Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Bridge Party of OJ

Not long ago I was behind an elderly woman at a fast food snack bar and overheard her order to the teenage boy working there. Listening to what went on between the woman and the boy was a funny and curious example of the generation gap and the slang that has grown up around food and food orders. The woman wanted a hot dog. Easy enough, until the boy asked what she wanted on the hot dog. “Give me the works,” she answered. For a few beats the boy stared blankly at the woman and then, as if she had not heard his question, repeated, “What do you want on your hot dog?” The woman looked at the boy as if he were an idiot and barked, “The works, I said! Give me the works!” Flustered and totally in the dark, the boy excused himself and walked over to the girl working in the kitchen. The woman looked back at me and asked, “What? What’s the problem? Am I speaking French?” The girl appeared in place of the boy and sweetly asked, “I’m sorry. What would you like on your hot dog?” Really put out at this point, the woman snapped, “What’s with you people? Do you understand English?” Figuring it was time to intercede, I leaned forward and explained that the woman would like to have everything on her hot dog, whatever relish, mustard or topping was available. 

Thinking later about this misunderstanding, I recalled a time when a group of us had a custom of eating Sunday breakfasts at a particular diner in Los Angeles. The diner (some called it a coffee shop) was a popular spot on La Cienega Boulevard called Ships that lasted from 1968 to 1996 before being torn down. It was one of those boomerang-shaped places with a futuristic neon sign that served American favorites at reasonable prices. Most times we had breakfast at Ships we were served by the same waitress, a jolly, bustling woman with the diner-typical name of Thelma. Boy, did she have a colorful vocabulary of slang to describe their menu. Four glasses of orange juice was “a bridge party of OJ” and once when I asked for some syrup for my pancakes she told a passing bus boy to bring some “motor oil” to the table and to put some rollups (silverware in a rolled napkin) on table 12. It took us a few Sundays with Thelma to figure out only a small amount of the shouted slang passing between the waitresses and cooks.

Food and the language we use to talk about it is often weird and interesting. American food vernacular was largely shaped by the working lingo of the waitresses and cooks in diners that spread across America in the 1940s and 50s and the earliest examples of their lingo go as far back as the nineteenth century. The men and women working in those diners used a vivid slang to communicate a customer’s order to the kitchen, expressions that were lighthearted, at times nasty, occasionally biblical and often just plain screwy, but in many cases served as mnemonic devices for cooks and staff. It may vary from place to place across the country, but you will rarely if ever hear this type of slang used outside the US.

American diners are a purely American invention that grew out of the early twentieth century lunch wagons that roamed the streets in many New England cities. Owners of these lunch wagons eventually got the idea of making their wagons into stationary lunch spots that came to be called diners. By the 1920s many of the diners began taking on an art deco look which by the thirties became modern and streamlined. The post WW2 years were a golden age for diners which saw interior decor with mirrored walls, stainless steel accessories, formica countertops in pink and beige, black and white checkerboard or tangerine and charcoal. By the late 1940s the American classic diner in all its curves, shiny chrome touches and glowing neon had arrived.

Soon, customers were hearing shouted orders of, “A radio, a 51, a stretch and squeeze it!” code words telling the cook to prepare a tuna sandwich on toast, hot chocolate, a Coke, and to make it fast. Such colorful language has all but disappeared in this age when servers named not Thelma but Sage or Brittany, carry electronic pads with pictures and names of the menu items that in one touch communicate a customer’s order straight to the kitchen. 

For me at least, these “dinerisms” are a sad lose to our tradition of eating out, a cultural heritage hugely more interesting than a disconnected face focused on a row of electric buttons that just might overlook a diner’s request to ”hold the onions” and leave no customers smiling over a dish bizarrely nicknamed, a “cowboy with spurs.”

