Sunday, October 24, 2021

you've got a friend

Did you have someone you knew but weren't sure why you were friends? I did. There was one guy — Wally — who was always "in the picture. As best as I can figure, I was "friends" with Wally because he was in my homeroom for four consecutive years, based purely on the fact that those classes were formed alphabetically. Just because Wally's last name began with the same few letters as my last name, we were — as they say — stuck with each other. 

Where it all began.
When I first met Wally, we made small talk about music and concerts. Then, he invited me to his house... which I'm sure I declined on the first few invitations. You see, I had come to realize that Wally was a jerk. He was very full of himself. He bragged. He was a loudmouth. Among my group of upper middle class friends and acquaintances, Wally and his family were — what was considered — rich. His father (who I met only once or twice) possibly owned a construction company — which in 1970s euphemisms — meant connections to organized crime. Wally's father owned a giant silver Lincoln Continental at a time when other dad's drove second-hand Chevys. Wally live in a big house with an in-ground pool on the furthest outskirts of the Philadelphia City Limits, still allowing his to attend Philadelphia public schools. The official county boundary was across the street from his house.

Wally's pride.
Wally always had the latest technology gadgets. He was the first person I knew with a VCR, a push-button phone, a big-screen (projection) television. His split-level house had a built-in intercom system. For his 16th birthday, which came in February (before any of my other friends), Wally — of course — got a car. And not just any car... a brand new Datsun B210. It was a cool, sporty little car with racing stripes and he flaunted it conceitedly through the school's parking lot — stopping short of screaming "I GOT A CAR!" in the face of everyone who looked in his direction. However, one day, Wally came to my house to pick me up (I did not have my own car. Not many of my friends did.) in his father's Lincoln. That thing was like a tank and Wally, who was small of frame, was dwarfed by its massive dashboard and gigantic steering wheel. I swear, he had a hard time seeing over the dash and out the windshield. I climbed into the front passenger's seat and we headed out to whatever our destination was (probably a Sam Goody record store at a nearby mall). Wally gunned the engine in a typical "show off" move and we took off up an on-ramp of the highway near my house. As we approached our exit, Wally — who was going way too fast — veered off the blacktop and into the overgrown grassy area that followed the contour of the road. With wide eyes and a grimace of panic across both our faces, Wally managed to bring the mammoth vehicle to a halt. He gathered his breath and turned to me. Instead of what I assumed would be an apology or at least an "Are you all right?," Wally grit his teeth and seethed, "Not a word about this to anyone at school!" Wally was indeed a jerk, but I kept my word.

Wally had a huge record collection. An entire wall of his bedroom was occupied by shelves and shelves of albums. Wally would happily record any one of his albums on cassette for me (if I provided the blank tape) but he would never ever lend an album to anyone. Never! No one was permitted to touch Wally's albums. When he removed one from its protective cardboard sleeve, one was barely permitted to breathe near the vinyl disk as it spun on his expensive turntable. Wally was a big fan of The Who, a band who — to be honest — in the middle 1970s, I was not familiar with. But, they were gods to Wally. I remember I was at Wally's house when the news came out that Keith Moon, the Who's wild man drummer, had died. Wally sank as though he was just informed that his father had died. Actually, I don't believe the death of his father would have elicited the same reaction, until he realized that his source of unlimited funds had now run dry.

During the course of high school, Wally's house (suspiciously)  burned down. Another time, Wally and his girlfriend were accosted and tied up by three men who muscled their way into his house (also suspicious), the place cleaned out of valuables as Wally and his girl sat helplessly. (Again, unsubstantiated.)

After high school, I lost touch with Wally. Actually, "liberated myself from" would be a better way of putting it. A friend of a mutual friend told me that Wally had opened a retail store not far from my home. I was talked into attending the grand opening. Surprise! Wally was still a jerk. Not graciously welcoming his acquaintances to his new venture, but thumping his chest and stopping short of screaming "I GOT A STORE" in the face of everyone who looked in his direction. A few years later, Wally and his new wife wandered into my father-in-law's store, where I worked with Mrs. Pincus on weekends for years until it closed. I introduced Wally to my wife, choking on the words "my friend" as they passed through my lips. Wally's wife, a nice enough woman who I secretly wondered what was she doing with Wally, suggested that we all get together sometime. I smiled... with no intentions of ever making that happen.

