Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Sidewalk View of New York

Perhaps more than any other city in the world, a stroll along the sidewalks of New York offers the chance to gaze endlessly upon a cornucopia of architectural history and style. There are other great cities showcasing a rich heritage in building, among them Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Rome, and to great extent London, and all are cities where anyone with an eye for architectural detail can roam urban streets for days fascinated by the work of great builders. For me, having spent some years living in New York, my mind quickly returns there when architecture is the subject. Could cultural historian Judith Dupré have been right when she said that even those who have physically left New York never leave completely? I certainly feel that way about the architecture of that great city.

In his book One Thousand New York Buildings, photographer Jorg Brockmann wrote about the challenge of compiling the book: ‘…the buildings of New York don’t exist in isolation—they live crowded together in sometimes unlikely juxtapositions just as its people do, presenting endless contrasts of style, size, materials, and function. And out of this visual chaos emerges a kind of harmony. It wasn’t until that harmony was so suddenly and radically disrupted [September 11, 2001] that we paused to contemplate it. I mean this book to celebrate it.’

Brockmann’s One Thousand New York Buildings covers the breadth of New York City’s five boroughs, an area encompassing 320 square miles. The photographs below are a small part of the whole, and include only eleven examples from buildings in the area from Lower Manhattan to Greenwich Village and West 13th Street.

The New York Cocoa Exchange; 82-92 Beaver Street, at Pearl Street; 1904, architects Clinton & Russell. Originally known as the Beaver Building, the architects solved the problem of designing for an angular site by rounding off the corner. Part of the New York Coffee and Sugar Exchange, the Cocoa Exchange moved to the World Trade Center in the 1990s.

Delmonico’s Restaurant and Hotel; 56 Beaver Street at South William Street; 1891, James Brown Lord architect; conversion to condominiums in 1996 done by Mark Kemeny. Delmonico’s is New York’s oldest restaurant, dating from 1825. It has had seven different locations over the years. When the original was destroyed by fire it was replaced by this building, serving as both a restaurant and hotel for men only. The hotel has been converted into condominiums and the restaurant is open to all. The marble columns at the entrance are from the original building and are said to have been excavated at Pompeii.

World Trade Center; Church to West Streets and Liberty to Vesey Streets; 1972-1977, designed by Minoru Yamasaki & Associates with Emery Roth & Sons. The now-destroyed 110-story stainless steel Twin Towers were 1,350 feet tall and for a short time the tallest in the world. More than a pair of monolithic towers, the World Trade Center was seven buildings connected by a vast underground concourse and a wide plaza at ground level. The sixteen-acre site called “Ground Zero” is still under reconstruction, but the first new building called 1WTC reached the 100th floor of its construction in April of this year and is expected to open in late 2013.

Stuyvesant-Fish House; 21 Stuyvesant Street between Second and Third Avenues; 1804, built by Petrus Stuyvesant, great grandson of the Nieuw Amsterdam’s Director General. A large Federal-style townhouse, it was built as a wedding present for Stuyvesant’s daughter Elizabeth when she married Nicholas Fish. The land  was once part of the original estate where the first Stuyvesant spent his last days.

Washington Mews; behind 1-13 Washington Square North, between Fifth Avenue and University Place. The street was originally called “Stable Alley” when it served as an area of carriage houses for the mansions on Washington Square. The carriage houses were converted to private homes in 1939. The residences on the south side were rebuilt in 1939 when when some of the houses on the square were turned into apartments.

MacDougal Alley; off MacDougal Street between West 8th Street and Washington Square North; built in the 1850s as stables for the residents living on 8th Street and Washington Square. A dead-end street of homes remodeled in a variety of styles, it is a charming escape from the city surrounding it.

127-131 MacDougal Street between West 3rd and West 4th Streets. This row of tiny Federal houses was built in 1829 for Aaron Burr. Not visible in the photograph are the iron pineapples at the entrance of No. 129. They are a symbol of hospitality that originated in Nantucket when whaling ships brought pineapples back from the South Seas. People placed the pineapples on newell posts outside the front door to signal that visitors were welcome.

56 West 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. This small Federal townhouse was built in 1832 and is one of the oldest and most charming houses on a street of beautiful residential architecture. The fluted Ionic colonettes at the doorway, the leaded windows and the wrought-iron handrails and newell post are typical of the Federal style which arrived in New York about 1800.

Jefferson Market Library: 425 Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street; 1877, architects Vaux & Withers; 1967 restoration by Georgio Cavaglieri. Designed by the same architect who did the buildings and bridges of Central Park, this is a flamboyant Victorian structure which stood empty for twenty-two years before being converted into a branch of the New York Public Library in 1967. Originally the Jefferson Market Courthouse, it stands on the site of a major food market during the early nineteenth century. The original courthouse was adjoined to a large jail that was replaced in 1931 by the massive Art Deco Women’s House of Detention. The detention center was demolished in 1974 and replaced by a neighborhood garden called the Jefferson Market Greening.

4-10 Grove Street between Bedford and Hudson Streets; 1834, designed by James N. Wells; among the last survivors of the early Federal style homes that dominated New York in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The wrought iron work, including the boot scrapers is all original, as are the paneled doorways.