Here are a few of the old slang terms now mostly lost from American restaurant culture:
Flop two / two fried eggs over easy
Eve with the lid on / apple pie
High and dry / a dry sandwich with no condiments
Put out the lights and cry / liver & onions
Wreck a pair / two scrambled eggs
Abbott and Costello / franks and beans
Fifty-five / root beer
Bowl of red / bowl of chili
Cremate a blue, bikini cut / dark toasted blueberry muffin cut into quarters
Nervous pudding / Jello
Beans to go / coffee to take out
Black bottom / chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup
Bloodhound in the hay / hot dog with sauerkraut
Brown down / wheat toast
Family reunion / chicken and egg sandwich

And my personal favorite diner breakfast…a western omelet with French fries, or in the lingo of Thelma, a cowboy with spurs.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Neighbor from Hell

Everyone is familiar with the ads that these days populate nine out of ten pages on the Internet, popping up and jiggling or blinking, sometimes expanding to overlay the entire page and drive you mad. Last week I came upon a book advertised in one of these pop-ups and while most times I want to scream, in this case something made me click on the ad. It turned out to be the most satisfying page link of the month, introducing me to a book by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman titled A Man Called Ove. Backman is a blogger and journalist who published this first book in 2012. An English translation followed in 2013 and the cover of the book now boasts translations into twenty-five languages. A stage version of the book opened in January 2015 in Stockholm and a film was released in December of the same year. Backman has published two additional novels since A Man Called Ove

The main character of A Man Called Ove is a 59 year-old extra salty curmudgeon, a crusty Jack Nicholson type of cantankerous and antisocial old bulldog with little patience for the ways of others, especially his neighbors. And then one day a boisterous new family moves in next door, an Iranian woman named Parvaneh with her Swedish husband and two girls. It is a hard road at first but the feisty and undeterred Parvaneh eventually succeeds in making Ove a friend and with her “interference” in his life opens him up to expose a heart we never suspected.

Ove (o-veh) is a man who views life in a black or white, right or wrong framework. He has unwavering principles, strict routines, and a hair trigger when it comes to other people. He dislikes most of the people in his neighborhood and is often ‘the neighbor from hell.’ He is annoyed by computers, iPads and cell phones and disparages anyone who can’t repair his own car or broken radiator. But there’s always a backstory and behind the crabby exterior is a very human story of fortitude, loneliness and loss. One day Parvaneh and her family move in next door—and accidentally crumple Ove’s mailbox with their trailer. This provides the doorway into a comic and touching story of unexpected friendship, one that shakes a cranky old man and the neighborhood residents right down to the roots.

Ove’s wife Sonia was the person who brought color to his world but Sonia died four years ago and all that color has drained away. She was the love of his life and her absence, along with his forced retirement has Ove making plans to join Sonia by way of a noose. The only problem is every time he’s on the verge of making it happen someone knocks on the door. Backman has created a marvelous cast of diverse characters to surround Ove, and while none of them is invited they one by one weave themselves into his life. The book is easy to read, filled with colorful characters and funny from start to finish. What surprises most is that under the rough exterior, Ove has unexpected understanding and acceptance of those with marginal or alternate lifestyles. We see this part of his character in his treatment of the heavyweight Jimmy, bad boy Adrian and gay Mirsad.   

If you’re looking to be charmed, A Man Called Ove is the perfect book, and one that offers a thoughtful reflection of love and loss and the profound impact one life can have on others. The bonus is that it comes with a big dose of laughter.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Eye of the Camera

We all have memories of special places. For one it’s a particular spot in the old hometown, and for another it may be the jungles of Borneo or a high school trip to New York. The recollections of places we’ve spent a part of our lives, be it long or short, are not mere static images frozen in the imagination but something often enriched by the passage of years. This happens especially when memories of a place are pleasant and characterized by a happy time of life. Over time the memories become romanticized and take on an aura of specialness that becomes almost holy. At least that’s always how it’s been with me.

Businessmen stop for a bowl of noodles on the way home.

Anyone who has spent some time flipping through the pages of Scriblets will know that once upon a time I lived in the faraway land of Japan. Seeing as how I spent more than a year and a day there, my memories of it are about as tactile as thought can be. But a funny thing happened. It wasn’t long before those aspects of life in Japan that had once bothered me—the packed trains, the crowds and constant dodging of oncoming bicycles, the bureaucracy—all these gradually turned sweet in memory and now I’m thinking, “God, how I miss the loud and constant chatter of five housewives over coffee!” All of it has been embellished and set fondly and romantically aglow by the yearning for a place in memory.