A few years ago, I had an accumulation of vacation days from work that had to be used before the end of the calendar year. I took random days off with no real plans to do anything. On one of those days, I found myself in the neighborhood of Wally's store — still in business, but in a different suburban location. I parked my car and entered the store. There was Wally, looking a bit older and a bit grayer, but it was Wally. He was behind the counter, surrounded by stacks and piles of haphazardly displayed merchandise — and not a single customer in sight. He looked up as I entered. He did not recognize me. Granted, at the time I had flaming red hair, something I did not sport in high school. I explained who I was and Wally lit up. Not with a "Great to see you after all this time," but with a barrage of boasts about his business and his overall success.

Yep. Wally was still a jerk and I wondered why on earth I ventured into his store and why I wanted him in life again.

More recently, Wally tracked me down on social media. He made himself known by making a succession of very racist comments on several of my posts. I immediately blocked him.

If only life was that easy.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

I love a man in uniform

I love old television shows, especially the ones from my youth. But you already knew that. Actually, I don't love all old TV shows. There are a few (quite a few, as a matter of fact) that I don't like. Three of them, coincidentally, have military premises... and I don't like any of them.

In 1962, the anthology series Alcoa Premiere presented a one-hour drama called "Seven Against the Sea." The show featured Academy Award-winning actor Ernest Borgnine as a beleaguered US Navy Captain dealing with the trials and tribulations of World War II. The character Borgnine played was "Quintin McHale." Someone at the ABC Network got the bright idea to spin the show off into a weekly series and.... make it a comedy... and McHale's Navy was born. All new supporting characters were created except for "Christy" who appeared in the drama (played by Gary Vinson) and was carried over to the series. The show presented the crew of the PT-73 under the command of McHale, whose pursuit is to goldbrick and profit off the war effort. Borgnine was not known for playing comedy. He mostly appeared in films as despicable villains, although he was awarded his Oscar for his tender portrayal of shy Bronx butcher "Marty Pilletti" in Marty. But broad comedy was not his forte... and it showed. Borgnine delivered his lines with stammering confusion. Luckily, he was professional enough to let the real comedians handle (what passed for) comedy in the show. Veteran comedic actors like Tim Conway, Billy Sands, Carl Ballantine and the irascible Joe Flynn did the heavy lifting for Borgnine while he did double-take after poorly-executed double-take and mugged for the camera in wide-eyed bewilderment. The show ran for four seasons, including the final season set in a liberated town in Southern Italy featuring another comedy heavyweight, Vito Scotti. I suppose ABC felt they could sustain the show and cover up Borgnine's lack of comedy chops by hiring real comic performers to act funny around him. It worked, I guess. The show was pretty popular in first run and perennial reruns. According to Borgnine's wonderful autobiography, McHale's Navy was the cause of his marriage to singer Ethel Merman to end. Borgnine explained that they wed at the height of McHale's Navy's popularity. He was far more recognizable than his movie star/Broadway star wife and she couldn't deal with someone being more popular. Their marriage lasted 42 days.

McHale's Navy has enjoyed a long and prosperous run in syndication and is currently shown on the Antenna TV nostalgia network. I like the theme song, but I change the channel when it ends. The series spawned a 1997 unnecessary big-screen remake that featured Tom Arnold as Quinton Jr., Tim Curry as the Russian villain and... of course...  Ernest Borgnine in a cameo.

There's a scene in the 2002 biopic Auto Focus that sums up the incredulous premise of Hogan's Heroes very succinctly. It depicts actor Bob Crane (as played by Greg Kinnear) begin pitched the idea for the comedy by a network executive (played by Ed Begley Jr.). As the executive eagerly explain the setting as a POW camp in World War II Germany, Crane — with eyes wide and  mouth agape — interrupts several times to confirm that this is, indeed, a comedy about Nazis. A comedy. About Nazis. I have watched Hogan's Heroes and, much like McHale's Navy, the show is supplemented with real comic actors to make up for the shortcomings of the lead. For me, Hogan's Heroes is hard to watch for a few reasons — Nazis notwithstanding. Knowing what I know now about Bob Crane, I have an unpleasant mental picture that I just can't shake. Little did we know that his trademark knowing looks to the camera held a much, much creepier meaning than just his outsmarting the inept Colonel Klink. I liked the supporting cast, specifically the long parade of Jewish actors consciously portraying Nazis as halfwit buffoons. But the overall tone of the show was tedious, repetitive and, for me, difficult to swallow. 

