Jim Left Early, Again

Jim, if you recall, is my seat mate at the Rutgers Men's basketball games, who has a tendency to leave with three minutes left in the game.  Most of the time, the outcome has been decided;  we're either losing badly, or winning easily.

However, tonight against the number ten team in the country, against a future Hall of Fame coach, Jim and his wife get up to leave with 2:50 left in the game, with Rutgers only down by three points!!  The ten or so of us around him screamed,

"Jim, where are you going?  This is very winnable, and a great game none the less."

I reminded him of the Villanova game last year ( see the first "Jim Left Early"), which was no help. He and his wife kept charging toward the exit.

We, his stranded seatmates, saw Rutgers forge ahead, then fall behind, then tie the game at the end of regulation. 

They did the same thing in the first overtime.

In the second overtime, they prevailed, and we who stayed witnessed the best game in over twenty years. (Not the Villanova game, there was too much luck involved in that one.)

It suddenly dawned on us that perhaps it's a good thing for Jim to leave a close game early.  In abstencia, we decided in the future to make sure Jim leaves early.  His sacrifice to the Rutgers basketball Gods might bring good fortune, and make the difference for making a post season tournament.  Jim could be the coach's secret weapon.  If he should decide to start staying for close games, we have to find a polite way to urge him to leave, for the good of the team.

Jim, we all do things for love.  Just keep doing what your doing.


The Quarter

It really is a small world.  Here's a story of a circle which took almost sixty years to complete.

Back in another Age of Innocence, growing up in Bergenfield, NJ was a really fun time for us kids in the 1950's.  Our mothers would think nothing of giving each of us fifty or sixty cents on a Saturday to form a group of "ten or so" somethings, shushed us off  to Washington Ave (the main street) to grab a bite to eat, then go to the movies.  Lord knows they deserved a break; we were a fairly wild bunch.

Off we would go the six or so blocks to our first stop, the Corner Luncheonette.  It was a mom, pop, and two son operation, where I first got to like hamburgers.  Before then, I just put ketchup on them, when Gene, one of the sons, said,

"You've got to put mustard on it also."

Bingo.  Still do it to this day.

In fact, the next time we had burgers at home, and I put ketchup AND mustard on mine, my mother gave me that "What are you doing... kids today" look.  It was the same look I gave our son the first time he put ketchup, not mustard, on his hot dog. 

All of us kids looked up to Gene, he was a few years older, probably just starting high school.  However, it was the way he entertained us while at the counter which had us coming back almost every Saturday, sort of like a warm up show before the the double or triple feature at the Palace Theater.  I remember to this day that the burger and the soda fountain coke cost thirty cents, and Gene, as a finale to his act would bounce the quarter off the counter top, then catch it in his apron's front pocket.

I'm quite sure we all enjoyed the movies all the more after Gene's setup, and filed the indelible memory forever.

It didn't end there, though.

A few years ago while our new home in Marlboro was being constructed, I stopped in the development to check the progress.  This man and his wife on bicycles stopped to talk and welcome me to the neighborhood.  When the man said he was also from Bergenfield, and his parents used to own a luncheonette in town, I realized I was talking to Gene.

We both laughed at the world's smallness, and I asked if, when we settled in could he make me burger, and bounce a quarter off the counter top.

Before he could answer, Lee his wife said,

"Not on my granite!"

Another laugh from an old, new found friend.


Open Sesame

I never can resist a practical joke when the opportunity presents itself.

Cal and I take turns driving to see our beloved Rutgers Men's Basketball team play a half hour away in New Brunswick, NJ.  It's much easier when I pick him up, because when he drives, I have to remember to take the remote to get back into our gated community after the game.

This time it was Cal picking me up, and he had a business associate, Curt, who is the executive producer of NJ Discover, an up and coming TV/Internet company.  Curt seemed like a strait shooting, stand up guy, and I'm not just saying that because he paid for dinner.  So Cal and Curt rumble up to my house, actually on time, and we go off roading out the back entrance to the community.  I say "off roading" because the final pave hasn't been applied, and the road is really more like an irregular washboard.

After we had a bite to eat, which Curt insisted paying for, we were off the the RAC to see if our charges could keep it together for forty minutes, and emerge with a win.  They did manage a "W", but not before they played havoc with the coach's blood pressure:  spiking it in the first half with a sloppy sandlot effort, then lowering it in the second by switching gears to win by twenty five.

The comic relief of the night came when Cal pulled up to the back gate and I said,

"Cal, I forgot the remote to get back in , but they just installed a voice activated feature.  Roll down the window so I can shout the code."

He did that, and I yelled, 

"Open Sesame!"

Cal was dumbfounded.

"Your voice opened the gate just by you saying that?"

"Not really,"  I said as I produced the clicker from my front pocket.

Curt was laughing so hard, I thought he was going to piss his pitcher of beer all over the back seat.

Cal was nor amused.

"John, I'm a very vengeful person.  Watch out."

"Cal," I said, " How do you know your one of my best friends?"


I smiled, then replied, "When I pull a stunt like this."

I think he got over it, because he didn't make me walk the rest of the way back to my house.


Smokey and the Holidays, part two

If Smokey the cat thought he died and went to Heaven for Thanksgiving, he sure did an encore for the following Christmas.  We had decided when we rescued him it would be better for him to become an indoor cat; not half in and half out, but all the way inside.  He didn't seem to mind this.  He no longer had to "sing for his supper" so to speak, and it must have been nice to be warm all the time, with all his meals delivered, some even cooked.  The only hunting he did in the last few weeks almost bagged him a turkey leg.

In those days, we had real Christmas trees, and we loved the fresh evergreen smell they wafted into the house. The tree that year had an unintended effect on Smokey, who must have thought he was outside again.  It's hard to explain, but the tree had the same effect as a giant sprig of catnip.  He would run under the tree, which was in the corner,  out the other end, then through several rooms in the house.  We yelled when he did this, and he seemed to get the message, before we started decorating the tree.

But he didn't, really get the message.

We were in the kitchen cleaning  when we heard a crash, with the sound of glass ornaments breaking, and water spilling onto the living room floor.  Seconds later, we saw Smokey calmly licking his wet paws, which fortunately weren't cut.

We righted the tree, cleaned  the mess, then I got an eye hook for the corner seam of the wall, and some mono filament fishing line to anchor the tree to it.

Smokey did get the message this time, and never longed for the great outdoors again.

I followed this procedure each year after that, and when we moved out of that house, I left the eye hook in the corner, in case next owner had a cat and a Christmas tree. 


Smokey and the Holidays, part one

You already know about our white, black and gray cat from his escapades with our Pekingese, Flair, a few post ago.  He was much more of a comedian than that, which I'll tell you about now.

Smokey came into our lives the Friday before Thanksgiving when we still lived in our first house in Glen Rock, NJ.  If my wife hadn't had a soft spot, and not brought him home that weekend, I  don't think he would have survived it.  He spent the weekend in the Egyptian vet's hospital to get his body fluids back to normal.  I guess he used one of his nine lives that weekend, but by Monday, he was as good as new, and checking out our house, and evading Flair by hopping atop this or that chair or piece of furniture.

