat I reviewed the situation: We were heading out into a rough ocean in a boat that should never have left its pond; it was getting dark and we had no supplies, no radio and only one paddle. The engine didn’t work and the boat was taking on water. And we knew for certain that sharks were nearby. We were screwed.

I was on my twelfth Hail Mary when salvation appeared—a Coast Guard cutter. Our fear that it might not see us quickly became a concern that the ship might run us down. Frank finally impressed me by producing a bag of roadside flares. To my surprise, one ignited, making us easy to spot. The little boat, riding dangerously low in the water, sank as we climbed aboard the Coast Guard vessel for a ride into Port Hueneme.

The next time my boss dared me to go fishing I asked, “Have you picked up another paddle?” When he nodded I told him where he could shove it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Conspiracy, Theft And Sin

No, I’m not talking about current affairs in Washington. We’re in Venice, Italy, and the picture shows a mosaic celebrating a crime. What’s fascinating is that this depiction of a shameful event is proudly displayed in a most unlikely place—on the front of a church. And not just any church. Venice chose to brag about its misdeed on the facade of its greatest church, the Basilica of St. Mark.

The mosaic is called The Removal of St. Mark’s Body from Alexandria. Let’s replace the word removal with theft. Venice has never been a particularly religious place. The City’s unofficial motto for centuries was: We’re Venetians first and Christians second. Throughout most of its history, the city pursued trade and built a vast fleet to maintain a commercial empire, the quest for wealth eclipsing all other concerns. While other cities in Italy were producing saints by the handful, Venice was too concerned with worldly matters to produce a saint of its own.

Eventually, this became a municipal embarrassment with Venice unable to join other Italian city-states in the We Have a Saint and You Don’t Club. In the year 828, Venetian officials decided to crash the club. Who cared if no Venetian was saintly enough to be canonized? Venice’s leaders hired a couple of thugs to sail to Alexandria Egypt to steal the body of St Mark the Evangelist.

The mosaic above was created in the 1600s, but it replaced a similar one much older. The thugs on the left are offering to open the basket but the men in turbans (customs inspectors) are recoiling in disgust and refusing to inspect a basket about to be shipped out of Egypt. Why? The basket has been labeled with a word known to turn the stomachs of Muslims—PORK. Inside the basket is the body of St. Mark, being smuggled out of Egypt.

Rather than feeling shame over this despicable act, the Venetians have celebrated the theft for nearly twelve hundred years. In order to justify the larceny, a legend was created that when the Evangelist’s body arrived in Venice an angel appeared and said: “Peace to you, Mark my Evangelist,” showing in this way that God had determined Venice as the final resting place of the Saint. How convenient.

Over the centuries, Venice created many great artists, architects and musicians, but to my knowledge the city on the lagoon never produced a native born saint. Perhaps Venice shouldn’t have been so arrogant as to broadcast their crime. Maybe God was unhappy with Venice for not producing a saintly citizen of its own. It’s interesting to note that remarkably few Venetians became popes, the most recent lasting only thirty-three days.

By the way, the ancient bronze horses in this photo are replicas of originals now preserved in a Venetian museum. The originals, like the body of Saint Mark, were also stolen, this time from Constantinople.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

When some people find themselves between a rock and a hard place, they take up residence there.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Conclusion: The Goblin Under The Palm Tree

The bright sun shot splinters into my brain as I crossed the driveway and headed across the street. That was when I noticed another of the creatures. And another. I stopped in the middle of the street and counted six of them. All were old and wrinkled. They went about their business, ignoring me while I stood in the middle of the road. Some were gardening. Others sat on their front porches reading the morning paper.

A car approached and honked. I jumped out of the way like Wile E. Coyote avoiding a falling anvil. The vehicle pulled into the driveway of an apartment building several yards away. When the car door opened another of these creatures got out with a sack of groceries. The car must have been rigged to accommodate a tiny driver.

The little fellow pushing the lawnmower finally yelled, “Yous be foolish to be standing in zenter of street.” His voice was brittle with age and thick with a mysterious accent.

The sparse strands of white hair sprouting from his head failed to cover the numerous liver spots. He was wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt that must have been intended for a child. His teeth were few and yellowed with age but when he smiled he looked pleasant enough.

Deed you joust move een?”

“Y—yes,” I stammered. “With my roommate, Mel.”