Two episodes of Hogan's Heroes air nightly on the MeTV network. I rarely watch.

I love The Andy Griffith Show. I've seen every episode of its 8-season run countless times. I liked most of the characters and the folksy sentiment of the series. Jim Nabors joined the cast as slow-witted, annoying, meddling "Gomer Pyle" in season 3 as a recurring character. I disliked that character almost immediately. Gomer stuck around in a smattering of episodes in season 4, with the final episode of that season serving as a pilot for a new series starring Nabors. His "Gomer" character enlisted in the US Marines. At the heated peak of the Vietnam War and with no consideration for America's feelings at the time, CBS network executives thought this was a good idea. The show made no mention of war during its entire 5-sean run. Instead Gomer and his colleagues participated in "maneuvers" and "drills" and "exercises," never "battle." Most episodes focused mostly on simple-minded country boy Gomer and his many conflicts with the insufferable, one-dimensional "Sergeant Carter," as played by the insufferable, one-dimensional Frank Sutton. (Frank Sutton always looked as though he regretted being talked into taking this role.) This show was a mess. Not even brief appearances by Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Andy Griffith himself reprising their Mayberry characters could salvage the hackneyed writing and poor acting of this ill-conceived series. I felt sorry for co-stars Ronnie Schell and a pre-That Girl Ted Bessell playing second fiddle to the hapless Jim Nabors and his totally implausible situations. If this was Full Metal Jacket, his entite platoon would have armed themselves with bars of soap wrapped in towels and beaten Gomer to a pulp every single night for five years. Unlike McHale's Navy, when I hear the opening chords of the Gomer Pyle theme, I race for the remote control as quickly as I can.

An episode of Gomer Pyle USMC airs Monday through Friday on MeTV, after a double dose of The Andy Griffith Show. Have at it, if that's your thing. It's not mine. 

There you have it. My opinion on the three 1960s-era military comedies. It may differ from your opinion of these shows... but it's my blog. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

give my regards to broad street

I have been driving for 44 years and I have never enjoyed a single minute of it. Admittedly, I am not a particularly good driver. I'm an average driver. I try to avoid driving when at all possible. I have driven to work as a necessity. For nearly ten years, I took the train to work and that was a pleasure. (Well, the public transportation in the Greater Philadelphia area leaves a lot to be desired, but it was a pleasure in that I didn't have to drive on a daily basis for a decade.) Currently, my commute to work is about 40 minutes and comes at a time when I am actually ahead of the common "rush hour" on my route. I also get to leave work everyday a half-hour before the crush of homecoming traffic.

When we go out — anywhere — Mrs. Pincus is behind the wheel. We have a great marriage in so many ways, one of them being her love of driving and my dislike of the same activity. I happily occupy the passenger seat* while Mrs. P navigates the car on short jaunts to the supermarket or long journeys to Florida — both of which we have tackled often, much to her delight.

Dead end.
Our adult son lives approximately 16 miles away in the congested bustle of South Philadelphia. Due to ongoing construction in our fair city (which I'm pretty sure began just after the last cobblestone was put into place outside of Independence Hall), our choices of routes to his house often change based on whim-driven road closures or the placement of poorly-parked dormant construction vehicles. The nearest entrance to I-76 (the quickest access to South Philly from our suburban home) has been closed since Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunder storm. Our choices to enter the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76's name as it passes through the city) is a roundabout course through small neighborhoods whose streets are — SURPRISE! — also under construction. Our alternative is PA-611, which runs a block from our house and becomes Philadelphia's notorious Broad Street once it crosses the city limits. Beginning at Cheltenham Avenue, Broad Street substitutes for 14th Street for its entire 13-mile length until it morphs to join I-95 just behind Lincoln Financial Field. We have opted to drive Broad Street, purely out of convenience.