The following Thursday, Thanksgiving, we were spending it quietly; just Genna, my wife, her grandmother, the dog, Flair, and the new cat, Smokey.  We made a full course dinner anyway, despite the short guest list.  After thew main course, we retired to the living room.  Grandma took a nap.  I was in a chair in the corner, without a view of the dining room table.  Genna went into the kitchen, I presumed to start washing a few things, to which I said:

"Gen, relax.  I'll start the cleanup in a little while."
"That's OK.  I'll just rinse a few plates," she replied.

Unbeknownst to me, Genna went out to the garbage outside, and I heard to rustle of silverware on the dining room table.

I said again,

"Gen, I'll take care of it, relax."

I kept hearing the silverware moving, and I decided to investigate.

As I walked into the dining room, I saw Smokey dragging a drumstick over the silverware, and onto the floor.  I was able to grab the drumstick before Smokey could run off with into a quiet corner to feast.  He ran away from me, and turned around with a look that said 'ahh shucks'.

Not having a cat for a while made me forget their unlimited mobility inside the house.


The Mortician

George, my father in law, rest his soul, belonged to a local business organization in Hudson County, NJ.  Once or twice a year they would plan a social event to have some fun.  Usually, one of these junkets was a trip to Monmouth Race Track's clubhouse for an afternoon of eating drinking and racing, in no particular order.  The group was usually quite large, about fifty or so from all different types of businesses:  retailers, restaurateurs, politicians, etc.  They one thing they had in common was they all liked to have a good time.  It didn't matter for the most part how much anyone of them won or lost; no one had a gambling problem.

On this day, until the fifth race, the good time was getting louder as a function of the cocktail service.

One of the group owned a funeral home, and had been having a very unlucky day so far.  He hadn't won a race, and the horse he bet on in the fifth was trailing the field badly, when the mortician stood up, raised his hand at the horse, and said,

"Drop dead."

Within a few seconds, the horse keeled over, and a few seconds after that, everyone of the other businessmen got up and distanced themselves from the undertaker, who sat by himself for the rest of the races. However, they promised to sit with him the next year if he promised not the curse at the horses.


The Creek

If ever a time when I took a few years off my parents life, this was it.

My guess is every kid growing up has been told by their parents not to do something or go somewhere because they might get hurt.  Yet almost every kid disobeys, and does or goes anyway.  After all, kids don't realize their parents aren't dumb until they reach the age of twenty one.

I was told never to go to the creek, a small drainage runoff about three blocks from our house in Bergenfield, NJ.

"Johnny, you mustn't go to the creek.  It's dirty water, and you might get sick," was my mother's relentless caution to me.

Next to the creek was a house that had hunting dogs in outdoor doghouses, beagles, if I remember.  So all we kids did was say to our parents we were going to play with the dogs, which we did, then went on to the creek, to play some more.

In the winter, the creek would freeze over, and we'd play "run and slide" over a straight stretch about fifty feet long.

I almost forgot to explain; even after a deluge, the creek was only about one and a half feet deep, so we weren't talking about drowning here.

That didn't stop the highly imaginative kid who lived next door to us, Kevin, from running home one day after I broke through the ice at the end of my slide to yell at my parents,

"Johnny fell through the ice.  I think he's dead."

I was up sopping and shivering, and on my way home more scared than dead, trying to come up with an excuse for this one (I did get into my share of trouble).  I didn't have to worry for long, as my father arrived, and warmed the seat of my pants all the way home.

After a hot bath, my parents calmed down after being half dead from Kevin's initial report.  I was sent to my room and told to get into bed with lights out and quiet.

It seemed like an hour or so before I heard a light tap at the door.  Both my parents entered the room, my father holding a large bowl of Lipton soup.

All was well again with my young world, and I did manage to stay away from the creek after that.


His First Overnighter

When our George was nearly a toddler, Genna's parents offered to keep him for a weekend so we could get a break from this new overtime job we created.  Genna, when preparing for any kind of event, is very methodical and thorough.  Every one has a check list like a moonshot by NASA, and the list seems to grow each time she checks an item off while I, in this case, load the car.  In essence, it's hard to distinguish the packing for a two day trip from that of a month.  George, being the only grandchild on both sides of the family, was too overloaded with 'stuff', as George Carlin used to say.

Into the SUV went George's clothes, crib, riding toys, throwing toys, puzzle toys, food, etc, to the point if we wanted to pack a sugar cube, it would have to stay home because it wouldn't fit.

There George sat back in his car seat in his short pant suit with white knee high socks, white and black saddle shoes, inspector gadget rain hat, and electric blue sunglasses.  I don't think King Farouk had it any better than this kid.  Off we started from Glen Rock to Englewood Cliffs, NJ praising the side view mirrors all the way. 

We pulled into the driveway just in time for Genna's parents to appear along side the car, open the back door before I could put the car in park, yank George out of his seat restraint, and disappear into the house.

We sat in the car staring at each other for a few minutes, and realized they were not coming back out to help unload the car.  Adding to the fun was the main living area of the house was on the second floor, with the garage underneath, so all this shit (my bad 'stuff') had to be schlepped upstairs, and we'd get to do it all over again in two days.

I don't even remember what we did in those two days; just that we were exhausted from getting him there,and bringing him back home, and George doesn't even remember the weekend.


Smokey and Flair

As you probably have guessed by now, I've gotten a tremendous kick out of all the animals I've ever had, and here's a story about two more of them.

Flair was a Pekingese dog that I got my wife, Genna, early on in our marriage.  Even when I first saw her in the kennel, she had a lively way about her that stood out from the other doggies in the window.  She had fawn markings which were light tan to medium brown, with a black face mask.  She didn't have a pushed in  face (Pekes whose noses can't been seen in profile get more show points), but she probably breathed easier and lived longer because of it.  Pekes were breed to protect the Chinese emperors, and Flair was a ;little lion in appearance and demeanor.

Smokey, a mixed breed American short hair cat, had no regal background, and definitely came from the poor side of town.  Genna picked him up in the parking lot on a very cold Friday evening after she finished teaching for the weekend.  Genna has a soft spot like I do, and saw Smokey wasn't going to survive the weekend without assistance.  He was nearly dehydrated, and his last ounce of fat was burned several days before.

We immediately contacted an emergency veterinarian who IV'ed Smokey and kept him for the weekend.  The vet gave us hope when he said,

"I have a good feeling about him, and believe me, I know cats; I am Egyptian!"

He was right, and we brought Smokey home on Monday, but kept him separate from Flair until he appeared to get his strength back.  We sort of knew what to expect when we did put them together.

Unlike Fat Cat, Smokey was very docile, while Flair was the aggressor.  Smokey most often relied on his fancy paw work to evade a charging Flair, whose very long hair negated any traction her paw pads afforded her, as she would slide past a side stepping Smokey.  These episodes calmed down to once or twice a day, while the rest of the time they just avoided each other.