Early morning bicycle

The photographs of Masashi Wakui bring to life the city in my mind. Though they catalog actual places, Wakui’s photographs give Tokyo a surreal, cinematic quality. Photographed at night, mostly among the backstreets and alleyways of Shibuya and Shinjuku, in their neon richness the photos are almost kaleidoscopic in their portrayal of the city. Wakui’s photographs have been called, “big-budget anime come to life.” It is the result of processing his photographs to give them the tinged look of oversaturated colors seen in Japanese anime—it is what some have begun calling the Masashi Wakui Look. Unlike other cities, light illuminates Tokyo at night to give it a dreamlike dystopian atmosphere and it is through this nocturnal city that Wakui’s camera eye wanders.


Despite the many, many visitors to his Flicker and Tumblr pages and the popularity of his work, information about the photographer is hard to find. He is a self-taught photographer who wanders the streets at night with high-performance compact cameras (Sony RX100 and Ricoh GR) in search of nighttime cityscapes. Perhaps it’s that he prefers to let his cameras do the talking and so remains in the background. Certainly a humble touch that his Tumblr account includes the brief phrase, 本当に馬鹿でした。(“It’s just foolishness really.”) In fact, Wakui’s photographs are anything but and are marveled over by more than a few amateurs and professionals. You can find his work at and

Have a look. It’s a safe bet to say you will be fascinated by this man’s view of Tokyo.

Alleyway Bar

Shibuya Crossing, one of the most heavily trafficked crossings in the world

Rainy night in the neon jungle

The romance of dimly lit narrow streets colored by neon, streetlights and shadow.

Early morning under the wires

Soul Joint

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Green Stamps & Necker Knobs

For one who enjoys reading, the best times come when stumbling upon a book and writer you never suspected would knock your socks off and realizing he has authored a long list of titles you can look forward to reading your way through. Always late to the party, such was the case with me and Ivan Doig who passed away this past April leaving behind thirteen novels and five books of non-fiction. His last novel, published this month is a combination coming of age and road story titled Last Bus to Wisdom. The protagonist of Doig’s tale is an 11 year-old boy named Donal “Red Chief” Cameron who just might be one of the freshest and most memorable juvenile characters in fiction since Huckleberry Finn.

In the summer of 1951 Donal unwillingly leaves Montana and his beloved Gram when she has some “female trouble” requiring surgery and is unable to look after him during her time of recuperation. Donal boards the dog bus, a Greyhound bound for Manitowoc, Wisconsin and the home of his great-aunt Kate. The trip is a memorable one for him, including a first kiss, a run-in with a thief and a scare from one ornery sheriff. He arrives in Manitowoc and is met by the odd couple of all time, Aunt Kate and Uncle Herman. It isn’t long before Donal catches on that his aunt is none to happy with him around and suddenly she is sending him back to Montana and into an orphanage. Donal boards another Greyhound, head filled with nightmares of life in a state home, but looks up to see the person sitting next to him is none other than a runaway Uncle Herman. Together they head west on the road to fun and adventure.

On the road together the two encounter a good sampling of both delight and disaster. Uncle Herman is a great fan of the wild west and anything related to cowboys and Indians and Donal assures him of finding a lot of both. Soon enough they are thick in the middle of it, decked out in Stetson hats purchased with the H&S Green Stamps Donal got for all his Greyhound miles—the 1950s answer to frequent flyer miles. They meet plenty of Indians and a rodeo full of cowboys where Uncle Herman discovers the thrill of wild bronc riding. With their money lifted by a pickpocket on one of the bus rides, the only choice left to them is signing on for ranch work cutting and baling hay along with a family of hoboes. The two are living the life of their wildest dreams until the sheriff turns up looking for an absconded husband and runaway boy.

There are more than a few things to praise about Doig’s novel but at the top of the list is the very particular and colorful idiom of all the characters. Donal has a way with words that never fail to surprise and the German Uncle Herman speaks a language all his own that few outside of Donal can follow. But language and style are only two of Doig’s big guns. The characters in this novel—and there are many—are each wonderfully drawn, men and women who walk off the page to sit beside you. There is as well, the character of place and location that revives mid-twentieth century towns and locales so tangibly. 

One of the most enjoyable reads of the year. Easily among this reader’s Top Three.

I never knew before reading Last Bus to Wisdom that the knobs often seen attached to steering wheels in the 1950s were known as “necker knobs.” It made one-handed steering easier so the right arm could go snugly around your girlfriend’s shoulder.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Act of Survival

This past Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. How pale those words seem in describing an event that in its first moment incinerated 80,000 people and left thousands more to die in the coming days and weeks. For many of us the reality of that iconic Monday morning is far removed and almost impossible to imagine. Details about the annihilated city and its population were for a long time sketchy at best to everyone but the few officials who visited the aftermath. It wasn’t until a year later that a full picture of the tragedy in human dimensions was offered by John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who published his account in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. 