I zee. Yous be college keeds, yes?” I nodded as he wiped sweat from his egg shaped head with the back of his hand. The tiny hand was covered in loose skin, but it had five fingers and looked human enough. The day wasn’t particularly hot but it must have taken effort for someone so tiny to mow even a small lawn. “I zink I zeem strange to yous, yes?”

I nodded and shook his hand when it was offered, as did Mel who’d crossed the street to join us. The little man introduce himself. “I called Yabba, like cartoon wiff zee Flintstonez. Yabba Dabba Doo. No Dabba Doo, just Yabba. This no real name but do jez fine.”

“Nice to meet you, Yabba. Excuse me, but are you a midget?” I asked.

His forehead creased like a fan and he looked like he’d just sucked on a pickle. “Once part of Zinger midgets, but Yabba and others (he indicated the others like him with a tilt of his head) no more like to be called midget. Now we like be called ‘Little Peeple.’”

“Sorry,” I apologized. “I didn’t mean to offend you. Have you lived here long?”

“Come here in ’38 for zee big moovie. Me work on zee big movie zeven weeks and no want to go home later. Many stay at Culver Hootel til need leave. We moove here and stay. Be happy here.”

What big movie are you talking about?” Mel asked.

Yabba looked at him like he had a third eye in the middle of his forehead. “What you mean what big moovie? Only one big moovie known by everyone. Weezard oof Oz, oof course!”

The fog was starting to clear. These tiny folks must have been part of the famous Singer Midgets, recruited from around the world to play the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, filmed back in 1938 at MGM Studios right here in Culver City. I’d learned about them in a UCLA film class. I wondered where this little guy was born—his voice was high-pitched but the accent reminded me of Bela Lugosi. The Balkans?

“I mow lawn in front your apartment and owner zay okay use pool, but long time zince Yabba take plunge.”

I hadn’t noticed the manicured strip of grass in front of our apartment, but the thought of seeing this little gnome in a wet swimsuit made me shiver.

In weeks to come I discovered that the other neighborhood munchkins weren’t as outgoing as Yabba and kept to themselves. Yabba explained why he’d been watching us that night. “Me hav zee insomnia. Like zound oof young peoples having fun.”

Our friendship was sealed when Yabba arrived during one of our late-night pool parties and pulled a fat joint from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt. He lit it, inhaled deeply, then passed it around.

“Most of we little peeple be straight arrowz,” he informed us, “but Yabba be a partying munchkin.”

Note: On the slim chance that the Statute of Limitations has not expired on my youthful indiscretions, the author wants it known that he would never endorse or promote the use of recreational drugs of any kind.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Goblin Under The Palm Tree

In 1973 Mel Sweggert and I were college roommates at UCLA, but we decided to move out of the dorm for our final year of college. We found an old two-story apartment building in Culver City that had seen better days…but it had a courtyard with a pool. Drooping near the stairs in a corner of the courtyard was an unattractive, but undeniably real, palm tree.

We christened the place our first night with beer and a fifth of Southern Comfort. I knew I was wasted when I looked out the window and saw strange creatures walking up and down the street. In the moonlight they appeared short and shriveled. “Come check this out,” I said to Mel.

He staggered to the window. “What’s up? I don’t see anything.”

I looked again; this time nothing. The street was empty.

I blamed the booze and laughed it off.

We drained the bottle of Southern Comfort and polished off the rest of the beers, staggered down the stairs and jumped in the pool. The September night was typically warm; I felt content with my life. I gazed at the stars, blurry behind the smog, and watched planes passing frequently overhead, their lights disappearing behind the silhouette of our homely palm tree.

The next evening we partied again, this time with our friends: Rodney, Jay and Barry. 1:00 A.M. rolled by and I was having a great time drinking and horsing around in the pool—until I saw the tip of a cigarette glowing in the darkness. We were being observed by someone beneath our palm tree. I’d noticed several good-looking girls in the pool earlier that day and had chatted with one of them in the laundry room. Perhaps a hot babe was sitting in the shadows, checking us out.

Just as I was about to draw everyone’s attention to the intruder’s presence, the glowing cigarette disappeared. I heard the creaking sound of someone rising from an old lounge chair, along with sandals slapping concrete. The person was leaving, their silhouette visible in the flickering glow of a nearby bug light. My mouth dropped open and I took a big gulp of pool water. We weren’t being checked out by a hot girl looking for some action; we were being observed by an escapee from last night’s hallucination, some sort of goblin or gnome. I shook my head in disbelief and wiped the water from my eyes.