Smokey did believe in payback, however, but he picked his spots to retaliate.  His favorite moment was to approach Flair as she was sleeping beneath our hutch in the living room.  She would crawl under the hutch from the back and rest her head on the floor with just her nose peering out from under.  I just happened to be in the living room to witness what happened next.

Smokey quietly approached Flair, and sat down on his hind quarter, making sure Flair was asleep.  He slowly raised his front paw above his head, and smacked Flair on the nose, quickly retreating half way up the adjacent steps that led to the second floor.  He sat back down on the steps as if nothing happened, and observed Flair skid in reverse, run in circles around the living room and into the kitchen looking for Smokey, who barely turned his head watching her antics.

I watched this scene unfold three other times, laughing louder after each.

After telling you this story, I don't know how I'll get you to believe that Flair was a very smart dog, but she was in every other way.


Fat Cat

I've already told you stories about Max and Eddie, the two dogs my father-in-law and I kept at our place of business.  Now I have to add the story of the real boss of that establishment.
My late brother-in-law, rest his soul, had a cat he named Phoebe.  When he died tragically, George and I took her in, and put her on the payroll as 'chief mouser' of the premises.  You may recall that the business was located next to the Meadowlands in Secaucus, NJ, where field mice were the majority of the denizens who called the area home.  They weren't much of a bother in the warmer months, but during the winter, they were as heat seeking as the rest of us.  The best deterrent was the presence and scent of a cat, and Phoebe relished her new position.

There were initially two problems, one big and one small.  The big one was the dogs did not welcome Phoebe at first; more on that to follow.  The small one was George didn't like saying the name Phoebe.  I think it reminded him of his son saying it, so he changed her name to Fat Cat ( which aptly described her).  She was a Persian calico, predominately black, with patches of tan and brown that looked brush stroked onto her fur.

Max and Eddie immediately chased Fat Cat when she first arrived, and she sought sanctuary up the ladder to the second story storage area.  Over their barks I could hear her hiss and make that guttural sound cats make when they are extremely annoyed, at the same time swishing her tail which had ballooned to the size of a raccoons.

This lasted about two days, until Fat Cat must have thought 'enough of this' as she made her way down the ladder to confront the dogs. I admit to holding my breath as I watched the encounter.

It really wasn't a fair fight' as Fat Cat dispatched both dogs faster than Joe Louis took care of Max Schmelling in the first round.  As the both dogs came at her, she swiped both noses with one clawed paw each, a left then a right, sending Max and Eddie yelping away with a dose of humility they never forgot.  It was Queen Fat Cat from then on, and their deference never again wavered.

I've always been amazed how quickly most animals can seek their own level, and come to an understanding faster than most people can.

I'm Back 9/22/11

I didn't take a vacation, but I did work feverishly on my first novel, and completed it a week ago.  The editor has it now, and I hope to publish sometime around mid November (fingers crossed).  The title is 'Ark', and I'm putting all of you college sports and paranormal fans on notice!
Stay tuned.




I'm willing to bet that most people, especially my age, have had one or two summer vacations when they were growing up that stand out among all the others.  So much so, to me, that I really can't remember much of what the others were like.

My trip to Maine with my father's parents, Grandma and Pop Pop, and his Uncle Jake, was that vacation for me.  My grandparents had a house in the 'finger' region of the coast line.  If you looked on a map you could see four peninsulas jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, twelve to fifteen mile long 'fingers' from above, or on a map.

Uncle Jake drove us from Edgewater, NJ, meandered through New York and the lower New England, before reaching the house in Five Islands, Me.  I recollect the trip took the better part of daylight, around eleven to twelve hours. Uncle Jake was far from a speedster, and he talked  about as slow as he drove.

The house was set on a hill overlooking the cove, one long block equivalent way.  What a view.  The house was originally built by a sea captain.  The rooms inside resembled cabins on a ship, with dark, wainscoted wood, with a large stone bouldered fireplace in the middle.  Large windows looked out to the cove from about as high as a crow's nest on a ship would be.

The week we were there was crowded with assorted day trips, and I remember the weather cooperated fully with our plans.  I don't recall a drop of rain the entire time.  We went to clam bakes (what's a trip to New England without one), boat rides, museums, and various eateries.  At one breakfast nook, I found my favorite breakfast, buckwheat pancakes and sausage.  I think I had them three or four days in a row!

The highlight of the trip was the boat ride to Monegan Island.  The island is about twelve miles off the coast, and at that distance, a boat can encounter some fairly large waves.  Uncle Jake and I opted to climb the ladder to the upper deck, for better view, and more sun.  All told, about twenty other people had the same idea.  My Uncle Jake was always amusing to me, and he kept my interest in whatever he was talking about.

I guess we were about two miles out when I started to notice a few people at a time were returning to the below deck, and the captain would yell into the intercom to the deckhand,"Billy, on the port." or "...stern, ..."  As the number of people dwindled down to just my uncle and I, I decided to go below myself to see what was keeping Billy so busy.

Almost everyone on the main deck had facial pallors between green and blue, sitting with buckets on their laps, to catch the rest of their rejected breakfasts that poor Billy was washing off the other parts of the boat.

A few of us, my grandparents, uncle, and myself never got seasick, this trip included.  I decided to go back to the upper deck to continue to enjoy the sun and 'swells'.  Swells are waves with long, gradual arcs, as opposed tall choppy ones.  They give a slight, weightless sensation at the top of the arc, and as the boat descends into the low point, or swale.  However, if you are prone to seasickness, this is the worst kind of wave.  The split second of weightlessness rebells the stomach.

Fortunately, once we got to the island, and walked around a bit, almost everyone's stomach distress turned to hunger, and the trip back was on a nearly dead calm sea.


Gook Gook

This is how my mother ruined dinner as a kid.

Lonnie ("Lavender Lonnie") my mother, grew up in Fort Lee, NJ.  When she was a young girl in the 1930's, her house had a large backyard with assorted  farm animals.  Chickens, roosters, goats, pigs, as well as successive cats and dogs.  My mother referred to this petting zoo as her playground.  She always loved animals, and still does.  In those days, this semi-agrarian way of life was common to many first generation Italian-Americans, and with the Depression, it made sense to feed yourself and live off the land as much as possible.

The difference in age between my mother, the baby, and her oldest sibling was 19 years.  In fact, Uncle Primo was already out of the house when my mother was born.  She did have one brother, Uncle Eddy, who was just a couple of years older than mom.  I thankfully was able to meet him once as a young boy, to understand how close he and mom were in spirit, and why it hurt her so much when he died so young a few years later.

Their age proximity formed a special bond between them, and they shared the playground/zoo in the back yard.  One chicken stood out among the many egg layers.  Gook Gook,  my mother named her, for the sound the chicken kept making in its unending query for food.  Gook Gook must have been a dog in a previous life, following Lonnie and Eddy around the yard even after feeling time, while all the others lost interest when their hands were empty.

After school one day, Lonnie and Eddy went into the back yard and discovered there was no Gook Gook.