6 St Luke’s Place; Leroy Street between Hudson Street and Seventh Avenue South. One example in an elegant row of brick and brownstone Italianate townhouses built in the 1880s, No. 6 originally had a Leroy Street address until James J. Walker, the city’s mayor between 1926 and 1932 used his power to have the eastern end renamed St Luke’s Place. At the time, only the mayor was allowed a lamppost at the bottom of his stoop, making his house easy to find.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The White Coat Syndrome

With the exception of twelve days without Internet connection, Scriblets has been a daily project since November 21, 2009. A total of 900 blog posts have been put up under the Scriblets banner as of May 22, 2012. It started out as a blog about fountain pens, ink and paper, but over time expanded to include topics ranging across a dozen or more different categories. The whole experience has been a consistently interesting and challenging project, while providing a valuable daily writing discipline.
I have been fortunate in enjoying a blessing of free time to devote to this project, and I continue to be stimulated by the various avenues that have provided fodder for the writing, but more and more over the past few months I have yearned to do another kind of writing, one that also requires time and discipline. And now it’s time to turn that corner and give my time to other writing projects.
Beginning today I am revising my schedule of Scriblets posts, cutting back to one a week. It’s doubtful that the weekly post will always fall on Wednesday, as schedule and topics will play a part in what day of the week a new post appears. The previous 900 posts will soon be archived in categories, making it easier for readers to pinpoint a desired topic or specific post. 
It is my hope that regular readers of the blog will continue to find a little that stimulates, informs and entertains. Thanks to all for continuing to come back.


Tuesday was the day long set aside for a check up at the doctor’s, and there I was waiting in the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. When she called to remind me of the appointment, the nurse asked that I try and get there early to take care any beforehand-paperwork and to give me time to change into a paper dress. Mmm…something else to not look forward to. I’m no different from the average guy in feeling a wee bit anxious about a lengthy physical examination, especially one where all my clothes are piled in a basket and I’m standing there wearing a large paper towel while a nurse takes my blood pressure and lines up an array of ominous looking instruments. As my eyes strayed across the hammers, tongs and curious flashlights I wasn’t at all comforted by the sight of a large tube of medical lubricant there beside the rubber gloves.

The doctor came in and right off began chatting about this and that, a technique I assumed designed to relax the patient. Eventually the ‘general’ became more focused as he began prodding, poking and palpating various places between head and toe. Take a deep breath…hold your breath…breathe out…does that hurt? Then it was time for an EKG and the attachment of wires, me waiting for the application of cold gel to lubricate the rubber nodes on wrists, ankles and chest. It was a surprise to learn that they don’t do that anymore, that the newer technology requires no suction cups or lubrication. 

With that done, the doctor told me that my blood pressure was high, but that he wasn’t concerned because it was no doubt the result of the white coat syndrome. “What kind of syndrome?” I asked. Apparently it is common for patients to have elevated blood pressure readings in the presence of the doctor, a reading influenced by anxiety or perhaps intimidation. It made perfect sense to me, though I had never heard another doctor explain it that way. I wondered if the same was also true of an accelerated heart rate during a physical.

The time came to shed my oversized sheet of Bounty and laying it aside I threw one more glance at the yet unused instruments on the side table. Nothing there looked too threatening, but that didn’t encourage much relaxation on my part. “Step up on the scale here…Mmm, a little overweight, I believe. “Are you exercising regularly?” Grabbing hold of me and telling me to turn my head to the side and cough, I knew things were moving in a direction I dreaded. Snapping on the rubber gloves, I heard him say, “Now lean over the table…” Who in their right mind wouldn’t feel violated?

Buttoned up and tucked in, I sat waiting for the doctor to return with his diagnosis. Ten minutes later I left his office with another appointment in one year, happy words ringing in my ears. “Looks like you’re going to make it to the age of ninety.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ghost Trains

In 2003 Julie Otsuka published When the Emperor Was Divine, a novel about the experiences of one Japanese family removed from their California home in 1942 by US authorities and sent to live in a relocation camp for the duration of the war. It was the same for all Japanese living on the west coast at the time and a shameful episode in US history. Eight years later Otsuka published her second book on a similar theme and walked away with the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction. That book was her 2011 novel The Buddha in the Attic.

In The Buddha in the Attic Otsuka has given us a novel in which there is no main character, no protagonist, no real plot and no dialogue. Dozens of names are mentioned, but throughout the book we see these dozens as a collective ‘we’ living similar experiences and facing a like fate. They are the Japanese picture brides who came to America as the ‘arranged wives‘ of Japanese immigrant workers in California of the 1920s.

Their story is told in a spare six chapters that are almost poetic in their eloquence. The whole is like a Japanese picture scroll depicting a series of scenes, telling its story in frozen moments. Otsuka begins her story on a boat carrying the picture brides from Japan to San Francisco…‘On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.’

They are met by the men who are their sudden husbands, men who look nothing like their photograph but have the worn markings of overworked laborers. In her second chapter, the writer introduces the reader to a  surprisingly effective pattern that will continue through the rest of the book, an almost-list of sentences describing first one woman and then another. It is this technique that Otsuka uses to build a collective character from the individual experiences of many Japanese women. We are unable to attach names to the actions described, but we feel the confusion and pain all the more…‘That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly and without saying a word…They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days. They took us with our white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die…They took us with apologies for their rough, callused hands, and we knew at once that they were farmers and not bankers…They took us on our knees, while we clung to the bedpost and wept…They took us while murmuring “Thank you” over and over again in a familiar Tohoku dialect that immediately set us at ease.’

