When someone you don’t want to speak to calls you on your land line, just say, “I’m driving, can I call you back later?”

“I’M HOLDING ON FOR DEAR LIFE!”

The voice on the phone sounded frantic enough. The words, fraught with fear, brought chills to my spine. It was 3:00 in the morning when the desperate ringtone woke me from sleep. If you’re wondering how a ringtone can sound desperate it’s because I have a special app called the “Emotion App” that detects the mood of people calling and changes the tone to reflect their emotional state of mind.

This is not to be confused with the app that transmits generic kissing sensations by using sensors that measure the pressure you place on your lips so that the kiss your caller feels on their silicon lips is actually yours. This can go both ways because you can feel your caller’s simulated kiss on your phone as well. You can even send someone a kiss on their cheek as long as they’re holding the phone up to it. This app gives new meaning to the phrase “Phone Sex,” but that’s a blog for another day.

I installed the Emotion App to give me the option of answering only positive calls that put forth a ringtone promising serenity, optimism, happiness, and prosperity. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but after only getting calls from people who were angry, frustrated, or miserable, I decided that until I made new friends I’d better answer all calls.

“WHO IS THIS?” I shouted into the phone, concerned with the answer I was about to receive.

“WHO IS THIS?” The voice from the other end shouted back after what sounded like a few minutes of frantic phone fumbling.

“IS THIS SOME KIND OF A JOKE?” I answered impatiently;YOU CALLED ME SO YOU MUST KNOW WHO I AM!”

 “WHOEVER YOU ARE, I DIDN’T CALL YOU. I’M NAKED IN BED, HAVING SEX WITH A HOTSIE TOTSIE TOOTSIE, SO IT MUST HAVE BEEN A BUTT CALL.”

 How his phone managed to make a butt call while he was in flagrante delicto, was a picture I tried hard not to envision – unsuccessfully, I might add, so I slammed the phone down forcefully. (Actually, I have to admit that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I didn’t slam the phone down, because it’s a cell phone. I simply tapped the END button to hang up, depriving myself of one of the pleasures I can no longer enjoy from phones of the past… slamming the handset down in its cradle with a loud crash to end an extremely angry call.)

Seething at first about what had transpired, I began to feel grateful that it hadn’t been a FaceTime call. Although I think the proper term would be a Butt-Time call, wouldn’t it? After lying awake for quite some time I finally fell asleep and dreamed of hundreds of butts holding cell phones in their butt cheeks, leaping in slow motion over a line of old-fashioned telephones, to the sound of the song “2 Much Booty in Da Pants” by Soundmaster T.

When I awoke the next morning all I could think about was how cell phones had changed our phone habits from the old-fashioned, cradle-dialing telephones of the past – and how often there are times when…

…I miss wondering who the person is who’s calling me, and that moment of anticipated curiosity before finding out who they are and what they want.

…I miss the fantasy that the call might be from a long-lost relative, or an Estate Attorney informing me that I’ve inherited millions of dollars – the wonderful fantasies were endless when you didn’t know who was calling.

…I miss the satisfaction of being able to slam a phone down with a loud crash onto its base stand, relieving all the hostility and anger towards the person on the other end without its affecting either of us physically.

…I miss when phone numbers were preceded by interesting names like Cloverdale, Butterfield, Trafalgar, or Shaniqua rather than area codes –Actually, not Shaniqua — that’s the name of an ex-girlfriend.

…I miss the pleasure of sticking my finger into the hole, moving it in a circle and watching intently as the receptor of the finger responded to my tender touch by rotating back to its place of origin, practically asking me to do it again.

…I miss knowing that after this exercise was over I would have to repeat the process six more times to finally consummate a desired personal connection.

OH, MY GOD!!! Did I just make an old-fashioned, cradle-dialing telephone sound like an instrument of sexual pleasure? I must still have the kissing app on my mind.

Have you ever had times when you wished you could take back what you said immediately after saying it? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an app that would catch you in the process of saying something stupid and change your message instantly to make you sound more like a person of high intellectual capacity, with a sensitivity to words and thoughts that made you sound like a brilliant orator.

Wouldn’t it be… oops, excuse me, I have to sign off now. I’m receiving a call from my ex-girlfriend Shaniqua. I can tell it’s her because the ring tone is playing the Stephen Bishop song “I’m So Miserable Without You It’s Almost Like Having You Here.”

You know, I really miss Shaniqua. Maybe I should install the kissing app and give her a call!

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While I was running today, I heard someone clapping. It raised my spirits until I realized it was just my thighs cheering me on.

Holding on desperately to a complete stranger’s hand, while my other hand flailed wildly about, and whooshing rapidly backwards, flat on my stomach, was not what I had in mind that morning when I left the house. I remember wondering as we found ourselves projected backwards at breakneck speed, “whose hand was I gripping so tightly?”

I understand that this opening statement requires some explanation so I’ll attempt to describe how I ended up in this ill-fated situation. One of the things I find extremely difficult to do, but continue to attempt, is to work out at the gym at least three times a week. It’s one of those things I push myself tirelessly to carry out because it’s supposedly good for me. Have you ever wondered why things that are known to be good for us, like vegetables for instance, are difficult to commit to, while most everything that’s been proven to be bad seems so damn enjoyable?

If you’re waiting for an answer, you’re not going to get it from me. I use every bit of imagination each day just trying to find a good excuse NOT to go to the gym. However, I’m in a generous mood today so if you’re short of excuses not to exercise, please feel free to use some of mine:

“I can’t go to the gym today, because I’ve already done five sit-ups turning off the snooze button.”

 “I can’t go to the gym today, because I’ve already burned 1,200 calories. I forgot the pizza in the oven.”

 “I can’t go to the gym today, because I was running late, which fulfilled my daily exercise.”

 Seriously though, if you’re still looking for an answer maybe this will suffice:

A guy walks into the doctor’s office with a broccoli stem in one ear and spinach hanging out of the other.
The man says, “Doc, I’m having a terrible time hearing lately.”
The doctor says, “Well, for one thing, you should start eating more sensibly.”