They reported this to their father, who explained that, possibly, someone may have stolen Gook Gook.  The yard was next to the road, and in those desperate Depressive times, someone might do just that to survive.  Heartbroken, Lonnie and Eddy accepted their father's theory, and tried to attach themselves to another chicken.  There just wasn't another Gook Gook.

Their mother (see "Nana") was a great Florentine cook.  From the stories I've heard, it could have been her, and not Mama Leone, who opened a famous restaurant in New York City.  In fact she came to this country as a cook for a wealthy Italian family.  She didn't get sponsorship, and free passage to America by being a lousy cook.  My grandfather was a successful mechanic, having built a car for his wealthy patron to race in the early days of that industry.  He had the means to put food on the table, even in those hard times.

Sunday dinners, I've been told, went something like this.  Hot and cold antipasti, minestrone soup, risotto or pasta, poultry, followed by a meat roast, nuts and figs, sometimes dessert, then espresso.  Nana took great care to entertain family, friends, significant others, and potential in-laws.

The next Sunday dinner after Gook Gook went missing was going fine until the poultry offering was presented.

My mother said, "Eddy, that sure looks like Gook Gook, doesn't it?"

Nana reached over and twisted my mother's ear, and with a vice like grip on it, lead her out of the dining room.

Sunday dinner was effectively over because Papa didn't choose another chicken, and the rest of the family, in sympathy, lost their appetite.

The only thing Gook Gook did wrong was she stop laying eggs.



Any Boomers, like myself, considering a spiffy sports car like you always wanted in your younger days, this Volkswagen may fill the bill for you.  Its a hard top convertible, seats four, although the back seat is for liliputians.  Genna and I use the back seat for our cooler when we take trips to Florida.  Other than that, it has lots of pep, handles like a go cart, gets good mileage, and with the top down, the windows up, you'll leave the car without a bad hair day if you keep it under 70.  I'm sure you would agree, it is a fun car.

Last winter, we were fortunate to get away to our place in Florida, just before a major snowstorm in New Jersey.  So, we just got down there in time, and have to admit to snickering at the weather that our friends and family were experiencing up north.

After a couple of days our son, George, send us an email photo of his car, which under so much snow, looked like a giant vanilla ice cream cone.  Bordering on malice, Genna decides to snap a phone picture of me in the Eos, with the top down, under a shady palm tree in a 75 degree cloudless ideal of a day.  As a caption, she adds, "How much snow is on your car roof?" Clicks send.

George sends back, " I hate the both of you.  I hope a big bird shits on both of your heads."

Not content to chuckle at his pain, Genna decides to forward the photo and George's response to Mike, our neighbor.

Mike, not too amused either, sends back, "I hope a VERY big bird."


Max and Eddy

Max, short for Maxine, and Eddy were to two shop dogs that George, my father in law, and I had at our place of business.  You may recall (see "The Route 3 Piglet") it was located in the Meadowland in Secaucus, NJ.  How they came to us is a matter for speculation.  Being so close to Route 3, they could have been left to fend for themselves by owners with a probable poor reason for doing so.  There weren't any houses nearby at the time that they could have run away from, or gotten lost.  No one ever came around looking for either of them.  

Anyway, I'm pretty sure they both thought they died and went to Heaven when they stumbled upon us.  We  installed trap doors so they could go in and out as they pleased.  They ate vet recommended dog food, as well as parts of our lunches every day.  It was a pretty good common law relationship, with us as servants.

Max stumbled in first.  My best guess is she was a cross between a Golden Retriever and a German Shepard, and the vet guessed she was about three years old.  After a checkup, shots, and flea collar, she was deemed to be in pretty good shape.  

She followed George everywhere around the premises, except when she was hunting rabbits among the cattail grasses that stretched behind the building for about a half a mile.  We witnessed her catch a rabbit on the run, like a lioness on a plain in Africa. 

Max loved cars and trucks.  "C'mon, Max," was all George had to say if she was within earshot.  Each day, he would take her into town, as he visited the bank and post office.

Eddy dropped in a couple of years after Max.  He was probably a cross between a German Shepard and Dalmatian.  Eddy got the same regimen that she did, and was also deemed fit.  However, we noticed after a short while, that Eddy was not too bright, and a little crazy.  Just like Max followed George, Eddy followed Max, everywhere.  Shortly after Eddy arrived, George and Max were making a daily run into town, and George just happened to look in his side view mirror and noticed Eddy running on the road shoulder trying to catch up to the car.  He stopped the car and loaded Eddy into the back seat.  Eddy barked, just to hear himself, I think, at everything.  When he barked, Max would start to bark.  So here they are, the three of them, two barking and George yelling, at them.  While proceeding onward into town, Eddy decides he want to join George and Max in the front seat.

George returned back to the shop white as a ghost, nearly crashing the car and the three of them, when he recounted to me what had happened.

"That's it!" he said, "No more dogs in the car, unless they have to go to the vet."  Until the dogs got the picture, we had to keep them inside while George got in the car to make his daily trip to town.

I mentioned Eddy being a little crazy.  Somehow, we left a can of dog food on a lower shelf that Eddy could access.  When I returned to work the next day, I spied that can of dog food, BITTEN in half, its contents devoured, and Eddy licking his chops.  Kid you not.  Change that to German Shepard and Shark!!

Both dogs were fun to be around, and without fail, they always provided at least a minor chuckle each day.  George was usually last to arrive in the morning, he was getting older, and had certainly paid his dues.  We knew his arrival by first Eddy, then Max barking.  They greeted him in the parking lot, and followed at his side as he entered the building.  Max would walk straight next to him, while Eddy would circle around the two of them, barking all the way.  They followed George into his office where he had a biscuit jar.  They would both sit at his feet, Eddy settling last, on Max's right (not left, every day).  Eddy knew that Max got the first treat, but he would stare and follow it from George's hand, into Max's mouth.  Knowing the next was his, Eddy would adjust his backside, wag his tail, then catch it as it dropped from George's hand (remembering the dog food can, George thought it best to keep his fingers this way).

Both dogs lived until their mid teens, which, for larger dogs is very old.  But hey, they didn't have to work,  their every need was attended to, and they had fun every day.  I hope when they did die, that Heaven was as good for them.


Pop Pop's Sailboat

That would be my grandfather's, however this story is about his son, my Pop's use of his boat as a young boy on the Hudson River.  My dad grew up in Edgewater, NJ, a town aptly named for its narrow bordering of the Hudson from Fort Lee to the north to Cliffside Park to the south.  On a map, the town looked like an eel, being so narrow.  A heavy hitting golfer could tee up a ball at the shore and posit it on the Fort Lee cliff overlooking the town.  For a kid like my father growing up during the 20's and 30's, Edgewater provided an easy access to water, and boats that were moored along row after row of boathouses and canoe clubs.  I remember, as a kid myself, seeing as many boats as stars in a moonless sky.  When my dad was a kid, the river was an inexpensive paradise, before most everyone decided that looking at the New York City skyline should be expensive.