These women along with their men struggle collectively in coming to terms with the new culture, language and attitudes, settling into family life. They battle disappointment in each other and in their isolation and their homesickness. But they are hard workers unfamiliar with the concept of giving up and they persevere until the time they can make humble success of their lives. Children are born and given names like Lester and George and Doris and grow up more American than Japanese. But everything begins to change with Pearl Harbor and by the following April all Japanese are instructed to prepare for evacuation, leaving their homes, their farms and businesses, pets, savings. Here again Otsuka paints the picture in one sentence descriptions of this one or that one heading off into an unknown future as a dangerous alien.

In the last chapter of the book titled “A Disappearance” the collective ‘we’ becomes ‘they’ as the Americans who lived among the Japanese ponder their disappearance, but then slowly forget about them.
‘The Japanese have disappeared from our town. Their houses are boarded up and empty now. Their mailboxes have begun to overflow. Unclaimed newspapers litter their sagging front porches and gardens. Abandoned cars sit in their driveways. Thick knotty weeds are sprouting up through their lawns…In one of their kitchens—Emi Saito’s—a black telephone rings and rings.’

Both the earlier When the Emperor was Divine and the recent The Buddha in the Attic are slim books of under 150 pages and offer a poignant glimpse of Japanese-American history in words and sentences that read like a prose poem.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fleas, Cats & Whips

In considering the animal kingdom an ancient sage asked the question, “Why was humankind created only on the sixth day and as the very last of all creatures?” He answered the question himself saying, “It was God’s way of telling humans whenever they become overbearing and swollen with pride, ‘Best you remember that even the flea preceded you in creation.’” Of course, the Bible is also quick to point out in the early lines of Genesis that man is given dominion over the other animals, but in some cases that ascendancy is hard to discern. Ever feel defeated by mosquitoes or houseflies? Ever try asserting your dominance over a charging bull? No surprise that our language is so rich in simile and analogy with reference to the animal kingdom—raining cats and dogs, a game of cat and mouse, a snake in the grass, as wise as an owl, a mousy person, a bullish buyer, gentle as a lamb. All those creatures created before man have left a clear mark upon our culture and civilization, and especially upon our language.

Usually the tiny flea points in a metaphorical sense to something small and trifling, something of small importance. But to literally put a flea in someone’s ear is quite the serious matter, and maddening enough to drive that person to the edge of sanity. It is not rare to see a dog with a flea in its ear, restless and scratching, perhaps running in circles. But dogs and cats are far from being the only victims of the lowly flea. Only a few of the many different species of flea choose a human host, but chronicles going back as far as 700 AD tell of Saxon nobles complaining bitterly of flea bites.

Fleas were especially aggravating around the time of the medieval knight. Recall the drawings or movies depicting knights clad in chain mail from head to foot and imagine an adversary more worrying than the one carrying a lance and sword. Much worse were the small gluttons locked inside the knight’s chain mail and unable to hop away even if they wanted. But why leave a host unable to hinder the delicious progress from juicy underarm to delicate earlobe. The flea bit where it pleased and even when sated could find no easy exit. But on occasion the flea made its way to the knight’s ear, settling there for long periods, intermittently biting and jumping and causing the knight endless torment. And there we have the origin of the expression ‘a flea in one’s ear’ denoting something particularly maddening. 

At first hearing this expression gives the notion of rescue, of freeing an animal that by hook or crook got itself caught in a bag unable to escape. But we all know the words mean nothing of the sort, referring instead to a secret suddenly revealed. It started with unscrupulous purveyors of suckling pigs in the country fairs of England in earlier times. The young pigs were most often sold already wrapped inside a sack, but there were occasional tricksters who sold sacks containing not a suckling pig but a cat, a deception not discovered until the buyer got his ‘pig’ home. The wary buyer always insisted on opening the bag immediately to examine the pig.

There is another custom connected to this expression and it comes to us from a practice in Britain’s Royal Navy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ‘cat’ referred not to the animal, but to a whip known as the cat-o’-nine-tails, an instrument of punishment kept in a sack until the day when misdeeds aboard ship were called to reckoning. To let the cat out of the bag meant to take out the whip for a flogging. To readers of the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, the expression is familiar from several of the books in the series.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Privacy Behind Glass

The country that gave us the poop-powered bicycle and the urine-controlled video game Toylet has made headlines again with the opening of a new public restroom.

Visitors to Tokyo rarely fail to comment on the abundance of clean and well-maintained public toilets. Unless stuck in one of the city’s more rural suburbs, you need walk only a short distance to find a restroom in either a department store, park, bookstore, station or restaurant. Unlike most other cities, for those looking to find the best, P-Vine Publications published Tokyo Toilet Map in 2010, a guide to the twenty most stylish restrooms in Tokyo. So what’s special about a new public restroom in the Tokyo suburb of Ichihara City? Last month the city officially opened what it calls “the biggest public toilet in the world.” Located in front of Ichihara’s Itabu Station, the white normal-sized toilet is situated inside a spacious glass cube in the center of a 2,152 square foot garden of potted flowers and plants. A fence almost seven feet tall surrounds the garden to ensure privacy. At a cost of $123,000 some have criticized the project as a waste of both space and money.

Since the design is one by world famous architect Sô Fujimoto, the man who designed the new Taiwan Tower, you have to wonder if he took on the project as a community service declining a fee. Fujimoto came to the job through the Art Front Gallery, an organization that manages the city’s art festival. Asked about his involvement, Fujimoto commented, “I thought it would be quite interesting. Public lavatories are something both private and public, so designing them can be a very motivating challenge for architects. I was also enthusiastic about the fact that Itabu Station is surrounded by such wonderful natural life. It was a great opportunity to rethink the relationship between architecture and nature.”