To get back to my story, I’m walking briskly on the treadmill at the gym when a woman on the treadmill next to me falls down, screaming “HELP,” and grabs ahold of the restraining bar on her left, where she proceeds to bump along the moving track of the treadmill on her stomach. I reach towards her to help when I lose my footing and end up where I started this blog… holding on desperately to her hand, while my other hand flailed wildly. We end up whooshing rapidly backwards, flat on our stomachs, until we are both deposited onto the floor at the foot of our respective treadmills, where she bumped into someone racing over to help, flipped into the air in what looked like a figure skater’s triple lutz, and landed, with her particularly large girth, with a thud, on top of me, as I came to an abrupt stop, on my back, on the floor. We both lay still, gasping for air, face to face, looking into each other’s eyes, with our noses touching ever so gently, like two Eskimos kissing for the first time. After a couple of minutes in this uncomfortable arrangement I said to her:

“Glad to meet you; now can you please climb off me?”

 “I can’t,” she answered groggily.

 “What… why not?”

 “Because I threw my back out… I can’t move at all.”

 “Well, this is awkward… what do we do know?”

 “Considering our situation,” she answered, “we should probably introduce ourselves.”

 Twenty minutes later, after an ambulance arrived — and they managed to lift her off me — we had become good friends, and not to mention the obvious, she had left quite an impression on me. 

 From that day forward I made sure the treadmills on each side of me were unoccupied whenever I went to the gym. What I couldn’t prevent was having someone choose a treadmill next to me after I’d started on mine, so the unbelievable experience that occurred a week later was completely beyond my control.

I was on the treadmill, about ten minutes into my mile walk, when a young girl who looked to be about 15 years old hopped onto the next treadmill and within minutes was running furiously along side of me. And that’s when it happened – my old Brooklyn Italian macho reaction kicked in. Even though she was just a kid I couldn’t let myself be beaten by a girl – and a very young one at that – so I hit the speed button a couple of times until I was running faster than her.

She must have sensed what I was doing so she responded in kind… then so did I… then so did she… and soon with both our legs pumping like pistons, her ponytail bouncing like a wagging tongue, and my tongue wagging like a bouncing ponytail, we continued to try to best each other’s speed. This didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the people in the gym, and within minutes a multitude of young and older women formed a circle around us, pumping their fists and chanting:

“GO, GIRL, GO… STAY ON TOP… KEEP ON RUNNING TILL HE SAYS STOP!”

Then the guys joined the crowd, and just when I thought, “Great, here comes some support,” my hopes were dashed when they began chanting:

“JOE, OH NO… YOU’RE SUCH A SCHMOE… COMPETING WITH A CHILD, HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?”

 At that moment, I would have preferred being back, a week before, lying on the floor, with someone twice my size lying on top of me. Instead I continued running as fast as I could until finally, gasping for breath, I surrendered to the inevitable, brought my treadmill to a stop, and walked away forlornly as the crowd hoisted the young girl onto their shoulders and strutted around the gym in a victory parade.

A little later I was sitting outside on a bench, feeling humiliated, when the young girl walked over and sat down next to me. She remained silent, glancing at me shyly from time to time. After a few minutes, she turned to me, and in a soft voice barely above a whisper she said:

“Hi, mister.”

“Hi, what do you want? Did you come here to gloat?” I answered gruffly.

 “No, I came here because I wanted to thank you.”

 “For what, making a fool of myself?”

 “No, for giving me something I thought I’d lost forever and would never have again.”

 Thinking she was messing with me I turned towards her with a few sarcastic answers ready to spew from my lips, but when I gazed into her eyes and realized she was being sincere my sense of dejection was replaced by genuine interest.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, in a much gentler voice, and as her story unfolded her words held me completely captive.

“Two years ago, I was the fastest runner on my high school track team, winning race after race. Then something terrible happened. One day, when making the final turn in a track meet, my legs gave way, and I fell to the ground in a heap. When I tried to stand, I couldn’t move my legs at all. At the hospital, I was told I had a very rare muscular disorder. They weren’t sure what caused it and told me there was a chance I’d never walk again.”

 Suddenly my embarrassment at being outrun seemed more than insignificant compared to what she’d been through the last couple of years, and my heart went out to her. All I wanted to do at that moment was put my arms around her and comfort her.

“Anyway,” she went on, “after a year and a half of specialized drug treatments, months and months of painful physical therapy, and lots of prayers, I was finally able to walk again, then begin to run, and finally after almost two years I was ready to race once more.”

 “That must have been awesome!” I said with genuine delight.

 “Yes and no,” she responded. “When I heard the crack of the starter’s pistol and everyone burst from the starting line I stood there frozen… I couldn’t run… I was afraid to race. Just the thought of competing again caused panic attacks that rendered me catatonic. I felt like I had won the battle but lost the war. Since then I haven’t been able to do the one thing that defined me, that I loved doing more than anything, to race once again. The desire I’d had that drove me to be the best I could be had ended, and my life as I knew it was gone forever.”

 Then her face lit up in a beautiful smile, and in a joyful voice she said:

 “That was until today, when you confronted me and changed everything. I don’t understand why — maybe it was the determination on your face, maybe it was being challenged by a man — but the competitive look on your face spurred me on, reminded me of what I had missed, and suddenly I had this enormous need to prove I could win again. Mister, your challenge made me whole again. I’m finely back to being the person I found so much pride in before.”

 Then, with tears welling up in her eyes, she hugged me and thanked me once again. “How amazing,” I thought, “a short while ago I was trying desperately to beat her, and now I was thrilled that she won.” There were so many different emotions running through me that I didn’t know what to say so I just remained silent, with her arms around me, until I finally gathered myself together and blurted out the first thing that came to mind:

“THIS CALLS FOR A CELEBRATION, AND I’D LIKE TO SHARE IT WITH YOU SO HOW ABOUT LETTING ME TAKE YOU OUT FOR A GIANT SUNDAE?”