My Pop Pop, like most other residents, had a small sailboat,  a locker for his gear, and a slip for the boat.  My father took every opportunity he could to be around that boat.  He sanded, painted, varnished, and did everything else to keep the boat, "ship shape."

One hot, late spring day, before school was out, my father decided to play hookie, and went to the boathouse to go for a solo sail, unbeknownst to anyone in his family.

The day was going fine when two things happened that my father forgot to plan for:  the fickleness of the wind, and a pair of oars for that possibility.

How do you say, Dead Calm.

Meanwhile, from his office on the tenth floor of  Alcoa, the aluminum company that in those days had a plant on the river's Jersey side, Pop Pop was conversing with an associate.

"John," his co-worker said, " isn't that your boat in the middle of the river.  It sure looks like your sail."

Pop Pop had a pair of binoculars handy, and sure enough, there was my father hanging onto a mid channel marker, waiting for someone, with oars or a motor, to come to his aid.

When dad finally did return home, around suppertime, Pop Pop said, " The broken lock (he knew my dad didn't have a key) is going to be replaced from your allowance, and you'd better think about what you're going to say to your teacher tomorrow." 

 My dad said in later years, my grandfather was really more annoyed that he didn't ask if he could go for a sail that day, because he would have said yes.



This is not a funny story, but I believe a good one.  Good in the sense of what kind of person Al was.  

Al died last Monday, age 92.  Just 92.  His birthday was last Friday.  He was not famous to the rest of us, just to his family, who accounted for everything in his life.  Everything he thought and did, worked and planned for, was for his family.  His graveside eulogies by family members made us friends realize what a hero they had lost.  What a truly wonderful world if Al's book of Fatherhood were read by the men who need to.

Al was the father of Genna's very dear friend, Melodie, and we would see him at least once a year, especially since I share a birthday with Mel's youngest daughter.

I called Al my gold standard, for the way he lived life to the fullest, and for a long time.   The other thing I liked about Al was, when ever we'd meet again, he would say, "John, you've lost weight!"  It was never true, but I took it anyway.

Poignantly, the last time I saw him, he needed a walker to get around, and Father Time was hanging on his shoulder.  He looked me in the eye and said, "John, I'VE lost weight," which he painfully did, but the twinkled eyes, the ruddy cheeks, and the ready smile were still there.

I suspected that might be my last visit, and I am thankful for it. 


The Joke On Kerry

There are six of us, the "Tara Six" we've come to call ourselves.  Mike and Donna you've already met, Genna and I, and, introducing, Kerry and Brad.  Tara for Tara Homes, the builder who took deposits from the three couples, then sunk into bankruptcy as soon as the housing downturn commenced a few years ago.  We were all going to be neighbors in "Horizons at Peach Hill", a site that previously was a successful cabana and pool area, a successful, intimate concert venue (the Stones played there), a successful summer college basketball league site, but, for us, a nightmarish debacle of a housing project.  Tara Homes, developments 'Gone with the Wind'.

The sad part was each of our homes were only weeks away from delivery, Mike and Donna, only one week.  All of us were going to be neighbors in the same U shaped court, in the best part of the development.

In the weeks right after the bankruptcy filing, I got a craggy, hand written fax from Mike ( probably scrawled alongside a second or third 'Stollie'), asking me to call him and his wife, Donna, which I did the next day.  We began a friendship and commiseration which has lasted through the bankruptcy until the present.

Kerry and Brad we didn't really get to know until Mike suggested the six of us have lunch to discuss another housing development that the first four of us really liked, and thought they would too.

Well, we all met at the restaurant, Kerry and Brad arriving last.  Brad seemed to have a 'que sera, sera' take on the whole bankruptcy / other new house situation.  Kerry seemed like a deer in headlights.

The rest of us explained to them the benefits of the new development.  The builder was solvent, no outstanding construction loans.  The street was the best in the development.  It had just become available for sale, there were no houses in front or in back.  There was a lake on the other side of the street, etc.  Kerry and Brad seemed to like what we had to say, and didn't want to miss an opportunity at this new development. Kerry seemed to visibly relax, she actually started blinking her eyes, which I don't think she did up until that point.

I don't know why I have the urge to humor someone at their expense, especially when I know they're really not up for a joke.  However, I kept glancing at Kerry during lunch, and really did try to suppress what I ended up doing.

Lunch was over about 2PM, we settled the bill, and all got up to leave.

"Well, I think you should  go over to the sales office, these houses are selling really fast.  I think the office is open until 2:30 this afternoon," I said looking at Brad.

"Whaaaaaatttttt!!!!???  Kerry burst, as the rest of us, except Genna, laughed.

Genna just gave me that 'why would you do something like that, again' look.

I was really sorry after I said it.  I am a  remorseful Gemini.

Kerry and Brad did purchase a home on the same street as the other four of us.   Kerry I've found to be a very good sport, but for that first prank, she has a joke at my expense account, which is unlimited, and can be used at any time.


Courtside with BK

Time for another story about my beloved Rutgers Mens Basketball team.  It's safe to say I'm a fairly dedicated fan.  I have had season tickets for about 20 years.  I go to most related functions, banquets, Court Club meetings etc.

My friend, BK, has a dedication and knowledge of the game and the program that makes mine seem trivial, and just about knowing that the ball's round.  I call him "the Oracle".  He know's everything and everybody associated with this basketball enterprise.   He's missed only one game in about 15 years.  Two foot snowstorm.  He's such a loyal supporter, regardless if the coaching regime is on the way in, or on the way out.  His work schedule is arranged AROUND the basketball schedule (nice to be able), so he makes all the away games also. BK sure knows how to put the fan in fanatic.

Last year we had yet another coaching change, which seems to happen as frequently as our national elections.  I think this one's going to stick, though (fingers crossed).  The new coach is in his early forties, with very high energy and intensity, which we all hope his heart can keep up with.  He also talks like he was born at sea, and gargles with rock salt.  This  produces a raspy voice that raises profanity to an art form which would make any sailor blush.

Let me tell you how I found this out.

BK tells me there is to be a free exhibition game, the coaching debut for the new guy.  To make it extra special for him, BK says his parents are coming to their very first Rutgers game, ever.

"Why don't you and Genna come early also, so we can all sit in the front row, behind the team bench?"

Excellent idea, I told him.  Neither of us has our regular seats in this area.  We'd be able to hear everything the coach says during the game, and during time outs.

Did we hear everything.

It wasn't like the whole gym could hear him, just Genna and I, BK and his lovely wife, Jane, and especially BK's parents.  They both had the look that an irritated Queen of England gets that says, "We are NOT amused."  Genna, having spent too much time in parochial schools, was giggling hysterically, making up for lost time.

I was glad to see BK's parents at a later game during the season, far enough away from the coach's mouth.


Lavender Lonnie

It's funny how people get nick names, and how they stick.