The problem for the time being is, the relationship with nature has yet to be fully realized. At the opening ceremony visitors found numerous potted plants lined up on grassless turf surrounding the glassed-in toilet, giving the appearance of a work in progress. Officials explained that it was only in the first stage, that the soil had not yet settled completely and prevented actual planting. The potted flowers were something of an improvisation for the scheduled opening. City officials have made assurances that in the future the garden will resemble Fujimoto’s original concept—a wild grassland area with trees lining the fence.

For the time being the toilet is reserved for ladies only, something that officials say is simply to keep the lines and number of users manageable. Fujimoto has indicated that he prefers the toilet be available to both men and women, making the experience open to more people. For temporary convenience he has designed another toilet adjacent to the garden open to all.

How many have experienced the spacious new garden toilet? One official said he couldn’t offer a number, but that rolls of toilet paper are steadily decreasing. Asked why such an unusual public restroom, he explained, “It’s hoped that the toilet will become a tourist attraction for visitors to next year’s Ichihara City Art Festival, which is currently in its planning stages. The festival is a government-led initiative to improve the area through the renovation of public facilities with the help of arts.” The hope is that the garden toilet will attract more tourists and boost the region’s economy.

There was a time when public conveniences in Ichihara City were few and far between, but these days it is an area that attracts a lot of visitors who come in spring for the spectacular cherry blossoms and mustard fields bright with yellow flowers. Though the area is scenically beautiful, for a long time the only toilets for visitors were the old-fashioned squat toilets. Those original old pit toilets were installed for quick-stop train passengers at Itabu Station, but these days most visitors come by car, and everyone today wants clean modern conveniences.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sea Oats

Late spring along Florida’s east coast is a time when the dune sea oats are at their finest. Walking on the beach early Friday morning, my eye was drawn again and again to the clusters of these plants which serve as a barrier between beach and land. All of us living on this barrier island would call it a blessing if the oats grew in an uninterrupted line both north and south, but in an area where tourism plays a part, such growth would be rare indeed. The plants during May are colored new green by fresh spurts of growth and a burgeoning of yellowish seed heads that will take on a brownish hue in the heat of summer.

The sea oat (Uniola paniculata) is a semitropical perennial that dominates beach and dune communities along the east coast and the Gulf Coast of the US, Mexico, and on islands in the Caribbean. It is a tall, erect grass reaching six feet, with thin leaves tapering to pointed tips and growing to a length of 15-20 inches, approximately a quarter inch in width. The high reaching stalks produce large seed heads that flower in early summer. Sea oats function as a trap to catch wind-blown sand that falls and eventually becomes a mound initiating the formation of sand dunes. It is an excellent pioneering species, colonizing previously uncolonized areas and in most cases leading to the desired ecological distribution. Sea oats have a high tolerance to sea water and salt spray, as well as a high tolerance for drought. It’s active growth period is spring and summer and though the growth rate is slow the plant has a long lifespan.

Well suited to a saline environment, sea oats play an important part in barrier island ecology. Often used in soil stabilization projects, their long root structure forms dense surface roots and deeply penetrating roots that hold loose sand or soil together. Because they stabilize dune ridges, they are a crucial component of an area’s hurricane defense strategy and for that reason are a protected grass in most states along the east coast. Picking or disturbing sea oats is punishable by fine in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. On many Florida beaches signs posted at regular intervals advising beachgoers to stay off the dunes.

In addition to sea oats, a variety of grasses and wild flowers colonize a dune as it grows taller and create a protected environment on the landward side allowing for the growth of other plants, which in turn support birds and animals. At different times it is possible to see beach mice, doves and tortoises in sand dunes. Recently, ornithologists in Florida discovered that the pygmy burrowing owl makes its nest within sea oat colonies to conceal its young from natural predators. Without the sea oats and other plant life dunes would have no anchor and blow away, changing the ecosystem drastically and also making the coastline more vulnerable to hurricanes.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie Star Flashback

Last night my friend Shelby and I were watching television, and hitting the clicker she landed on an old black and white western film on TCM. There was no question that the star on screen was the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck, but we weren’t sure what the film was. We watched for a while before Shelby gave in and dialed up the answer on the Internet Movie Database. It was the 1942 picture, The Great Man’s Lady starring Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, one of those flashback movies in which 100 year-old pioneer woman Hannah Sempler Hoyt (Stanwyck) tells her story, beginning with the early days of helping found a city in the wilderness and continuing across eighty years. The actress portrays Sempler from age twenty to 100. Neither Shelby nor I had seen a Barbara Stanwyck picture in a long time and sat enthralled by the actress’s skills.