The cat in question.
A little while ago, my son went on vacation for a week and my wife and I were asked if we could feed his cat while he was gone. We happily obliged, having been cat owners for years, although our house has been "cat free" for almost twenty years. Our son's cat is a beautiful — if not a bit quirky — little guy whose eating regimen is as idiosyncratic as his personality. Because of health issues, he needs to be fed twice a day — early in the morning and later in the evening. During the week, Mrs. Pincus took the task solo is the morning and I would join her for the evening trip and both times on Saturday and Sunday. Feeding a cat for a friend or, in this case, family member is fine if you live around the corner, but when you live 45 minutes away, it can be.... um..... dicey. Especially if the route to said cat is Broad Street. Don't get me wrong! We enjoy taking care of the cat. He's sweet and playful... until he's not. It's pretty obvious when he's had enough (usually of me). When he takes a "claws out" swat at my hand, that usually signifies that it's time to go. 

Prepare to qualify!
Every evening, after we finished our dinner, Mrs. P and I ventured down to South Philadelphia to give our son's cat his dinner. I have driven down Broad Street for years, but it's only recently I noticed a pattern in the other drivers that I never noticed before. Perhaps from my perspective as a passenger I got to observe... or witness... things I never noticed before. It appears that drivers have taken a page from the current crop of concert-goers playback with the "I'm the only one in the world" attitude.

Once we crossed into the official realm of Broad Street in Philadelphia from the pastoral quiet of suburbia, all hell broke loose. Drivers straddled lanes with their cars, the painted white dashes exiting the dead center point between their rear wheels as though they were being dropped at regular intervals from a secret hatch under the trunk. Other drivers barreled out of curbside parking spaces with nary a glance at a rear-view mirror. Still other drivers just stopped — stopped! — in an active lane of traffic, click on their four-way hazard lights with the understanding that those illuminated flashers grant them full permission to stop wherever the heck they wish. Holding up a line of cars behind me? Hey! I got my flashers on, so its okay! There are those that stop their cars for no apparent reason. Some take an incredibly long time to make a turn, either at an intersection or to enter a driveway (like a gas station, shopping center or even their own at their house), leaving the rear portion of their car blocking the lane an not allowing any cars past until the turn is fully completed. Others change lanes from the far left to the far right with no indication of their proposed maneuver. If you don't want to get hit, your spider sense better be tingling. Then there are the texters. In Philadelphia, one does not need to use a "hands-free" device. Although "hands-free" is infinitely safer, Philadelphians still insist on having conversations by holding their phone two feet from their faces and screaming. As long as you're making a call, you might as well text while you're driving, too! There is no reason to adjust your habits just because you are operating of a two-ton death machine that requires your full attention. In addition, a recent phenomenon has entered the equation. Groups of young men driving unlicensed, off-road, non-street-legal vehicles (mini bikes, dirt bikes and ATVs) travel up and down Broad Street in packs numbering from two or three into the dozens. These guys prefer the late night hours to cruise the blacktop, often popping wheelies for most of their journey as well as blowing off traffic lights and other posted road regulations. (Their vehicles are not licensed, so why should they abide?) For reasons only known to them, the police turn a blind eye to this activity. Come to think of it, the police turn a blind eye to most law-violating activity I have seen on Broad Street. It has become like driving through a real-life video game. Prepare to qualify! Avoid the hazards and score points!

Well, I don't want to score any more points. I just want to get where I'm going. Actually, I just want someone else to drive me to get me where I'm going.



*One of my ex-sisters-in-law used to call it the "pussinger's seat" when the husband sat in it as the wife drove.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

don't tell a soul

I started a new job recently. I have had many, many jobs and — at this point in my life — it's just a place to go every day and get a paycheck so I can take care of the things that really matter. 

Over the years, I have had interactions with co-workers on both a professional and social level. I have remained friends with a handful of folks long after I have left a particular job. At my past few jobs, I decided to keep things at a strictly professional level. Friendships that form at a job — once you've hit the later stages of your career — are... well.... unnecessary. I'm not saying that I'm rude. I'm just cordial. I go to work to do work, not to socialize. I say "good morning," but my conversations are brief and always — always — work-related. My current co-workers know practically nothing about me. The cemetery calendar that hangs above my desk is the only glimpse into my personal life and, perhaps, that is all they need to know. No one has asked about it in the almost six months of my employment. I think that's a good thing. I just want to do my job, get paid and that's it. So far, my new job has been just that.