That's my mother's family nickname, given by me as a teenager.  I appropriated this tag after noticing her pattern of transforming various household items from whatever color they were, into this very soothing shade of purple.  When you say the word "purple", most people think, "murky," "dreary," "mourning", or just "eeyyuckk".  Lavender is different.  Imagine if you could mix a dab of clear teal blue sky with just a little blueberry juice.  That would be lavender to me.  It's peaceful.  A clear blue sky can do that.

I guess it does the same for Lonnie.  Over the years, I've watched her lavender magic work on nick knacks, picture prints, picture frames, railings, floors, walls, cabinets, etc.  But here's the thing.  It was never too much lavender at any one time.  Never a monotonous shade.  Lovely lavender has a very narrow range of calm and peace, and Lonnie always had that balance.

She also liked an occasional clothing item in lavender, which will get us from my lavender dissertation to the funny part of the story.

A few years ago, I went to pick her up at the airport after her flight from the Outer Banks area of North Carolina.  I see her coming down the passenger tunnel in a just the right shade of lavender pants suit, and an extra bounce in her step (yes, she's an "octo" that still has that).

"Ma, you look extra chipper.  That must have been a very good flight."

"Let me tell you how good.  There was this very charming young steward who lit up when he passed my coach seat and said,"

"WOW Mayam,  that is THEE most Gor gee us lavenduh out fe it Ah have EVUH laid Ahhs on!!"

"I thanked him profusely, and said what a fine, kind young southern gentleman he was.  He left to go about his business.  Then I noticed the plane had quite a few empty seats.  The next time I caught his eye, I hooked my little first finger between my sight and his, and he came back to my seat," Lonnie said.

What happened next made me realize the gene connection between Lonnie and her mother, my Nana, who I've already told you about.

Lonnie said to the young man,  "Don't you think this lavender pants suit would look much better in first class, next to a glass of champagne?"

"He just rolled his eyes and walked away, but I knew I had him on the line," she continued.


"A few minutes later, he summoned me with his own little hook finger to the forward cabin, where he sat me down in this huge seat made from a cloud, poured me a glass of champagne, and left the bottle right next to me.  I was so nice to that young man the rest of the flight."

Lonnie sure has a way with that color.


Miss Oreo

If you're guessing who Miss Oreo was, she wasn't a cookie queen or a mixed race southern beauty, but she was this little black and white cat that showed up at our doorstep one morning as I was going to work.  She bolted from the bushes in front of the house as I was approaching my car.  A long plaintive "meeeooowww", a shin rub, a look in my eye with another half meow hit me just the right way, for her.  Also, she looked a little thin.  If this happened a hundred other times, I would have just gotten in my car and drove to work.  Instead, I went back into the house, opened a can of our cat's food, and put it on the front stoop for my new little friend.  Had Genna been awake when I went back into the house, and asked what I was doing, that might have been the end of it.  Genna, as you'll see shortly, wished she was, awake.

What to name her.  I thought of Oreo almost right away.  Oreos were my favorite snack, and in those days, I chain munched from box to box on the front seat of the car.  The "Miss", came later, when it was apparent how willful and single minded she was.  

How to sell Miss Oreo to Genna.  I realized that between my way to work and going home, I had to come up with a plan.  We already had one cat, Tabby, a spayed red one, who was easing into old age a few ounces at a time, a butterball turkey without wings.  Then I realized, Genna owed me one.  When she first started teaching, she came home one day before me in the middle of winter with a scrawny, dehydrated gray and white cat (Smokey, another post, coming up).  Didn't ask me, but I was OK with it.  One good turn....

Sure enough, Oreo was at the front door when I came home.  Once you feed a cat, its 'til death do you part from the cat's perspective.  Genna was OK with Miss Oreo, as I suspected, on one condition, "She better get along with Tabby, or she's outta here.  You can take her to the shop (see "The Route 3 Piglet").  I agreed.

Less than one week later, Genna calls me at work, "Oreo is chasing Tabby around the house."

"Leave them alone, they'll seek their own level, don't interfere," and I hung up.

Less than two minutes later, its Genna, "I tried to protect Tabby, and that little bitch bit me on the ass.  My ass cheek looks like I got bit by a snake."

After not listening to me, I couldn't help but add," I bet it looks like the one on Cleopatra's breast."

No laugh.  Not helpful.  Just, "You'd better get this furry little bitch out of my sight by tomorrow morning.  Her new home is Secaucus, NJ."

At this point, I have to tell you another thing about Miss Oreo (Genna sarcastically called her that from then  on).  She only liked me.  Everyone else, friends, family, business associates, she gave a hard time.  Even my father-in-law, George Sr. rest his soul, who had a gifted way with animals, couldn't get along with her.  He would come out to the shop to visit after he retired and sit down in his old cubicle.  Miss Oreo would sit on his lap, get petted, purr, then bite him.  I'd hear George scream, see Miss Oreo come flying out of the cubicle, then George, standing with a bleeding hand, incredulously saying, "She bit me..., she bit me!"  I sure he died a sadder man than he would have because of Miss Oreo's treatment of him.

As for the Tabby and Oreo affair (wrong word),  I think Miss Oreo was coming of age, so to speak, and Tabby had long ago sown his last oat and was not attuned to her wishes.  Sort of, Lola didn't get what she wanted.  Just my two cents.

Tabby was so traumatized, he hid under our dust ruffled bed for three days.  We had to put his litter next to the bed.  He'd use it, then go back under, where he took his meals, for THREE days!!  

The other term Genna used to refer to Oreo was the "schizo."  Being a Gemini myself, I wasn't one to work up a defense for her.  She was more than a little odd.  I surmised she lost her mother at and early age.  Number one, she was a runt.  Number two, she would sit on my lap while I was at my desk, push my belly as if to draw milk, then suck on one of my shirt buttons.  I would then get up and get her a little milk or half and half, which she'd lap up like a kitten.

When I retired, I sold the building we did business in.  That meant Miss Oreo had to come home with me after about ten years.  Genna and Miss Oreo got along OK, as long as they kept a room between them, and Tabby had already gone to catnip Heaven.

As I said, she only liked me.  She was more than a little kooky, if not crazy.  However, it was a nice feeling to know I had all of Genna's, and Miss Oreo's love, and was not a bigamist.


Jim Left Early

I'm a diehard Rutgers men's basketball fan, and have had season tickets for the last 20 years.  The last time the team really made a splash was in 1976 when they reached the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.  The team made appearances the next two years after that, and a fluky one-and-done performance in 1991.  So essentially, the team has been wandering around in the basketball desert almost as long as Moses did in the Sinai.  I'm cautiously optimistic about the upcoming year, but there's been a lot of pain here for me, especially having U Conn and Syracuse alumni for neighbors.  U Conn and 'Cuse have been traditional powers in the Big East League, and have been wiping their feet on the Rutgers doormat, with a few exceptions, since I bought my first ticket.

The games are fun from the standpoint of seeing great talent on the other teams, even though they're showing us how it's done.  This past year has been especially fun. We have a new coach whose passion and intensity are contagious for the players and the fans.  I'm hoping this next year he has figured out that he can't yell at the referees like he yells at his players.  We'll win more close games, and he'll live longer.