William Shawn, managing editor of The New Yorker, discussed with Hersey his astonishment that in the millions of words written about the bomb there was nothing that told the story of what happened through the eyes of who it happened to. Hersey spent three weeks in Japan doing research and interviewing bomb survivors in Hiroshima. His goal was, “…to write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings.” The result was Hiroshima, a 31,000 word story published first in The New Yorker and later by Alfred A. Knopf as a book. Hersey chose a dry, calm style free of emotion, allowing the survivors’ stories to speak for themselves. He said in a letter, “The flat style was deliberate, and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader's experience would be as direct as possible.”

The book begins:
1 A Noiseless Flash
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The story continues to follow these six survivors as they make their way through the aftermath of a broken and scorched city. Though the writer’s aim was to keep his own emotions at bay, this new style of journalism nevertheless tips the reader headfirst into the heart and mind of his subjects. The bravery of these six people in the face of such utter loss and defeat makes for a remarkable story.

                            Toshiko Sasaki                       Masakazu Fujii

                   Hatsuyo Nakamura                   Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge

                          Terufumi Sasaki                     Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Realizing this past August 6 was the Hiroshima anniversary, I pulled from a bookshelf my old and carefully preserved first Knopf edition and stood for several minutes rereading the first pages. Hardly raising my eyes, I settled into a chair for the next hour and read the book’s 118 pages with the same fervor of my first reading years ago. This small but powerful book is not one to miss.
John Hersey’s Hiroshima at Amazon

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Thoughts on a Famous Book

Chances are high that every writer likes to see his or her book singled out by the press for pre-publication notice. But on occasion the coming of a new book can be marred by too much attention from the press. Take the case of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, published on July 14 by HarperCollins. Obviously because of the author’s previous and until then only book, the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, excitement and expectations were high when the new book was announced. To say that excitement was high is probably the grandest of understatements considering that the press went wild and the hype began building to ridiculous levels. Credit (or blame) a lot of that on the lawyers and agents involved in bringing to light a book written by Ms Lee even before her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird

As someone who considers To Kill a Mockingbird one of the more important books in American literature, and also a person who tries to keep up with what’s new and upcoming in books, the pre-publication hype for Go Set a Watchman was overwhelming. And to that phenomenon I attach a negative result. Naturally, as was always intended by the lawyers and agents, the bombardment of press releases created a sure-fire money earning bestseller weeks before printing of the first copy. Little surprise that HarperCollins announced the book set a pre-sale record for the publishing house. It isn’t big news that controversy tends to make money and the controversy regarding this second (or first) book by Harper Lee has been bubbling. The state of Alabama launched an investigation into whether or not the 87 year-old author was being coerced into publishing her “lost” manuscript, concluding that there was no coercion. Following a stroke in 2007 Harper Lee is considered by those close to her as mentally and physically unable to participate in business transactions.

Other ingredients in the press release gumbo were articles arguing that the book was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, rejected with the recommendation for a complete rewrite. Add to that the opinion of critics who wondered how the same person could write such a turnaround story, that the wise father in To Kill a Mockingbird is a racist in the new book. By the time July 14 rolled around I was full and tired of reading about Go Set a Watchman.

And then this past Monday while browsing in my local library, the friendly librarian mentioned that a copy of Go Set a Watchman was on the new books shelf. It’s a very small library but I was still surprised that such an eagerly awaited book had not been snatched up immediately. Still, in no hurry to read the book, my head too full of hype and conflicting reports, I told the librarian that I would wait a while. She said, “It’s a wonderful book, when you do get around to it.” We chatted about the book for a minute, me explaining that the reviews and such had discouraged me. In the end, I did bring the book home.

I finished reading it on Tuesday. After all the off-putting hullabaloo that went before, I am happy to say that Go Set a Watchman is a fine read, a worthy book and a very creditable piece of writing, thank you Harper Lee. Her prose is delightful, her sentences crystal and economic, the characters and setting well-shaped and vivid and her dialogue delightful, full of those colorful old southernisms. Something I should have known but didn't, despite several front to back readings of the Bible in different versions—The title of the book comes from the King James version, chapter 21, verse 6 of Isaiah. An excellent and very fitting title. 