My weekly routine is pretty repetitious. Every Monday, I assemble an advertising circular for a local chain of supermarkets and deliver an electronic proof by the end of the day. On Tuesdays, I receive a regular barrage of emails from the supermarket owners regarding their ad. I spend the day making changes and corrections until a final approval is received and I get to go home. Wednesdays and Thursday are spent assisting a co-worker, Maggie, on her circular. I am assigned two pages of a four-page broadsheet. Maggie works on the labor-intensive front and back pages while I run through an ingenious automated process to populate the inside pages with nearly a hundred little blocks of copy and photos that have to be pleasingly arranged on the page. Honestly, I have been doing design work like this throughout my career.  It is not difficult work. I am not, by any means, making any sort of impact on the world. It's a functional piece of commerce with a relatively short shelf life.... but it pays the bills.

The first time I worked with Maggie (who is approximately 30 years my junior), she offered instruction as though it was my first day as a graphic designer. I have learned (admittedly the hard way) to sit by and keep my mouth shut. Listen to the instruction given, do the work, get paid.... you know. My first layout on Maggie's supermarket circular was heavily criticized by Maggie. She seemed to relish pointing out where photos should have been aligned, how type should have been placed, what words should have been capitalized and which words could have been abbreviated. I listened silently to her critique and promised to do better as the weeks went on. Happily, I got the hang of what exactly was expected and soon Maggie's list of "layout infractions" lessened and lessened. With a few circulars under my belt, I work almost independently, with little to no input from Maggie, aside from last-minute additions or deletions that she receives from the store owner. But, early in the process, she was relentless.

Well, Maggie just gave her two-weeks notice and will be moving on. I feared that I would be tasked with becoming the "lead designer" on her weekly ad, but, alas, the one I create on Mondays and Tuesdays conflicts with the print schedule of her ad. It was given to another designer, with me still offering assistance.

As Maggie's final day approaches, I was sitting at my desk, happily banging away at the keyboard and clicking away on my mouse, when another co-worker, Angela, walked up to my desk. I met Angela on my first day, but have had little interaction with her, save for a cordial morning greeting since we both arrive at work at the same time and park our cars near each other. In hushed tones, Angela invited me to a department "happy hour" this coming Friday at a bar in a South Jersey town I'm sure has been referenced in at least one Bruce Springsteen song. I listened to her invitation and neither accepted nor declined. I sort of just eked out a "thanks" along with a smile. I really have no intention of "happy hour"ing or anything else with my co-workers. I just want to come in, do my work, get paid... you know. 

After delivering her verbal invite, Angela turned and began to exit, only to turn around and approach my desk again — this time a bit closer. She spoke in an even quieter whisper than earlier. 

"Don't say anything to Maggie about this.," she said. I immediately assumed that this planned get-together was a surprise send-off for Maggie's departure. I pictured a tearful assemblage of longtime co-workers with warm hugging and mistily-related memories. But, Angela followed up her request with a bit of blunt clarification. "This isn't a 'going away party' for Maggie. It's a 'glad she's gone' party for us." Angela made herself very clear. A look of astonishment must have washed across my face to cause Angela to state: "You haven't worked with her for five years."

Without any provocation from me, Angela launched into a lengthy list of incidents and anecdotes that painted a very unsavory portrait of Maggie. Over the course of Maggie's tenure, she reported all of her co-workers to the Human Resources Department for various incidents, most of which were merely things that pissed her off. She pointed out the shortcomings of colleague's work output. Angela went on for nearly five uninterrupted minutes about how Maggie's leaving is the first step in making the production department a happy, friendly place to work again.

But, I just want to come in, do my work, get paid... you know.

No drama.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

moving in stereo

More than a dozen years ago, my family and I stumbled upon "Bats Day," an unofficial (and I stress "unofficial") event held annually at Disneyland. We had heard about the event prior to our trip, but had no idea that years installment was happening the week we were visiting the Anaheim, California theme park. Bats Day began as an informal group outing among a few friends from the Southern California enigmatic goth community. In each successive year, the numbers of attendees grew and grew exponentially until — the year we attended — the official count (of the unofficial event) had bloomed to the thousands. My family and I ended up returning to Disneyland for several consecutive years there after. It was a  wonderful time. We met some great friendly people and had a lot of fun.