 “That would be great; where are we going?”

 “I have no idea, but wherever it is I’ll race you there.”

***

I don’t ever see her in the gym anymore. I heard that she made the US Olympic Team and will be competing in the 2020 Summer Olympics. It’s said that if you keep your heart and mind open you can learn valuable lessons from the mouths of babes. My encounter with this wonderful young lady has changed me dramatically. I don’t look for excuses or struggle over whether to go to the gym anymore. As a matter of fact, I now go to the gym nearly every day.

I nearly went Monday… I nearly went Tuesday… I nearly went Wednesday… I nearly went Thursday……….        

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If lying were a job there is someone who would be a billionaire – oh, he already is!

The loud noise at the door was enough to disrupt the elegantly sentimental mood I was trying to establish as I delivered the last line of the tender ballad we were performing. I was on stage with my band, The Emotions, halfway into our first set when the commotion started. It was ten years ago, and we were performing at a political rally for a friend of a friend who was running for County Coroner in a local district. I know it’s hard to believe, but this is an actual elected position in many counties. Some say that it’s a dead-end job… ha ha… that can kill a political career… ha ha… but the person running for that position believed he could resuscitate his career if he were to be elected… ha ha ha. (Okay, I think that’s enough puns for one blog, so with your permission I’ll go on with the story.)

Suddenly the door burst open, and a handful of waiters carrying chairs and a table, followed by four men in black suits, stomped in with no regard to what was going on, weaved their way in and around the tables of surprised diners, set the table and chairs down directly in front of the stage, and walked away as the men in black formed a circle around the table with their hands clasped behind their backs.

I hesitated before launching into our next song, curious as to what was going to happen next – and to my surprise Donald Trump entered the room arm in arm with two young gals who looked to be about 18 years old, followed by two older couples. When he got to the table one of the men in black pulled out a chair, The Donald sat down and had the two young gals sit on his lap. Once they were comfortably seated the two older couples sat down, and I counted off the beat for our next song.

Call it unfortunate, call it unbelievable timing, call it what you will, but our next song was MC5’s hit “Teenage Lust,” which Trump must have thought was a comment about him. He stood up in a rage, dumping both gals onto their butts, picked up a vase of flowers that was on the table, and threw it onto the stage. One of the first things you learn as a performer is never to stop a performance unless it’s absolutely necessary, so I continued singing while he stared angrily into my eyes, his face red with rage. When I finished the song I immediately announced that the song was taken from an album by MC5 and had no relation to anyone in or within the vicinity of this room, this neighborhood, or even this county. At that point two of the men in black picked up the teenagers and placed them back on Trump’s lap.

One of the songs we do in our set is Dion’s “Teenager in Love.” It’s a song that allows me to interact with the audience and have them sing along for a little audience participation. Feeling the need to make amends for what Trump believed was an insult, I went directly to him, asked if he knew the words to the song, and put the mic up to his lips. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the absolute worst thing I could have done. With the smirk on his face that I’ve seen all too often lately, he stood up, snatched the mic from my hand, pushed me aside, climbed onto the stage bringing the teenage girls with him, who looked like they wanted to disappear and proceeded, with that smug smile on his face to put his own words to the song.

“Each time I see a woman, there’s something I can’t stop.
I love to pick her up and place her on my lap,
It doesn’t matter, if she feels it’s an affront,
I’m Donald Trump, and I do whatever I want.”

 I’ve been accused of treating women bad,
They don’t understand I’m just a randy lad.
But I don’t care, if they think I’m too damn blunt,
I’m Donald Trump, and I do whatever I want.”

 The words he sang, were offensive enough, but what he did then was even more distasteful.  He jumped off the stage pulling the two girls with him, dropped the mic, and formed the strangest looking Conga line I’d ever seen. It started with him, followed by the two girls, then the two older couples, who I finally realized were Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and their wives, and the four men in black, hands on each other’s hips, closing out the line. They followed Trump as he danced in and around the tables, knocking over people’s drinks, taking food from their plates, stuffing the food into his mouth, and laughing like a lunatic with food spraying from his lips every time he did something obnoxious and detestable.

Watching from behind him I remember thinking at the time that here is a person with an ego even larger than his ass, who cares only about himself, has no use for anyone else, and assumes he can get away with anything because he’s a billionaire. Just before prancing from the room he pulled a flower out of a vase from a nearby table, put it between his teeth, grabbed the two gals’ butts, and danced out the door as the four men in black pulled revolvers from their pockets and pulled the triggers, which made red flags pop from the barrels, showing a picture of Trump and the words:

“The favorite thing I love to do is firing people just like you…
The only reason I can see, is because no one’s as good as me!”

After the door slammed behind them I stood there motionless, trying desperately to think of a way to change the chaos Trump had left in his wake into some sort of order, but I must admit I didn’t know what the hell to do – and that’s when my friend and drummer of the band, Jerry, had a most brilliant idea. He nodded to me, smiled deviously, counted down the rhythm to a song, and in that moment, we all knew what song he had in mind.

The band hit a resounding chord, I brought the mic to my lips, and belted out the opening lyrics to the Doobie Brother’s big hit, “What a Fool Believes.” Amazingly, it was as if a great weight had been lifted from the room. People started cheering, singing along, and then got up, formed a long Conga line of their own, and began dancing between the tables, as each man in line grabbed a rose and put it between his teeth. The abrupt change from the disheartened state that had been cast upon the room by Donald Trump, to the immediate pleasure of a group of people, of one mind, embracing each other’s humanity, enjoying each other, laughing and sharing each other’s company made me believe that there will always be a coming together of those with good intentions to counteract anyone who does things for their own personal aggrandizement and puts themselves above the will of the people. When I left the gig that evening I remember thinking, “Thank God, I’ll never have to think about Donald Trump again.” Little did I know at the time how wrong I was.