When my vision cleared, it was gone.

The next day was Saturday, no classes. I poured a bowl of Frosted Flakes and tried to brush aside the cobwebs, along with last night’s disturbing image near the palm tree. My thoughts were drowned out by the sound of a lawnmower. I glanced out the window and saw a goblin pushing a lawnmower up and down the tiny lawn in front of the Hollywood-style bungalow across the street.

I’d grown up on children’s books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and the creature across the street certainly looked like it could have come from a mushroom planet. Too much booze, I thought. But the apparition refused to vanish. I abandoned my Frosted Flakes to confront it.

Conclusion on Friday

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mountain Of Grief

I had no idea King Midas was real. I figured he was a mythical figure, so when told we were pausing at his burial site I was surprised. The landscape was flat and barren except for short grasses that waved in the wind. In the distance I spotted a small mountain. Our guide, Selchuk, explained that it wasn’t a mountain. Not a mountain? What could it be?

The mountain seemed to grow as our bus brought us near. “This is the burial mound of King Midas,” Selchuk explained.

“The dude who turned everything he touched into gold?” one of our traveling companions asked.

“A story that must have evolved over time, an embellishment referring to his extreme wealth,” Selchuk answered. “There were several kings over the centuries named Midas, but this mound is the burial site of the most famous.”

The more I examined it, the more impressive the mound became. Built in a land without quarries or timber, this was a remarkable feat. My head swam when I tried to calculate the tons of earth moved to create this mound.

“An American team of archeologists excavated the mound in the 80’s,” Selchuk said. “They found many interesting items: wooden tables, glassware and ceramics, but no gold. I invite you to visit the burial chamber, which you can do by walking a hundred yards into the mound by way of the tunnel the archeologists left behind.”

Mrs. Chatterbox looked apprehensive. “Do you think it’s safe?” she whispered to me.

“Of course,” I answered. “Don’t you want to see where King Midas was buried?”

“Not particularly.” But Mrs. Chatterbox, an amazingly good sport, followed me into the tunnel.

Events often shuffle in my mind; what I think is important fades behind something seemingly insignificant that manages to stick in my brain. The tunnel was long and not particularly interesting, and when we arrived at the burial chamber it was empty. I was mildly impressed with the five thousand year old timbers used in the construction of the chamber since there weren’t any sizable trees outside for hundreds of miles. But all interesting artifacts discovered inside the mound had been removed to various Turkish museums.

Mrs. C. and I gulped fresh air when we left the tunnel. We walked over to our guide. A quick look told us something was wrong. Very wrong. Selchuk was ashen, his trademark smile nowhere to be found. Our group gathered near the bus. When everyone had viewed the mound and had been accounted for he said, “I just received a phone call from home, bad news. My mother has unexpectedly died. She passed away this morning.” Tears were streaming down his face. “I’ll be leaving you for a few days. According to Islamic law, my mother must be buried within twenty-four hours. I’m catching a three hour flight to Istanbul tonight to be with my father.”

When we arrived in Turkey we’d all been strangers, but Selchuk had quickly forged us into a family, and he was an integral part. We all took turns hugging him and offering condolences. Then we piled back into the bus and headed to our next stop where Selchuk had arranged for another guide to take his place. He explained, “My good friend Achmed will temporarily fill in for me. He recently lost both parents in a car crash and understands what I am going through. I’ll return in three days.”

It’s common for traveling companions to rotate bus seats to avoid riding in the same section, and our seat happened to be opposite Selchuk’s. I could see his shoulders shaking as he did his best to control his sobbing. My heart went out to him, as I’m sure everyone’s did.

Midas’s mound receded into the background. Thousands of years ago a nation channeled its grief into burying a king destined to figure prominently in history’s collective consciousness. Countless hands filled buckets of dirt to create a mountain for their departed sovereign, but when I saw the grief clouding Selchuk’s eyes I knew that Midas’s mound reached no higher than the mountain of grief pressing down on Selchuk's heart.

King or mother of a tour guide; it makes no difference when you lose someone you love.

Selchuk at the walls of Troy.