One of the most fun aspects of Bats Day (for us, at least) was seeing the self-proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth".... inhabited?.... infested?... overrun? by some of the most malevolent-looking characters you've ever seen. Let me clarify.... These folks are, in no way, mean, angry, hurtful, threatening nor any other thing you may surmise by their appearance. They are people just like you and me. It's just that their wardrobe features a noticeable lack of bright colors. Sure, they fancy dark clothing and sport dark make-up. They like skulls and bats and blood-splattered designs. But they are family people and positive, productive contributors to society. I got a real kick out of seeing "Mr. & Mrs. Average Disneyland Visitor" trying to make heads-or-tails out of the goings-on at their beloved theme park.

I was never part of a "group" like this. When we attended Bats Day, we dressed the part, but it was like Hallowe'en in the middle of summer* for us. For the overwhelming majority, they wore what they would wear everyday. This made me think.... what if you really wanted to be "goth" but didn't like the "accepted" accoutrements associated with "goths?" What if you wore all black clothing, but didn't care to listen to Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy. What if you dyed your hair pitch black, had an array of skull tattoos up and down each arm, but enjoyed the cheery sounds of Britney Spears over the dirginess of Souixsie and the Banshees. What if you liked rainbow and pastel hues to adorn your clothing? Would they kick you out?

The same goes for the stereotypical bikers. You own a Harley, but you don't care much for denim jackets with the sleeves ripped off. Are you obligated to go "all in" just to hang with members of the group? What about the reverse? What if you "dressed the part" — leather jacket, long scraggily beard, ponytail gathered in five places by rubber bands, knee-high buckle-and-chain bedecked boots — but drove a Toyota Celica? Would you be accepted? Or would you be deemed as mocking them or labeled a "poser?"

Last weekend, my wife and I went to a craft bazaar (bizarre?) held at an historic Philadelphia cemetery. Touted as the "Market of the Macabre," the event boasted a collection of vendors selling homemade crafts of a decidedly wicked nature. The advertisement for the event encouraged "appropriate dress and costumes." Let me tell you.... the attendees did not disappoint! There were top hats and spider-decorated parasols and fishnet stockings and, as one would expect, a plethora of lurid tattoos on proud display. Again, it looked like an early Hallowe'en exhibit, but — to most of these people — it was just another Saturday in the cemetery. Knowing full well what visuals I was expecting, I was intrigued by a sight of two fellows I saw when we parked our car on a street in the surrounding neighborhood. These two guys checked all the boxes for the stereotypical participant in a marketplace in a graveyard. Except for their vehicle. They wore black... CHECK! Their shirts were emblazoned with some obscure band name and embellished with flames and skulls and demons... CHECK! Their arms were suitably inked... CHECK! But, wait just a second.... they had arrived in a white Volkswagen sedan.... the same kind of car your neighbor drives to the train station every morning to continue his commute to his office job at VersaTech Industries where he serves as the Assistant Vice-President in charge of Logistical Logistics. Not the kind of car you'd expect these dudes to be driving. I suppose they were parking far enough away just in case their friends saw them exiting this four-wheeled embarrassment. Was there really something wrong with the car they were driving? Did I secretly expect everyone to arrive in a hearse?

Or perhaps I was just stuck in my own narrow-minded, pre-conceived stereotype.



*Bats Day has since moved to May.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

teacher, teacher

My third grade teacher died last year. The news came to me via a Facebook group — of which I am a member — that concerns itself with memories about the elementary school I attended. According to the announcement, my third grade teacher was 93 years old. I found this to be particularly thought-provoking. When she was my teacher in 1970, I was pretty sure that she was 93 years old then. I made quick use of a calculator and my rudimentary math skills revealed that she was actually 43 at the time — just a few years younger than my mother. 

I remember when I was assigned to her class — as determined by my final report card of second grade — my heart sank. Rumors ran rampant within the school about my third grade teacher's disposition, especially towards the male students in her class. She was a "miss," and tales were told of how she hated men. The boys in her class often felt the wrath of her misandristic leanings. I worried all summer about what third grade would be like and if I would survive.