Barbara Stanwyck’s great talent lay in her ability to display such extreme contrasts in her roles. Her film characters were alternately sultry and sweet, vulnerable and tough, funny or dramatic, joyous or tragic. No one could doubt she was simply one of the greatest actresses working in film during Hollywood’s Golden Era. It was tough-minded feminism in the  weepy Stella Dallas released in 1937, madcap glamour in the 1941 comedy The Lady Eve, and a poisonous vixen in the 1944 classic Double Indemnity. Surprisingly, in spite of a virtual catalog of unforgettable performances, she never won an Academy Award for her work, and like other aging glamour girls before her, moved reluctantly into television work in the 1950s and 1960s when her movie career declined. She became an even bigger star on television. Like no other actress of her generation Barbara Stanwyck enjoyed a long, varied career in film and television, always beloved by her millions of fans. She made eighty-five films in thirty-eight years before turning to television, was nominated for an Academy Award four times, won three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award. Raising herself from Brooklyn’s working class, acting aside, her business acumen made her one of America’s richest women. Oddly enough, though hugely popular among her peers, she died a virtual recluse.

Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907. With stubborn perseverance she hammered her way into the chorus line of a few Broadway shows, but ambition quickly pushed her to center stage. Broadway producer David Belasco liked her and suggested she change her name to “Barbara Stanwyck,” then casting her in his play, The Noose. The play was a smash hit and the twenty year-old Stanwyck was suddenly a stage star. She starred in another hit play, which attracted the attention of a film producer, and soon after won a small part in the 1927 silent movie Broadway Nights. Something about film work intrigued the young actress and she left New York for Hollywood to try her luck in motion pictures.

Her movie career took off quickly, and catapulted into leading roles she never looked back. From the beginning she was bright, beautiful and ballsy with a presence that propelled her solidly into class A films. Stanwyck’s career flared with roles tailored to her matchless combination of attitude and allure. She began making three or four pictures a year and earned a reputation as one of the hardest working women in Hollywood. The movies were not always first rate, but nobody questioned Stanwyck’s performances. Her star rose steadily through the 1930s, but it was her powerful performance in the romantic drama Stella Dallas that put her among the elite of Hollywood actresses. After Stella Dallas she found herself in the upper echelon of film stardom with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard.

Double Indemnity (1944) is considered by many to be the highwater mark of Stanwyck’s career in films. She continued acting in movies for another twelve years but none of them equalled the quality of her earlier films. The 1948 picture Sorry, Wrong Number was a good film and it brought Stanwyck her final Academy Award nomination, but ultimately didn’t live up to the classic Double Indemnity. Movie roles became less interesting as she aged and Stanwyck turned her attention to television. The Barbara Stanwyck Show in 1960 lasted only a single season but earned Stanwyck an Emmy Award. Next came guest appearances on Western shows like Wagon Train, followed by the western series The Big Valley. She earned another Emmy Award for her work in the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds. Next came Dynasty and its spin-off, The Colbys, from 1985 to ’87. After a lifetime of hard work she finally grew tired of the grind.

In retirement she continued to be active with charity work but a lifelong habit of heavy smoking finally caught up with her. In 1990 at the age of eighty-three she died in Santa Monica, California from congestive heart failure and emphysema.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cool Whip vs Gillette

A penthouse apartment on New York’s upper westside sometime in early 1966, one of my first Manhattan parties, a Louisiana kid not long out of high school gawking at hip, sophisticated New Yorkers and sipping on vodka and Seven Up. Most of the people there were in the television industry, either the creative or business end and my own entry card through a friend who wrote news for one of the network programs. I was introduced to a commercial producer working at Benton & Bowles, one of the bigger advertising agencies, entertaining the three or four standing around him with a story about the brand new product he was currently producing a commercial for. It was something called Cool Whip, and in a stage whisper audible around the room he announced that it was a faux whipped cream made from the thick black liquid distilled from wood or coal—in other words, tar.

I’d like to think that like me, others in the room also took his descriptions with a grain of salt. It was too hard to imagine whipped cream-like puffs of white coming from a pitch black goo associated with road construction. This was at a time before a list of ingredients was mandatory, days when the general public didn’t pay much attention to those details, but hearing of the connection between a dessert topping and tar was a little scary.

Cool Whip came out the freezer-oriented Birds Eye division at General Foods, invented in 1966 by a food chemist named William A. Mitchell. It was developed as an almost completely nondairy dessert topping, one that could be frozen for transport across the country. By 1967 it was in grocer’s aisles across the country, quickly becoming popular with shoppers. Offered in big plastic tubs as well as an eight ounce container, within three months, Cool Whip was number one in the US whipped-topping market. Several years later the rights to manufacture Cool Whip were transferred to Kraft Foods. Sales of the topping gained momentum during the 1970s when commercials featuring Marge Redmond began to appear. In the commercials Redmond played the kindly ‘Mrs Tucker’ who ran a bed-and-breakfast that served guests Cool Whip on her homemade desserts.

Product popularity does little to sway some consumers who worry about food with a list of ingredients like Cool Whip. A 2007 article in Wired Magazine gave readers a not so pretty picture of just what makes up the well-known whipped topping. They began by calling it ‘a delicious blend of sugar, wax and condom lube.’ The main ingredient in Cool Whip is water, but being a whipped product it contains a high percentage of air. Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, basically sugar by another name are big ingredients, along with hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oil, added to give the topping a whipped cream feel in the mouth. Then there is Polysorbate 60, a major ingredient in sexual lubricants and Sorbitan Monostearate the ingredient that keeps the topping solid, but one also used sometimes as a hemorrhoid cream. There are also the Guar Gums and Xanthan for thickening and the Sodium Caseinate to help oil and water mix. Even though the Sorbitan Monostearate is there to keep the Cool Whip from liquifying, the topping will melt if the temperature reaches 253° Fahrenheit, or if it is placed in the microwave on high for 35 seconds.