The fans around us in our section have developed a mutual suffering society.  We know about our families, and other things beyond as well as on the basketball court.  Jim, who sits in the row in front of me, has been coming to games almost as long as Genna and I.  He usually comes early, with a jumbo size popcorn, just like yours truly.  I thought, what's not to like about this guy!  The only thing about Jim is that whether we're winning or losing, at three or so minutes left in the game, he's heading for the exit.  This has been going on for years.

"Jim", I said, " one of these games, you're going to be sorry."

"I don't want to be stuck in the parking lot," he said.

As I reminded him countless times before of his impending sorrow, I did the same when the Villanova wildcats were up 13 points with about 3 minutes left in a game this past season.

Rutgers won the game on a four point play with .9 seconds left, one of the more exciting games in college basketball history.

I don't care where you may be reading this elsewhere in the country, if you are a sports fan, you saw the end of this game live, or immediately after, on ESPN.

Except Jim, who had left the parking lot, but was stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike.


The Hut

Six years ago, Genna said to me, "If you can find me a house I like in an adult community in central New Jersey, I'll retire."

I jumped at the chance, because she was working as a teacher in a private school and wasn't appreciated.  This private school charged a fortune for tuition and payed a pittance for teachers' salaries.  The operation of the school was a combination of Keystone Kops with the politics of a banana republic.

I got to work.  Googled developments around Rutgers University, my alma mater, because Genna always said she'd like to retire near a college town, and we had for many years gone to sporting and cultural events on the campus (the art museum is a best kept secret little treasure).

I found a development at the other end of the same county, took Genna to the site for a visit, and she fell in love with the place.  We picked a parcel of land, chose a model style, put down a deposit, and listed our old house on the market.  This was all done just in time for the housing market to put on the breaks.  We did manage to sell our old house in  time to pack and move out about three weeks before our new house was ready.  Genna, George and I were able to rent a smaller, much smaller unit across from our new home.  Just three weeks, and we'll be in...

The builder went bankrupt.

We only kept in the rental what we thought we needed for three weeks.

All our other stuff was packed like a giant sardine can.

We were in the rental we unaffectionately started to call "The Hut" for one-and-a-half years, during which time we had to wade through the muck of bankruptcy court, get most of our deposit back, then find another home by a builder who wasn't going belly up.

You've heard it before, but it's worth repeating.  Be careful what you wish for.

Genna and I felt sorry for the people who had already closed on their homes, and were stuck in the half finished development which had a very slow chance of ever being completed.  Especially Fred, my next door neighbor.  He and his wife were very sympathetic to our plight, but we felt worse for them because they were stuck there.  For all his kindness, I took Fred to a Rutgers men's basketball game, for which I had season tickets.  During previous games, I would spin our tale of woe about The Hut to my seat mates in front of me, Craig, Edie, and Joey.

Fred and I arrived at the game before they did, but when Joey arrived he said, " How is everything in that dump you're living at?  What do you call it, The Hut?"

Fred said next to nothing to me for the rest of the game, on the way home, and for the rest of our time at The Hut.

Another adage you've heard needs repeating here.  Things like this work out for the best.  We found a nice development on a street with much more privacy, and the nicest neighbors, including Mike and Donna, as well as Kerry and Brad, from the Hut development.

More on them later.


Alice and Luna Rosa

If you ever make it to Delray Beach, Florida, a visit or two to Caffe Luna Rosa is a must.  We purchased a condo a few years ago, and it didn't take us long to find Luna Rosa.  It's just off the corner of Atlantic Ave, the main street, and Route A1A, which runs along the beach.  Breakfast , lunch, and dinner.  I can't say either meal is better than the others, but I prefer early breakfast and early dinner (or happy hour).

If you're an early riser, like me, get there around 7, quarter past at the the latest.  You'll get a parking space right across the street, because the beachcombers haven't taken over yet.  Get a table on the sidewalk, watch the sun climb, and let the sea breeze take your cares away.  Better than a massage.  It's not a big place, just cozy, and excellent in all matters of food service.  Don't believe me?  Google'em.

Another nice feature of the restaurant is their VIP card.  It gets you a discount on valet parking, and usually helps get a table, in a pinch.  Charge the meals on it, and they bill you at the end of the month.  As I was applying for this card, giving them my billing info, I was also speaking with one of the managers.  When I gave him my information, he presented me with a couple of menu brochures, which can also double as a mailers.  I brought them back to the condo, for the next time I wanted to think in advance what I wanted to eat there.

I mentioned to our dear friend, Alice, who also has a condo in Delray, what a great place Luna was.  With that, I handed her a copy of the menu brochure, and said she should try the place.  Genna and I were leaving to go home to Northern New Jersey the next day, while Alice was staying in Delray a couple more weeks.  I said that Genna and I would look in on her daughter, Linda, our honorary niece.

Alice has a very  deadpan sense of humor, wickedly funny at times, as I was about to find out.

In the mail the day Genna and I were meeting Linda for supper was a menu mailer brochure from Caffe Luna Rosa, which had a hand written, personalized note which said,  "Hi John, we just want to thank you for your patronage, and hope to see you again soon. Sincerely, The Staff at Caffe Luna Rosa."

I was just blown away.  What a nice personal touch!  They sure knew how to make a Person feel Very Important!  I was so impressed, I took the menu mailer to supper to show Linda.

I presented it to her and said, "Linda, you have to get your mother to take you there the next time down.  That is service.  That's the way to run a restaurant!"  

Linda quickly read the message and said, "I'm 100% sure that this is my mother's handwriting, Uncle John."

Ouch.  I couldn't call her mother in Florida fast enough to say, "!@#$%%^%##%%&%^&&&!!!"

Then we both laughed, hers, the wicked one.

I promised to punk her in the future, but I still haven't been able to in kind.



Genna, my wife, has done some tutoring after she retired as a full-time teacher.  One family, the Wieners, had five girls (poor Mr. Wiener, five weddings and five educations).  Genna tutored the second oldest, and the second youngest over the last several years.  Tutoring the second oldest, Mina, let's just say was uneventful by comparison to tutoring the second youngest, Tess.  That's because, by that time, Helen, the very youngest girl, arrived on the scene, rewriting the definition of a precocious three year old.

From Tess's first tutoring session on, Genna would come home chuckling, "You've got to meet / you won't believe what, the 'little one' did!"

First of all, God is unfair parceling out "gifts" to certain newborns.  Genna described Helen to me as a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Temple, with a slightly olive complexion.  I'm surprised that she wasn't born with a little tiara on her head, but I'm glad for Mrs.Wiener's delivery.  At age three, she was fairly fluent in four languages.  French and Hebrew, the family's heritage and religion,  Spanish with the housekeeper, and English, for this country tis of us.  Beauty, check.  Brains, check.