Now, I know there are some of you who may find this story a little hard to believe, and probably think I’m lying. If that’s the case, please ask yourself the following question:

“Do I look like a billionaire to you?”

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Summer camp is a place where you spend a fortune to have your child live like a homeless person.

At this time of year, as parents are sending their kids off to summer camp, anticipating a much needed vacation from their offspring, it brings me back to my summers as a kid. I was brought up in a blue-collar family. They didn’t have the money to send me off to sleepaway or any other kind of camp. No, my summer camp was the PS 180 school yard in Brooklyn.

Now please don’t shed a tear for me or feel sorry for what I missed, because in many ways the school yard had participatory activities similar to those you’d find in your most exclusive camps. Ah, I hear you scoffing, but if you bear with me and read on, I’ll attempt to describe to you what, in my opinion, was the most unique summer camp you’ve ever heard of.

If you were looking down from a bird’s eye view at the school it was in the shape of a U, except the corners were square, not rounded. It filled the block from 56th Street to 57th Street with the front door of the school on 16th Avenue. The schoolyard ran approximately 250 feet from inside the U to a fence that separated it from some homes. It’s important to be able to visualize the building because different corners were home to different sorts of activities. The yard itself was half cement and half dirt. The cement started from the inside of the U, changed to dirt at the half way point, and ended at the fence separating the yard form the homes. We played baseball and football on the dirt, stickball and other street games on the cement. Though it may be hard to believe we didn’t lack for activities that were available to kids at regular camp. Let me describe what I mean.

BATHROOMS
The left inside corner of the yard was what we used as a lavatory. Because there were rarely ever girls in the schoolyard the guys peed freely in that corner whenever they had the urge. On a hot summer day if you ventured too close, any sinus problem you might have had would be cured in an instant. I still have nightmares of walking away from that area with tears burning my eyes, but it didn’t stop us from urinating if we needed to – after all, guys will be guys, especially in the middle of a hard-fought stickball game.

TABLE GAMES
The other inside corner was where we played the equivalent of a sleepaway camp’s table games, except the games weren’t chess, checkers, monopoly, or scrabble – they were poker, pinochle, Black Jack, and shooting dice. You would think that guys in their early teens had nothing to bet with, but the gang from my neighborhood would bet their clothes, including underwear. If they thought they could win, underwear was considered your most valuable commodity, because if you lost, you had to give them up without removing anything else. This often turned out to be hilarious to watch as one guy battled furiously to stop a couple of others from stripping his shorts from his body without taking off his pants. You always knew who lost that day because you’d see them limping around holding ice packs to their groins. You notice I used the word “they.” That’s because I never gambled. I’d rather lose a baseball game by striking out with the bases loaded than throwing the dice, crapping out, and having my shorts pulled up my back, over my head, and tucked under my chin, in a failed attempt to rip them off, which I’m sure would have left me running around in circles like a chicken with its head cut off.

RACING
We didn’t have counselors, but there were some guys who inspired participation in certain sports. Bronk was one of them. He was huge, 14 years old; he stood 6’4,” weighed over 250 pounds, and had a mean anger problem. Because he encouraged a lot of us to run, I guess you could say he was our racing counselor. If you pissed him off in any way you knew you had to run like the wind in the hopes of not getting the crap kicked out of you. I remember once when I declined to play handball with him he threw his Spalding at me, and it bounced off my back and onto the roof of a garage across the street from the school. (For those too young to know, a Spalding was a pink rubber ball we bought for 15 cents and used to play stickball with.) Only 13 at the time, I ran the 4-minute mile that day I’m sure, the distance from the schoolyard to the safety of my house. Every time I saw someone running faster than I’d ever seen them run before I knew they were trying desperately to get away from Bronk.

CLIMBING WALL
We also had our equivalent of a climbing wall. The school had planted a victory garden that was enclosed by a locked 20-foot-high, chain link fence, which is where we practiced our climbing skills. The garden was in foul grounds along the left field line where we played baseball. If the ball was hit into the garden the guy who hit it was timed to see how long it took him to climb the fence, retrieve the ball, and climb back out. At the end of the day the one with the fastest time was awarded a prize – a single ripe tomato from the garden. Whenever I came home with a tomato my Grandmother would reprimand me.

“Se stiate andando rubare il pomodoro prossimo almeno a casa con più di uno.” (“If you’re going to steal tomatoes at least come home with more than one.”)

ARTS & CRAFTS
Arts & Crafts was an activity we enjoyed as much as kids at regular sleepaway camps, except that it was restricted to just one skill: the art of crafting a broom into a state-of-the-art stickball bat. Back then stickball bats were not sold in stores as they are today. The stickball bats we used were made from brooms that we stole from the backyards of houses in the neighborhood. You can scoff all you like, but it took precision and dexterity to remove the complicated wiring that held the straw part of the broom to the pole-like handle without splintering the wood. The less damage to the wood the greater distance the ball would fly when hit. Different brands of brooms made different quality bats. If you were lucky enough to steal a “Sweepies Sweet Sweeper” model and were able to craft it into a stickball bat, you knew you hit the mother lode.

BASEBALL
When playing baseball, we had to invoke some new rules for balls that were hit over the fence. That area of the fence separated the schoolyard from a home owned by a grumpy old man who kept two ferocious dogs in his yard to keep everyone out. The guy who hit the ball had to find a way to get into the backyard, get the ball, and come back completely unscathed. This exercise became an important part of the game based on how you retrieved the ball. If you or the ball had been mauled in any way you were given a double. If you ran from the yard with the dogs at your heels but were untouched you were given a triple, and if you were skilled enough to sneak in, find the ball, and sneak out without disturbing the dogs it was considered a home run. Obviously, no matter what shape you came back in, if you were not able to retrieve the ball, the blast you admired sailing over the fence was called an out. It was painful to hit a ball so far and have it be called an out, but not nearly as painful as it was to be caught by the dogs before you were able to get out.