It may be a delicious dessert topping, but some have devised out of the ordinary uses for Cool Whip. There are those who use it to shine shoes, as well the leaves of plants. Others have found it to be excellent for easing sunburn pain. Hard to understand the idea behind rubbing Cool Whip in the hair, leaving it on for thirty minutes, then rinsing and shampooing as usual, but some do. Some women have found it excellent for removing make up, and more than a few men use it as shaving cream.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rattling Around Walmart

   Darla stood beside five rows of marijuana plants in the backyard sun worrying over whether she was a criminal and how long before the police handcuffed her and took her away under the staring eyes and pointing fingers of her neighbors. She looked around warily and called to her husband crawling around down below the bushy plants, “Julius, are you sure we’re okay on this? I keep thinking we’re going to end up on the Judge Judy show one day and jail the next.”
     Her husband’s head popped up from the plants. “I told you a hundred times already it’s okay because I got a medical disability license to grow this stuff. Long as I got the rheumatoid arthritis and my license we’re not going to be busted. Hand me that trowel by the chair.”
     Julius passed over a basket of clipped leaves heavy with buds, took the trowel and disappeared once more beneath the luxuriant green.
     She wandered back to the house still not certain they were safe from the long arm of the law.
     Julius came in a little while later, hands brown with dirt. Washing up at the sink he said to Darla, “Gotta drive over to Walmart and get some mulch for my plants, see if I can keep the weeds down. Think I saw in the paper they was having a sale on their garden supplies.”
     Standing beside him at the sink, Darla pointed out a red welt on Julius’s hand. “What bit you there on top of your hand?”
     “I don’t know what that was but it stung like hell. Maybe a bee, I don’t know.”
     “Let me put some ointment on it. Dry it off…I'll be right back.”
     Returning with a flattened tube of Cortaid she rubbed some on the raised welt, “That’s the last of it. You better pick up a new tube while you’re at Walmart.”
     “Thank you, baby. I love you. What else you need? Want me to stop at the Winn-Dixie?”
     “Yes, please. I’m getting those signals,” she patted her stomach, “would you mind getting me a bottle of Midol.”
     “Oh, hell no, Darla. That’s an embarrassing purchase for a man to make. I’ll take you to the store later.”

     Not waiting for an answer Julius grabbed his car keys off the hook and headed out to his truck. The Walmart was across the bridge in Weedon, a fifteen minute drive out 61. He pulled out the insert from the newspaper on the seat, looking for the Walmart garden supplies coupons. He folded the page and stuffed it in his jeans pocket. Backing out of the driveway, he had to wait for a car to pass. It was a Chula County sheriff’s car and Julius smiled, figuring Darla would be peeping through the blinds and wetting her pants.

     Inside the giant store he had to walk what felt like half a mile to reach the pharmacy section, then scanned the shelves looking for the ointment Darla said she wanted. He found it after a minute and when he started toward the registers he stopped after a step or two remembering that lady’s medicine she wanted him to buy. Still not sure, he cruised the aisles looking for Midol and when he found it was too self- conscious to reach for it. Fidgeting for a minute, he thought, “What the hell,” and grabbed up the bottle.

     After going through the checkout, he unscrewed the top on the Cortaid and squeezed out a half inch curl onto the bee sting, rubbing it in and thinking two times is better than one. 

     On the way outside to the garden supplies area he looked through his newspaper coupons hoping there was one there for garden mulch. He found a special on the Amerigrow Premium Gold and thought that would do the trick. He flagged down a guy unloading trays of petunias and asked him where the mulch was. “You know anything about this mulch offered on the discount coupons?”
     From his kneeling position, the man looked up at Julius and asked, “Which one is that?”
     Extending the coupon he said, “This Amerigrow Premium. I want to use it around my marijuana plants but have to be sure it’s a good match. I don’t remember the name of the one I used last year.”
     Big smile on his face, the man answered, “Yep, I think the Amerigrow is just the thing you need. Walk up this aisle here and turn left where you see those pots of red flowers. The mulch is about halfway down.”

     Julius saw the bags of mulch stacked up ahead, figuring in his head as he approached how many bags he would need to cover his eight foot square plot of plants. He stopped in front of the bags and still thinking about how much to buy, leaned over to pick up a small tree branch in the middle of the aisle and toss it off to the side. In a split second the ‘small branch’ lunged and attached itself to his outstretched hand. A snake about a foot and a half long clung to Julius’s hand. He tried to fling it off, but the snake held on despite the sudden jive dance and arm flaps that followed. The snake finally let go and Julius stomped on it, mashing its head flat.

     Verging on shock, Julius recalled some old Boy Scout remedy and stretched out on the ground, clapped his left hand tourniquet-like on his right wrist and held his hand up from his body. “Holy mother of God, Oh, Jesus, Jesus!” he shouted from the ground.