I distinctly remember beginning third grade. I remember my teacher as a towering, imposing fearsome, figure. She rarely smiled, usually sporting a scowl. She wore old-fashioned looking dresses and big, clunky, black shoes like my grandmother wore. She wore her silver gray hair in a no-nonsense, easy-to-maintain bowl cut. She was a firm (borderline cruel) disciplinarian with zero tolerance for passing notes or whispering between students. Every Hallowe'en, she greeted students at the door of her classroom wearing a huge woven wicker mask that completely obscured her face. She wielded a large straw broom which he used to whack each student on the ass as they passed across the classroom threshold. Every St. Partick's Day, you had better be goddamned sure you were wearing something green, lest you succumb to the ire of my third grade teacher, who was of proud Irish ancestry. I don't remember any particular lesson from my third grade class. No piece of information that stuck with me for the rest of my life. No special bit of knowledge that could guarantee me the grand prize in a round of cruise ship trivia. (I learned state capitals in fourth grade. I still know those.) I only remember not liking the class or the teacher.

The announcement posted to my elementary school's Facebook group was just this week, My teacher had passed away in April 2020, but, due to the social limitations imposed by the global COVID-19 pandemic, a proper funeral service was not held. The post noted a date in September 2021 when family and friends could safely gather to honor the memory of their beloved sister, stepmother, grandmother, aunt, great-aunt and — yes — teacher. 

She taught at the elementary school for 45 years, so, of course, the post was overflowing with positive, sometimes gushy, comments from former students expressing their fond memories of this teacher. 

Until they weren't.

After scrolling through a dozen or so glowing sentiments, I stopped at one comment that was posted by a name I recognized as one of my classmates. 
"Unfortunately I had a very different experience with her. She had a mean streak, she put me in the corner and told me save my hot air for the clarinet."

This was followed by several more comments elaborating on more less-than-stellar behavior form my third grade teacher. Memories that were more in line with my own memories of her class. One student even told of an evidently traumatic experience when my third grade teacher confiscated one of his Matchbox cars and held on to it until the last day of school. These folks are now sixty years old, but these incidents have stuck with them their entire lives.

I find it interesting that so many people can have so many varying memories of the same person in relatively the same situation. Or perhaps a lot of these people have skewed memories, altered by the fact that they are talking about someone who is now dead. There's a old expression — "Don't speak ill of the dead." A lot of people subscribe to that conviction. Eulogies become very sweet and flowery for someone who was a total jerk when they walked the earth. What is it about death that washes away , the bad behavior and awful temperament someone exhibited in life. I have been to many funerals where I heard final words delivered by someone who either never met the deceased or was fed a bunch of bullshit by family members trying to grab at one last effort to cast heir loved one in a positive light. 

A few brave souls on Facebook, under the guise of anonymity, voiced their true feelings about someone's beloved teacher. Feelings I also share. Was it the correct forum to do so? Maybe.... or maybe not. Nevertheless, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Especially an impression that lasts fifty years.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

picture book

In 2007, I started working at my first real office job. This was at a mid-size, East coast law firm. Sure, I had worked in "offices" before, but this time I had my very own office. It wasn't much bigger than a closet, with just enough space to snugly fit a desk, a chair and a couple of narrow bookshelves, which — over the course of the dozen years I worked there — I managed to fill with hundreds of little knick-knacks, action figures, wind-ups and all sorts of odds & ends to give the appearance of the workspace of a six-year old.

When I arrived at my new job, I found a corkboard on the wall of my office that had belonged to the previous occupant. There were a few business cards and outdated memos tacked up in the corners, along with a pin-back button proudly proclaiming a participant in the "Philly READS" program. With a little investigation, I discovered that "Philly READS" was a partnership with area businesses to promote reading among elementary school students. Once per week, participating students were brought in to area offices where volunteer readers (i.e. office rank & file) read appropriate age-level books to said students. It's a mutually beneficial experience in that workers do something for the community and the students hopefully develop a love for reading. In a very un-Josh Pincus-like action, I signed myself up for the upcoming Philly READS session that was scheduled to begin in a week or so. Some of my new co-workers, who had already discovered my cynical, sardonic and sarcastic side, were quite surprised by my initiative. I can honestly say, I was surprised, as well.