WATER SPORTS
There were obviously no lakes for us to swim, splash, or play in, but we managed to get as wet as we wanted, when we wanted, by opening a fire hydrant next to the schoolyard, which bathed the entire block. We called it our own rapids because on very hot days we would bring our younger siblings’ little red wagons and jump in them directly in front of the powerful gushing water, sending us flying rapidly like kayaks down the street, which was incredibly thrilling. Not nearly as thrilling as it was when we reached the end of the block and had to dodge in and around the cars and buses that were driving at great speeds along 16th Avenue. We stopped doing that the year my friend Philly, whom we called Peanuts, because he was a lot shorter than the rest of us, hit the curb, sending him flying up in the air, out of his wagon, and into the lap of a local Mob Guy driving his Cadillac convertible with the top down. They looked funny as hell nose to nose in the front seat of the car as it came to a stop in front of the local police precinct a block away. What was even funnier was that after trying unsuccessfully for years to apprehend the guy, the police were finally able to arrest him for endangering the welfare of a minor by driving with Philly sitting in his lap.

CAMPFIRE SONGS
In the evening, we didn’t sit around a blazing campfire singing campfire songs and roasting marshmallows. We did light up garbage in a garbage can in the middle of the schoolyard a few times, but it dispensed such an awful smell the neighbors called the police and put a stop to it. We didn’t know any campfire songs so we did the next best thing. We gathered under the soft glow of a lamppost and sang doo-wop harmonies deep into the night. I can’t say if we were good or not, but the neighbors didn’t seem to mind, and young girls from around the neighborhood would come by to listen and hang out with us. Somehow, I believe a song like “I love you for sentimental reasons” did a lot more to attract the girls than “I got tears in my ears, cause I’m lying on my back, crying in my pillow over you.”

GOOD NIGHT
I must admit that the one experience provided by my summer in the schoolyard that couldn’t be matched by an expensive sleepaway camp was bed time. Until I joined the Navy I never knew what it was like to sleep in a room full of bunks with a lot of guys, snorting, snoring, belching and farting through the night. To wake up earlier than I wanted to the sound of a bugle blasting my sleep away in a most intrusive, irritating way. Showering at the end of a line of guys, half asleep, holding on to our bars of soap, desperately trying not to drop them. Racing to a mess hall, trying to beat everyone else to what was left of the food, and standing in line, waiting to be counted and sent on to a game or exercise I didn’t particularly care for.

No, I wasn’t that lucky. I had the misfortune to have to sleep in my own bed, in my own room, after being given a glass of milk and piece of home-cooked lemon meringue pie by my mom. Waking up in the morning at whatever time I wanted to. Having a breakfast of pancakes, waffles, eggs, breakfast sausages, or whatever else I wanted that morning, cooked and served to me by my grandmother. Taking the $5 that was left on the dresser by my mom in case I wanted to buy a hero and soda from Bruno’s, our local grocery, and sit against the schoolyard fence with my friends having lunch together, joking and telling stories as we ate, followed by a short stroll to the inside corner of the school yard where we relieved ourselves, walking away with tears burning our eyes and proceeding to spend the day at camp PS 180.

“Hmm, isn’t that exactly where I started this blog?”

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If you’re a mean person karma will have you come back as a fly and eat poop. Paraphrased from a quote by Curt Cobain.

So, I’m sitting in my car outside Home Depot enjoying the charismatic crooning of Simply Sinatra on XM radio. I’m waiting for my wife to come out with her weekly quantity of flowers that she plants with delicate, loving care in our garden, when a woman walks past wheeling a shopping cart. After emptying the packages into her car, she pushes her cart off to the side and turns towards her car. Unbeknownst to her the cart begins to roll directly towards my car.

Quick thinker that I am I blast my horn a couple of times pointing to her rolling cart, except that by the time she turns around the cart has come to a stop, so she looks daggers at me, spreads both arms out in a “What the hell was that all about?” gesture, and then stomps over to me and snarls:

“If you wanted the damn cart why didn’t you just come over and get it instead of blowing your horn in such an obnoxious way to have me to bring it to you?”

Then she gives me the finger, walks back to her car, burns rubber screeching from the parking lot, and taps her previously rolling cart, sending it rolling once again smack into the back of my car.

I manage to jump out of my car and return the one-fingered gesture. Then as I attempt to un-pry the cart from my car I hear someone yell, “WATCH OUT!” and turn just in time to leap away from a long line of carts that slam into and attach themselves to the cart that is already tangled to the back of my car. The first thought I have is that it looks like my car is giving birth to a group of carts. Then, unbelievably, what pops into my mind is, “If group of ships is called a fleet, a group of cows is called a herd, a group of lions is called a pride, and a group of ants is called a colony, what do you call a group of carts? ARGH, WHAT THE HELL AM I THINKING? I HAVE A CLUSTER OF CARTS (Oh, I guess that’s what you call them) ATTACHED TO MY CAR, AND I’M STANDING HERE WONDERING WHAT THE HELL TO CALL THEM.”

 Then the guy who accidentally released the CLUSTER OF CARTS THAT CLOBBERED MY CAR runs over to me and sputters: “I’m so sorry, sir, it must have been the cart with the wobbly wheel that slipped away and forced the whole line of carts to crash into your car.” And suddenly, like in the cartoons, a light bulb literally lights up above my head. That’s the moment I realize this must be karma for the blog I posted a couple of weeks ago about carts with wobbly wheels. Someway, somehow, the carts have conspired to pay me back for the insidiously negative account of their exploits that I’d written so insensitively weeks before. I know this sounds wacky, but trust me, it’s going to get even wackier.

If you truly believe that shopping carts, especially the ones with the wobbly wheels, have the power and conviction to affect your life, what would you do? I tend to think you‘d do what I did – I gave the cart guy some money and asked him to go into Home Depot and buy a slew of candles for me.