     Shopping for soil additives on the other side of the aisle, Tonya Cardamun heard the screams and rushed to help. “What is it? What’s wrong?” she said kneeling beside Julius, “Are you having a stroke?”
     “Do I look like a goddamned stroke victim?” he moaned. “The snake. Look at the snake. The damned thing took a bite outta my hand!”
     Tonya looked at the hand he was holding up. “Oh, my god! Did he make that big red spot on your hand?”
     “Hell no! That was the bee. Look at the two holes between my thumb and index finger.”
     “I see ’em now. Hold on a second, I’m going to call 911. Hold on. Don’t move.”
     “Where do you think I’m going with rattlesnake venom up in my heart?”
     Tonya pulled out a cell phone and punched the numbers in, leaning over to get a better look at the dead snake. “Yeah, that’s a rattlesnake alright, one of them pygmy kind…Hello? Is this 911?…I’m over at the Walmart on Highway 61 and a rattlesnake just jumped out and bit somebody…My name? Ain’t nobody got time for this! He got snakebite, fool!” 
     Tonya snapped the phone shut and said to Julius, “They’re too slow. Come on, I’m going to drive you to the hospital. Where’s your car?”
     Julius guided Tonya to his truck, handed over the keys and got in the passenger seat. She didn’t act like the truck was any challenge to her driving skills, so he didn’t say anything. Once they pulled out into traffic she said there was an urgent care clinic at the second light and they would go there.
     A hundred yards down the road she slammed on the brakes in the middle of traffic, cursing herself. “I got so nervous and worried with your condition I forgot to tell my husband I was leaving the Walmart. He’s sitting in the parking lot waiting for me.”
     “Keep driving and let me have your phone. I’ll call your husband and tell him what’s going on.”
     Tonya gave him her cell phone and told him the number to dial. Julius punched in the numbers and waited for an answer. After a couple of rings someone answered saying, “Tonya, what’s taking so long? I’m burning up in this car.”
     Julius explained the situation and heard back, “What? Who the hell is this? What are you talking about?”
     “I’ve been bitten by a rattlesnake and your wife is driving me to the hospital.”
     Tonya yelled out loud enough for her husband to hear, “I’m driving this man—what’s your name?…
     “Julius Arhight.”
     I’m driving Julius to the hospital. You go on home and I’ll be there in a while. Julius, he’ll take me home after he’s had the rattlesnake poison removed.”
     “Did you hear that?…” Julius closed the phone saying, “He’s cool. Drive faster. Feels like somebody’s shooting fire into my hand.”

     At the urgent care clinic a doctor there told Julius and Tonya that they weren’t able to handle snakebite, to drive three miles further to the Bert Belson Medical Center. Tonya looked at the doctor and asked, “You telling us you never learned how to cure a snakebite in college?”

     At the medical center doctors took Julius into a curtained area to examine the bite, leaving Tonya in the waiting area arguing on the phone with her husband. Looking closely at the bee stung, snake bit hand, the doctor decided it was a dry bite, that the rattlesnake had not injected any venom. “What’s this other big red spot on your hand…Looks a little like a bee sting. That happen today as well?”
     “Yeah, that happened out in my garden earlier today. Doesn’t hurt much now though.”
     “I’d like you to hang around for a little while so we can keep an eye on the snakebite for a little longer. Can you do that?”
     “I suppose so. Maybe Tonya’s husband can come pick her up.”
     “Who’s Tonya?”
     “Maybe she’s the lady that saved my life. I’ll see if she can call her husband for a ride home.”

     “I appreciate your help, Tonya. But listen, they want me to wait a while before leaving so they can make sure everything is okay with this.” He held up the bandaged hand in a shy apologetic way, as if to show it was a minor accident. “Can your husband come and pick you up?”
     “Yeah, sure. He’s just pissed I didn’t get the damn soil additive for his rose bushes. Said I shoulda done that before bringing you here. Kinda like trading you off for some stupid rose bushes I never have liked in my front yard.” She smiled at Julius. “You gonna be alright?”
     By the time Julius got back to his house, his right hand was the size of a cantaloupe. He returned to the the medical center with Darla and was treated with two bags of anti-venom. The doctor said they wanted him to stay overnight, and if she wanted his wife could stay with him. The anti-venom had done its work but there was some concern for muscle damage in his hand.

     Late that night, the room quiet and Darla half-asleep in a chair by his bed, Julius said to her, “Darla, call up that Walmart and tell them the guy that got snake bit in their garden section today wants them to hold onto that dead snake. I’m gonna skin that damn thing, make a hatband for my cowboy hat…and ask them if they got my Cortaid and Midol.”
     “Aaww, honey,” Darla said, “you bought my Midol?”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Starting In Again

Monday brought clouds to the beach and thankfully a decrease in the number of people coaxing their elderly mothers into the Atlantic surf. A bland day mostly, but one stirred for me by another spoonful of magic from a poet I first discovered last March with a poem from her remarkable 2006 collection, Dark Alphabet. The poet is Washington state native Jennifer Maier, a writer whose work has appeared in American Poet, Poetry, The Mississippi Review and since 2007 been featured five times on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. Dark Alphabet, won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets.

The father figure is for many a powerful ingredient in the roller coaster mix of experience and emotion that defines childhood and youth, and for some perhaps, the years long after that. Even in those homes where the father was an absent figure, that absence was ingredient enough to create its own psychology. We are all to some degree haunted by the memory of a father’s words and some of us even imagine scenarios in which a deceased parent talks to us across the gulf separating life and death. According to Jennifer Maier the seeds of her writing were planted early in life when her father read poems to her she little understood, but managed in time to absorb their rhythmic cadences. In her poem “My Father’s Platitudes” Maier has an ‘encounter’ with her deceased father, but takes his appearance and his words with a large grain of salt.

I’m in the kitchen slicing bread for a sandwich
when he starts in again, my dead father, with his advice;
only it’s not his treatise on how we should all listen
to Thor Heyerdahl, whom was a true genius and not the crackpot
everybody said he was, or why I should swap the IBM
for pure gold bullion on account of the Jews.