A few things about the book bothered me, but only slightly and not enough to take away from the whole. The ending is what I would almost call a Hollywood ending contrived to leave the reader with a sigh of happy relief. Here and there in the book’s 278 pages are scattered several long immersions into the childhood antics of Scout, Jem and Dill, passages that felt too much like deleted pages from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is important to grasp or sense from the beginning that a good bit of the young Scout from Mockingbird still holds sway in the 26 year-old Scout of Go Set a Watchman. She is by design immature and naive in many ways, a young woman who wears a thin veneer of New York sophistication, but as her uncle describes at one point, something of a bigot. 

Most importantly, forget everything you've read recently about the discovery of the manuscript, the embattled lawyers and agents and the stories of long ago first drafts turned down then reappearing as a book similar to To Kill a Mockingbird set 25 years later. Put all the articles, essays and reviews aside; this book is not what they describe. To be very clear about it, Atticus Finch is not a racist in the second book, he is not a vile reverse side of the father (and man) his daughter thought he was. It’s hard to imagine how a critic from whatever illustrious publication could get that so wrong, like missing the boat completely. If anyone tells you that the character of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a racist, then tell them, "You'd better go back and read it again."

Wonderful book. Harper Lee has added a late in life crown to her collection.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Arigatô, Mr. Nagahara

Nagahara Nobuyoshi 1932-2015
In 1947 a 15 year-old boy went to work at the Sailor Pen Company in Hiroshima, Japan. He continued to work there for 64 years building a worldwide reputation as one of the finest fountain pen nib designers anywhere in the world. Nobuyoshi Nagahara, known as the “God of Fountain Pens” in Japan, passed away on March 11 of this year. This sad news came to me today with the arrival of Stationery Hobby Box (Shumi no bungu bako), issue 34. Following in the footsteps of his uncle and starting work as a boy in the Sailor factory, over the years he became a master craftsman of unparalleled genius, his reputation familiar to fountain pen aficionados all over the world. 

During my years of living in Japan I had several opportunities of meeting Mr. Nagahara at pen clinics and receiving advice about or adjustments to one or another of my several Sailor fountain pens. One might think it out of the question that such a respected craftsman would give ten or fifteen minutes of advice and help to lines of strangers, but that was Mr. Nagahara’s way at all of his clinics. I once asked if he would sign a page in the notebook I carried and with a laugh he took up my newly adjusted Sailor 1911, full of violet ink and dashed off his signature in the notebook.

Mr. Nagahara retired in 2011, leaving his son, Nagahara Yukio to take over his work at Sailor. In the true sense of traditional Japanese apprenticeship, there is little doubt that his 14 years of side-by-side work with his father guarantees that the Nagahara legacy is in good hands.

One of my favorite pens of Nagahara Nobuyoshi’s design is the susudake naginata in which the barrel and nib are encased in smoked bamboo. The process of smoking the bamboo over an open hearth is lengthy, sometimes carried over years at a time. The long absorption of smoke serves to harden the bamboo even more and to add elegant coloration to the grain. The result is called susudake, or smoked-stained bamboo. From this hard and beautifully colored bamboo, Mr. Nagahara made what is called the Susudake Naginata. The nib design is of 21k gold, long in body and slightly reminiscent of the old Japanese halberd or naginata.

Another Sailor favorite is the Sailor Profit 21 with its Naginata nib. What first caught my eye was the striking red and black body with gold trim, though it is not truly a red, more of an orangish red similar to persimmon—eyecatchingly beautiful in its elegant jet black, orangy-red and shiny gold trim. About the nib…One evening in Tokyo I was cleaning the pen and as will happen horribly on occasion, the pen slipped out of my hands and dropped like a missile, nib first to the hardwood floor. Any sharper and it would have stuck up quivering in the floor. I stood frozen in shock for half a minute imagining the newly blunted nib. No question it was badly damaged by the fall, and in a condition that required professional help. Three weeks later Mr. Nagahara was making an appearance at a pen clinic in Tokyo and I took the pen to him for repair. Apparently it was a simple fix for him, and within fifteen minutes he had the pen back to mint condition—and of course, no charge.

The article on Mr. Nagahara’s passing in Stationery Hobby Box suggests that for many, March 11, 2015 marked the end of an era.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America