“Hmm, forgive me,” he questioned, “Would a group of candles be called a slew of candles, or would compilation be the right word?”

 This was one of those times when no particular word was necessary. The look on my face said, “If you don’t go in there right now and buy those damn candles for me I’m going to CREATE A COLLECTION OF CLOUTS upon your head.”

 A short time later, as the moon coaxes the sun behind the horizon and darkness begins to cast its shadow over the parking lot, he returns, hands me the candles, and stands there looking bewildered as I slowly and systematically place them in a circle around the entangled metal-to-metal coupling of the carts and my car. I light each candle and begin to pay vigil in hopes of ending the spell that I’m sure has caused all this.

I’m sure that by now every one of you, my reasonable readers who look at life from a rational point of view, think that I’ve gone totally bonkers. Consider this, however – if you believed an unforeseen magic spell had been cast upon you, wouldn’t you want to do whatever you could, no matter how bizarre, to expel it and end the calamity it’s causing?

So, with that in mind, I kneel on the ground, start to chant and sway back and forth like a shaman hoping to exorcize a malignant spell, when I notice something very strange happening. People are coming together and forming a line around the candles with lit candles of their own. Then unbelievable as it may sound they begin to chant and sway back and forth as I’m doing, in a gesture that I can only believe is their way of supporting me in my desire to end the confrontation I’m having with “THE GOD OF THE WOBBLY WHEEL.”

As the crowd continues to grow I’m first taken aback, then filled with wonder at how they know what and why I’m here, and finally humbled that so many are willing to reach out and give of themselves in deference to my personal cause. I’m extremely moved as I walk around the circle of people, who continue to grow in numbers, and wonder to myself, “Why in the world have they chosen to help me with my exorcism?” After about a half hour, with the chanting of the increasing crowd getting louder and the swaying becoming more pronounced, I can contain my curiosity no longer and ask a woman why she’s here… and her answer is so unexpected I have no idea how to respond.

“When the word got out that someone created a structure in the parking lot of Home Depot that symbolizes what I and the rest of us here are most upset about I had to come down and become a part of this historic protest.”

 “What structure?” I ask incredulously.

 “The car and the carts.”

 “And it symbolizes what?”

 “Isn’t it obvious? This brilliant structure symbolizes the entangled connection between the President and the Russians. The car represents Trump, and the carts extending from the trunk, like a long series of turds, suggest how many Russians have been deep up his butt ever since the election. Whoever crafted this amazing piece of art should be recognized for it. If you find out who it is please let me know. I’d like to thank them personally.”

 Then she disappeared into the crowd, leaving me stunned. It took me a little while to truly understand what I’d just heard. I wanted to shout out to everyone that they had it all wrong. This had nothing to do with Donald Trump. The purpose of my candle vigil is to make THE GOD OF THE WOBBLY WHEEL LOSE HIS POWER AND DISAPPEAR, NEVER TO BE SEEN OR HEARD FROM AGAIN.

“If all this powerful energy being generated by everyone here works, it won’t make “THE GOD OF THE WOBBLY WHEEL,” disappear… it will make Donald Trump……”

I stop in mid thought, looking around once again at everyone banding together for one common purpose. Shoulder to shoulder, chanting as one, swaying in unison for a cause they all believe deeply in, and I know what I need to do – so I quietly pick up my beach chair, walk slowly out of the parking lot, and as I put distance between myself, the candles, and Home Depot, I think:

“I can deal with “THE GOD OF THE WOBBLY WHEEL” another time. At the moment, hopefully, something much bigger and more ominous is about to come to an end.  

 

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When the teacher asked, “If I have 5 bottles in one hand and 6 in the other, what do I have? “The student answered, “A drinking problem.”

Have you ever wanted to throw yourself down a flight of stairs just to know what it would feel like? Those of you who answered no to the question can continue reading. Those that answered yes should stop abruptly, find a therapist, and hunker down for a good six months of intensive psychological evaluation.

I don’t have to fall down a flight of stairs to know what it would feel like… IT WOULD HURT LIKE HELL! What is there to question? Maybe how many bones you could break? Would you need time in the hospital? How long would it take to recover? These are all legitimate questions; the other is not, which brings me to the reason I asked it in the first place. What is considered a legitimate question, and what is not? This whole lead-in was meant specifically to introduce my good buddy Wally, who had an irritating tendency to answers questions with another question.

Once when we were pulled over by a cop for speeding and the cop asked if he knew how fast he was going, Wally answered:

“No, do YOU know how fast I was going?”

 “Yes, why do you think I ordered you to pull over?”

 “How should I know? If you knew how fast I was going then why did you ask if I knew?”

 Because it’s important to be aware of the speed you’re driving.”

 “How important is it?”

And it continued like that until the cop got so frustrated he slapped handcuffs on my friend and arrested him on a charge I had never heard of before – “Resisting to Answer.”

The degree of aggravation and frustration it took to have a conversation with Wally was funny to watch when it was with someone other than you. The back and forth between him and our teacher Ms. Donasaggia were classic. We had almost gotten to summer break without incident until the day she asked:

“Who can tell me why the North and South fought the Civil War… Wally?”

To which Wally struggled to his feet and reluctantly responded, “Can you tell me why you call on me whenever you ask a tough question?”

“I don’t call only on you with tough questions, Wally. Why do you think I do?”

 “If you think that I think that you do, when I know that you do, then don’t you think for once that my thinking is right and yours is wrong?”

And that’s when Ms. Donasaggia finally lost her composure. She slammed her ruler against the desk, and with her face turning a rich shade of purple she shouted:

“MR. WALLEE,” (yes, his name was Wally Wallee), “I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR QUESTIONS… YOUR INSOLENT, OBNOXIOUS, IRRITATING QUESTIONS. HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SPEND THE REST OF THE DAY IN THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE?”

“Since it’s his office don’t you think you should be asking him?”