One day death will catch up to other technology
and the words of the dead sail effortless through dry space,
but now they arrive random as coconuts,
sodden as crated wreckage.

I watch him waving from the shore, making big
hand signals, like castaways in the movies.
It’s me, he calls, your everlovin’ father,
and he looks okay, though not as I remember him,
young in dress whites and epaulettes,
or later, skeletal on a raft of empty bottles,
his soul tied to the mast like a soiled undershirt.

I’m slicing a tomato at the equator, like he taught me.
A dull knife’s more dangerous than a sharp one, he shouts,
sawing his hand back and forth in the air. I test the blade
with my thumb, thinking about knives and danger,
about what I would defend with my life.

mixing me up with my brother, but I have theories
of my own, and I tell him that even mice have their share
of timid glory, outwitting the amber eye that’s stalking them,
carrying crumbs home to the little ones, not crawling
into some rat hole to die.

Well, life is a shit sandwich, he says, holding it out
to me like spoils from a doomed vessel.
That’s a good one, I say, and take it as my portion,
his gift from the fathomless reaches between us.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Cold Pop

Since 1908 Americans have been celebrating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, a day set aside to honor mothers and motherhood, and a time when families traditionally attend church, present mother with flowers (typically carnations) and gather for family dinners. Judging from the number of people crowding the beach and pool yesterday, a good many families also like to bring mother to the beach for Mother’s Day. Personally, I marked the day as one that brought to my attention two great performances.

Poreotics is an American dance crew from Westminster, California formed in 2007 by Matthew Nyugen. The group specializes in popping, choreography and robotics which led to the name: Po-reo-tics. One of their trademarks is dark glasses which they all wear for their performances. In 2009 and 2010 they won first place in Hip Hop Internationals in Las Vegas. They are also the winners of America’s Best Dance Crew, season 5 in 2010. The six dancers are: Matthew (Dumbo) Nguyen, Can Trong Nguyen, Charles Viet Nguyen, Lawrence (Law) Bravo Devera, Justin (Jet Li) Valles and Andrew-Chad Fausto Mayate. All of them are of Southeast Asian heritage. Matthew “Dumbo” Nguyen, Can Trong Nguyen, and Charles Viet Nguyen are Vietnamese while Andrew-Chad Fausto Mayate, Lawrence “Law” Bravo Devera, and Justin “Jet Li” Valles are Filipino.

Sweet Brown is an Oklahoma City woman who was interviewed by a local news station after evacuating her apartment building in a fire. On the morning of April 7th, a fire broke out at the Chateau Deville Apartments, leaving one person hospitalized for smoke inhalation and five units in the building damaged. KFOR News was first to arrive on the scene and interview one of the displaced residents, Sweet Brown. During the interview Mrs Brown said that she had gotten up to get a “cold pop” when she smelled what she thought was barbecue. Realizing a few moments later that it was a fire in the building, she ran out of the apartment without shoes. In describing the heavy smoke from the fire, Mrs Brown came out with the memorable line, “ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Keys in the Lock

An old and dear friend, longtime resident of Los Angeles arrived on Saturday for a too-short stay of eight days. It’s been at least fifteen years since Shelby and I were together, but never in that time have we been out of touch. We met at a time when we were young and starry-eyed, calling ourselves “New Yorkers” and despite our different moves across the map, the closeness has nonetheless remained vital across all distances. Somehow, despite the years and distance, Shelby found the time to visit me in Tokyo, and I the opportunity to visit her in Los Angeles. Seeing this friend again is the greatest of blessings.

In the late of evening our talk wandered down old paths, touching on the people and events that colored our lives at one time, filling in blanks and reliving some of the many experiences we shared. Shelby told me about a poet she likes and how his work encouraged her—a confessed non-writer—to put her thoughts down on paper in an attempt to understand, vent frustration or slough off an incident in her own life. And telling me about it, she pulled out a piece of paper with a kind of free verse prose poem illustrating a feeling that boiled forth from a recent experience. I immediately wanted to share Shelby’s poem with others, but met with some reluctance on the writer’s part. Happily, I managed to convince her that the writing is well worth sharing.


When I saw the keys in the mailbox lock
I knew I would have my revenge.
Just the fact that my right-wing, hate spouting neighbors
might be left vulnerable by their oversight
pushed my imagination into overdrive.

The boogieman they had long feared was waiting
for them to err in his favor.
His smile was strangely satisfying.
He might creep in to watch them sleep,
steal their crap or just terrorize them in general.
He might take their junk-filled car
and drive it all the way to hell,
or maybe just to Mexico.

I started feeling diabolical. What else could I envision?

Maybe they would awaken tomorrow
and find their door wide open.
The shock on their otherwise blank faces
sets me giggling with delight.
The world invaded their lives
without their permission or knowledge
the way it does to most everyone else.
Would they see things differently
with such unexpected and long dreaded exposure?
Probably not.
Would they feel violated 
and filled with a mind-numbing paralysis
that they had allowed the darkness inside?
(A darkness they have defined via fear-based newscasts
they watch daily involves drug addicts,
dark skinned strangers, homosexuals, whores,
terrorists, gypsies and idol worshipers)
The answer to that was yes!
definitely yes yes yes.

Would I get over my shame in the conception of this chaos?

The answer to that was probably not,
so I am determined to find a new definition of shame.
Something that works for me.

About Me

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