On the first day of the Philly READS session, my fellow reading volunteers made their way into the law firm's large library that was housed on the 38th floor of a Philadelphia office building. Soon, a single-file line of the tiniest humans were led in by their teacher, a cheerful vivacious young woman who didn't resemble any teacher I had in elementary school. She read from an official-looking sheet of paper and called out each student's name, followed by the name of one of my fellow office workers. These would be the permanent pairings for reading for as long as the multi-week session lasted. The teacher called out my name and I raised my hand. She smiled at me and guided a little girl in my direction. 

"This is Melody.," she said.

I smiled and said "Hi there, Melody." As I offered a little wave of my hand. Melody shyly shuffled her little feet as she stood behind the teacher. She didn't look at me.

The teacher said, "This is Josh." Melody didn't care. 

I pointed to a nearby table where several other student-worker pairs had already taken seats and began reading their chosen books in hushed tones. 

Yeah! Look at 'em go!
"Over here, Melody." I said. Melody took off her puffy coat, revealing an outfit of mismatched colors. She climbed up on a chair and produced a book from her backpack. She slid it across the table in my direction. So far, she had not spoken a word. I looked at the title and immediately recognized it  Curious George Visits the Zoo. It was one of my son's favorites and I read it to him often when he was a child.  I hadn't read it in years though, as my son — at this time — was in his sophomore year at college. I opened the book and began to read. Melody finally looked at me as I read, but still didn't utter a word.

This particular entry in the Curious George canon is fairly short. I evidentially plowed though the entire story at pretty speedy clip, leaving a lot of time until the session was over. I looked at Melody. Melody looked around the library, seeming to consciously not want to make eye contact with me. An idea popped into my head. I grabbed a blank piece of paper from the tray of a nearby copier and started drawing little doodles that I thought might amuse Melody. I drew a close approximation of Spongebob Squarepants from memory. At the time, Spongebob was a pretty popular cartoon character among children Melody's age... I supposed. Melody studied my pen strokes as the character began to take shape. As I drew his spindly legs and protruding teeth, Melody spoke her first word to me.

"Squidward!," she said.

We're ALL Squidward.
Hmmm..... maybe I'm not as good as I thought
, I wondered to myself. I didn't exactly correct her. I just said, "That's Spongebob." She looked at me as though I was speaking a foreign language. I continued to draw, this time, attempted to capture Spongebob's pal Patrick. When I finished, Melody identified Patrick as "Squidward." I frowned. I tried again, now actually taking a crack at Squidward, seeing as his likeness had been sort-of requested. Melody correctly guessed "Squidward" this time, although technically I was baiting her. By this time, Melody's teacher announced for the students to line up for their return trip to school. I helped Melody on with her coat and waved "goodbye" to her. She beelined to the gathering group of students. She did not return my wave.

The next week — and for every subsequent week — Melody brought Curious George Visits the Zoo for me to read to her. I never questioned. I just read the book, Over the course of the Philly READS session, Melody slowly, slowly, opened up. She began to smile and react to the silly I voices I supplied for the different characters in the book. She began to talk a little. She would get a piece of paper for me to draw pictures for her. She still called everything I drew "Squidward," but I didn't care. Or maybe everything I drew just looked like Spongebob's tentacled pal to her.

One day, after I had finished reading Curious George Visits the Zoo and began drawing pictures, Melody — out of nowhere and totally unprompted — said "My dad shot my mom."

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! was all I heard in my head.

"What?" I asked. Melody repeated the same five words in the same, matter-of-fact tone. She continued to look down, paying close attention to a little drawing that she was doing on her own. She didn't elaborate on her jarring statement and I sure as hell wasn't going to press for details. I just drew my little pictures and Melody just tagged each one "Squidward" — same as always. I didn't question her teacher or other students or anyone. I just let it go.

Soon summer approached and the school year was coming to an end. As an end-of-program special treat, the readers were invited to visit the student's school for reading, pizza and a little surprise entertainment. We were bussed to the school which was not too far from our office. In the classroom, each reader took a seat next to their student partner's desk. We read our books. (Guess which one we read?) Afterwards, the students, as a group, sang a little song and then we all ate pizza. When the final session was over. I said "goodbye" to Melody, telling her it was a pleasure to read to her for the past few months.

Melody hugged me.

I never participated in Philly READS for the remaining decade-plus that I worked at the law firm. Nothing could have topped that.

(Just a quick footnote, Melody is probably 21 by now.)