At that point, Ms. Donasaggia threw her hands in the air and stomped out of the classroom screaming, “DEAR GOD, WHY DO I COME IN EVERY DAY AND PUT UP WITH THIS?”

It’s probably a good thing that she was too far away to hear Wally reply:

“If God doesn’t answer your question would you like me to?”

Having a conversation with Wally was like eating soup with a fork. It always made you feel totally frustrated and incredibly unsatisfied, but that all changed one very frightening evening — the night his penchant for answering questions with a question actually saved our lives.

It was a hot, humid, July evening. We had just left a movie together, and while we were walking through a dark alley to get to the car, two guys with black woolen masks over their faces jumped from the shadows with guns and told us to hold up our hands. One was kind of short and rather rotund. The other was tall and so muscular he looked like a football player who’d forgotten to take his shoulder pads off. He stood slightly behind the shorter guy, showing a deference that made it obvious the other guy was in charge. Unlike the short guy, who was calm and collected, he was very fidgety, hopping from one foot to the other, as if he was standing on hot coals. He looked to be high on something, and that worried the hell out of me. Then the short guy asked if we had any money on us and got the typical Wally comeback:

“Do you have any money on you?”

 “I ask the questions around here… why would you ask me the same question I asked you?”

 “If you were going to steal our money why would you ask how much we had? If we didn’t have a lot of money were you going to let us go?”

For a moment the guy looked a little confused, but then he seemed to straighten himself out and asked, “Why in the hell do you ask so many goddamn questions? Why don’t you just hand over your money?”

 “Okay, do you want the change first or the bills?” Wally asked with all seriousness.

 “Hmm,” the guy replied, “Let me see…”

And suddenly Mr. Musclebound lost it and began to scream:

“GOD ALMIGHTY, I CAN’T STAND IT ANYMORE. THIS GUY’S DRIVING ME NUTS. C’MON BIMBO. I AIN’T OFFED ANYONE IN A WHILE… LET’S WHACK ‘EM, TAKE THEIR MONEY, AND GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

A chill went up my spine when it looked as if Bimbo, the shorter guy, was actually contemplating it… and then the most amazing thing happened… Wally spoke up and in a tender, concerned voice asked a question. That wasn’t very unusual, but the question he asked was.

“So, how’s she doing? Is she still sick?”

“What? How did you know my mom was sick?” Bimbo asked, and I saw a couple of tears slip from his eyes and slide ever so gently down the front of his woolen mask.

“How did you know that my mom was sick as well?” Wally responded.

“I didn’t know,” and more tears welled up in his eyes.

“Sure you did… don’t you think that’s why you chose me? Don’t you think we’re kindred spirits? Don’t you know this moment was meant to be? So if you and your friend plan to kill us would you do me a favor and mail this note I wrote to my mom a while ago, so that she’ll know how much I loved her?” Then Wally reached into his pocket, pulled out an envelope, and handed it over.

The transformation that came over Bimbo was astounding. He lowered his gun, told his partner to lower his, put his arm around Wally, and said tenderly:

“My mom has cancer. I’m hoping that with the proper treatment there’s a good chance she’ll be in remission soon. That’s why I need money. What’s your mom have?”

“Would you believe my mom has the same thing? Would you believe I’m hopeful she’ll be in remission soon too?” Then Wally repeated his request, “Would you mail the envelope for me?”

“I won’t have to, my friend,” replied Bimbo, “because nothing’s going to happen to you today.” 

Then he put his gun away, told his partner to do the same, and after handing the envelope back, giving Wally a hug, and wishing both their mothers well, he and his partner left as quickly as they had appeared.

With a sigh of relief, I gave Wally a pat on the back, and as we walked to the car I asked incredulously, “Wally, how did you know his mother is sick?”

“Joe, don’t you think everyone knows someone who’s sick?”

“Yes, but I didn’t know your mom had cancer. How’s she doing?”

 “She’s fine. She doesn’t have cancer or anything else wrong with her.”

 “Then handing him that envelope was nuts. What the hell was in it?”

 “Would you believe it was my electric bill?”

 “Your electric bill, Wally, are you crazy?” What if he had read it?”

 “Ah, but he didn’t read it, did he?”

 “Well, no.”

 “Then Joe, my good friend… you’ve accomplished something that’s never been done before. You’ve left me searching desperately for a questioning retort, and try as I might I’m not able to find one.”

 And without any qualms or sense of shame, I couldn’t resist:

 “Hmm, why do you think that is, Wally?”

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Anyone who believes the competitive spirit in America is dead has never been in a supermarket when a cashier opens another checkout line – Ann Landers

My grandmother used to take me food shopping with her because she needed someone to help carry the bags of groceries on the walk back home. I was around nine or ten at the time, and that was before the days of supermarkets. There was a local grocery store within blocks of our house that was owned by a man named Bruno. I didn’t know if that was his first or last name. All I knew was when my grandmother said: “Giuseppe, io needa acquisto fooda. Coma con me a Bruno’s to trasportare i sacchetti backa home.”

 My grandmother always spoke half Italian and half broken English. The sentence above, translated roughly into English, is: “Joey, I need to go food shopping. Come with me to Bruno’s to help me carry the bags back home.”

 It never mattered which words were in Italian and which were in English… I always understood what she was saying. That didn’t help me much in high school. When I took my first test in Italian, my chosen language, I answered in half Italian and half English. Needless to say, it didn’t please my Italian teacher, Mr. Perplesso, very much. I do have to mention incidentally that his name was quite apt because in English it translates into Mr. Perplexed.

“Okay, back to Bruno’s,” is what my grandmother would say after we got home and didn’t like the way the cold cuts were sliced. Except she would say, “Approvazione, backa a Bruno’s.”

Back then there were no calculators. Mr. Bruno would total up the cost of the groceries in seconds on one of the brown paper bags he put the food in, using a pencil stub that was less than an inch in length but never seemed to get any shorter – and that bag would also serve as your receipt. I remember marveling at how fast and accurate he was with his calculations. When we got home my grandmother would check his math, and they were always correct, and I believe to this day that if he were matched against the speed of a calculator he would win hands down.

The day the first supermarket opened in our neighborhood was the day my grandmother believed the world was going to hell. If she didn’t know the owner and they didn’t live above their establishment she didn’t trust them or their store. When the supermarket put Bruno’s out of business she had no choice but to shop there and asked if I’d go with her. She entered the store her first time the way a SWAT team enters a hostile building. She stopped inside the front door, looked quickly to the left, quickly to the right, shouted, “Clear,” and then slipped quietly inside, making sure to keep me directly behind her. I guess she thought she was keeping me safe from an attack by the Brussel Sprouts and other vegetables that looked to be hiding dangerously within the refrigerated, frost-covered plastic bins that stood side by side, seemingly for miles, inside the supermarket. A far cry from the inviting, rich-colored wooden boxes and barrels that held Bruno’s fruit and vegetables in a protective embrace.

It took her a long time to get used to shopping in the supermarket, but she eventually grew accustomed to it and was finally able to get through the experience with few problems. Not so for her brother, Salvatore, who was visiting from Italy on his first trip to America and accompanied my grandmother to the supermarket one day. You’ve heard of people who are hard of hearing… well, Salvatore was hard of seeing. For some reason things looked different to him than they did to others. I can’t think of a better way to explain his impairment than to describe how he almost got himself arrested that day. He left her at one point to find a rest room, and when he saw a door with a large “M” on it, he entered and peed. Unfortunately, the “M” on the door stood for “MEAT,” not “MEN.” He’d relieved himself inside the meat freezer. He would have gotten away with it too, had he not complained to the manager that the men’s room was so cold that all the urinals were frozen and the freezing temperature in the room made it difficult for him to reach in his pants and find his pishiattsu.

I believe my unusual childhood experiences with supermarkets have given me a unique take on the supermarkets of today. There’s no question in my mind that a supermarket is a woman’s domain. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, bacon and eggs, and two straws in a coke, to name a few. You can see the difference just by comparing how men and women handle their shopping carts. A man walks slowly through a supermarket, pushing a cart with great caution, watching every corner he turns, and every aisle he encounters makes him as anxious as a bomb technician trying desperately to defuse a ticking explosive device. A woman zips through a supermarket, pushing her shopping cart with the confidence and dexterity of a bull fighter waving a red cape, performing a pirouette, and stepping gracefully away from a raging bull with no qualms at all.

A woman will leave her cart in the middle of the aisle and walk away with no concerns as to whether it’s blocking the aisle or not. Pass at your own risk or find another aisle to peruse. This is her domain, and don’t you forget it. The funniest sight is watching a man pushing the cart and following his wife through the aisles. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the expression on his face always looked like a firefighter’s combating a five-alarm blaze, clinging desperately to the hope that he’ll get through it without being injured.

“Oh, man, if I can get to the checkout line unscathed it will be a frigging miracle.”

 A supermarket can also serve as a reliable place for women looking to meet eligible men. It’s simple. If he’s alone and buying most of his food from the freezer aisle, he’s single. No married man shopping for his wife would ever bring home frozen food unless, for some reason, he’s trying to piss her off. Three or four frozen dinners in his cart probably means he’s been single for a short time. If his cart is overflowing with numerous types of frozen dinners, lunches, breakfasts, and deserts, then he’s gearing up for months of watching football from the unperturbed, stress-free position of his bed.

Yes, a woman and a supermarket have an amazingly symbiotic relationship. As further proof let me offer this tried-and-true example. While walking back and forth through a supermarket, notice the carts being pushed by women and the carts being pushed by men – can you explain to me why it’s only men who are struggling with carts that have wobbly wheels? I know you can’t, so I’ll let you in on a little secret. Every shopping cart in every supermarket in every country has had a magical spell bestowed upon it that is called “Reversible, Restorative, Rejuvenated Repair,” which is essentially the miraculous ability to change a wobbly wheel into a smooth, circulating sphere the minute a woman lays her hands on the top bar.

It may be naïve of me, but I believe it was my grandmother who cast that magical spell on all supermarket carts many years ago. I’ll never forget the beautiful, sunny, summer day in July when we were at the supermarket. Everything seemed fine when she pulled a cart from out of the group that were standing in line outside the building. It was only when she began to push it that we noticed the cart had a wobbly wheel.

“I’ll get us another one, Grandma,” I said.

But when I put my hands on the cart she took them off gently, replaced them with hers, closed her eyes, made the sign of the cross, and whispered something in Italian I couldn’t hear. The sky instantly turned black, lightning cracked across the heavens in scorching flashes, followed by an enormously loud rumbling of thunder… and then within seconds, all was sunny and bright again.

“Okay, Giuseppe, now you can get us un altro (another) cart.”

When we got home I asked my grandmother what she had said, but she just smiled, filled a bowl of pasta, handed it to me, and replied:

“Mangia (eat), you looka little thin oggi (today).”

Later that day when I described to my grandfather what happened at the supermarket and asked if he had any idea what she might have whispered, he grinned, patted me on the head, took a couple of puffs from his ever present Parodi cigar, and replied:

“I hava no idea. Ima only know what la vostra nonna (your grandmother) tells me.”

Intrigued by his answer I asked:

 “Has she ever told you something so important you’ll never forget it?”

 “Yes, ona the day we were sposato (married).”

 “Wow! What was it, Grandpa?”

“WHEN I TALK YOU BETTER LISTEN, BECAUSE WHEN I STOP TALKING IS WHEN I BECOME REALLY SCARY!”

 To this day every time I walk into a supermarket and remember going with my grandmother it warms my heart and lifts my spirits. While pushing a cart with, of course, a wobbly wheel the other day, I walked past the meat freezer and thought, “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” Then I came to my senses and said to myself:

“I’ll just wait until I’m hard of seeing!”

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