Back to the first meeting.  Genna crouched down to Helen's eye level and said, "Hi sweety, how nice to meet you!"  Helen put her chin down, kept her eyes focused with Genna's, then turned and bolted into another room.  Genna was hoping that she wasn't getting to the age where her face would scare certain children.  Genna fully expected not to see Helen very much when she came to tutor Tess.

Wrong.  As Genna approached the house for the second session with Tess, she could hear from the open window, "Schweety la!!" ( French for "Schweety's here!!").  The  front door swung open, and there was Helen, arm's up, palm's out, "High Schweety!!"  From that point on, everyone in the household referred to Helen as 'Schweety', as  Helen referred to Genna the same way.

Helen was supposed to be asleep when Genna arrived for the tutoring sessions in the early evenings.  Never happened.  Helen would always find a way or excuse to be up when Genna arrived.

"I just want to make Schweety a cup of tea (with her new play set)."

Another time, Genna heard her mother saying, Mon Dieu!, Mon Dieu! from Helen's bedroom.  A few seconds later, Helen burst into the room where Genna was tutoring Tess, in her birthday suit, saying, "Good night, Schweety!", as her mother ran into the room after her.

There was a different story like these every time Genna came home from a session.

Finally, I did get the chance to meet Helen.  Genna had just had some surgery, and was unable to drive, so I took her up to the Wiener's house.  Introductions took place in the foyer.  I met the mother and father, two of the daughters, then Helen, making her way down the staircase like Scarlett O' Hara in "Gone With the Wind" saying ahead of the intro, "I'm Helen, the little one!"

We all roared.  This kid, at age 4, had such a presence, and needless to say, outdid her advance billing.

I want to hope that Genna, some day, will return to the Wieners to tutor Helen, but I don't think so.  We've kept in touch with the family, to stay current with the never ending stories about Helen.  Stay tuned. 



Most kids wouldn't trade their grandmothers, I sure wouldn't.  Here's my most unforgettable character.

My Italian grandmother, Louisa Castelli, or Nana, always thought highly of me.  When I was born, my mother, upon first seeing me, said, "He looks like Jiminy Cricket (the Walt Disney character)".  

Nana first looked at me and said, "He look like Jesu Cristie."  Well, I couldn't walk on water, and I couldn't make loaves and fishes, but that didn't stop Nana's worship of me.

She had six children over the span of twenty years, my mother being the youngest, having her around age 43.  Most of my cousins were considerably older. However, my mother told me that didn't matter, as she heavily favored me over all the others, like I was the one grandchild she was waiting for.  After all, I had to be the ONE, based on who she thought I looked like.  She was always a bit offbeat, and somewhat defiant, if the situation warranted.  My mother remembers being in church with her when she was a little girl back in the depression years of the 1930's.  The priest called for a 'silent collection', which meant only paper money.  On cue, Nana reached into her purse to retrieve a handful of pennies and nickels.  When the collection basket came her way, she threw the handful with as much force and noise as possible, then stared at the priest.

"Good morning, Mrs. Castelli." he said among chuckles from the other parishioners.

Nana would do things on my behalf that would bring my mother to tears of frustration.  Lie for me.  Teach me how to light her cigarette (at about age five).  

"He's going to end up in Sing Sing!!" (an upstate New York prison at the time), my mother would scream at her.

"Stop treating him like you're a black widow."  That was Nana's term for a nun, who dressed in black habits at the time.  Especially back then, the nuns were known for no fun, no nonsense, whereas Nana was all about fun.
"Let him learn to breathe on his own, and stop being a witch."

My mother later told me she cried and cried worrying how I was going to turn out.  What she didn't know, and what I figured out later, was that Nana was actually teaching me things.  About the cigarette lighter, Nana said, " Johnny, I'm too old to stop smoking, but I wish somebody told me at your age not to start."

As far as covering my little ass for me, here's an example how a weekend with Nana would go.  She would call my parents home around mid afternoon on Friday, and ask what my parents were going to do for the weekend.  If they didn't have a specific plan to go away, about one hour later, Nana would arrive at the house by taxi (she didn't drive).  To get there that quickly, she had to have a bag packed before she made the phone call.  She never felt she needed an invite.  If my mother had a frown upon Nana's arrival, she said, "Go do whatever you want to do, I'm not here to see you anyway," as she went over to give me a big hug.

My parents would take this opportunity to go grab a bite to eat in town, then go to a movie.  My mother would instruct Nana to have me in bed by eight.

Ha. Ha.  Well after eight o' clock I'd be bouncing off the walls, my sugar booster rocket not nearly empty. Around ten, Nana would say,"Johnny, I hear the garage door, they're back home!"  She didn't hear anything, but I knew at that point, she meant business, so I went from room to room, turning all the lights out, then slid into my bed, having already changed into my pajamas around nine.

When my parents came through the door, my mother asked what time I was tucked into bed.

Nana said, and what a poker face she had, "Eight o' clock."

My mother years later told me that they used to park the car about a block from the house a little before 10 o' clock, to watch and laugh as the lights went out from room to room.  It was their private joke for a few years back then.

My Nana had terrible arthritis, but I never saw her pain when I was younger, and my earliest memories of her were when she was in her seventies.   She always found a way  to laugh around me.  I did see her pain as I got older, but she always made light of it.  Her doctor told her she could have a glass of red wine before bedtime, to help her relax and sleep better.  She replied, "Doctor, if it's all the same to you, can I have a shot of scotch instead?"

He knew his answer didn't matter.  "Mrs. Castelli, scotch it is," he said with resignation.

Throughout these last painful years, she would say of me, "I just want to see him make his first  communion."  Check.  Then it was," ...his Confirmation."  Check.  "... graduate high school."  Check.  "...graduate college."  Check.  "...get married."  Check.  "...his first child..."

Sorry, Nana.  She passed away at age 90,  before George was born.

Well, I don't have a criminal record, a couple of speeding tickets is the best I can do.

My mother's revenge was to do the same kinds of things with our son, George, as my Nana did with me, but to make a distinction, he called her Nani, instead.



When our son, George, was in elementary school, he became friendly with a boy of Turkish descent, and after a while, Genna and I became friendly with his parents.

If you don't know, most Middle Eastern people and those of Mediterranean descent really like lamb.  That covers George's little friend's parents, as well as Genna and I, both being Italian and German.  Actually, it just covers me, who has an Italian gene when it comes to lamb, while Genna has a German one.  It's been my experience that most Germans don't care for lamb, and Genna can't even stand the smell of it cooking.

Here's how much she doesn't like lamb.  After we started dating steadily, and while discussing our likes and dislikes, her lamb issue came up.  Well, shortly after, we got invited for dinner at my parents to meet Genna.  My Italian mother is, to this day, at nearly 85, a great, intuitive cook, especially of her native dishes.  She cooks a leg of lamb with her special spiced honey and mint sauce which is so good, I feel guilty telling you about it, but not able to offer you some. 

Guess what I forgot to tell mom not to make for dinner?  I realized the gaffe while driving with Genna to my parents house on Barnegat Bay at the Jersey shore.  Not saying anything, just thinking to myself, oh, she'll probably make lasagna, or a roast beef, or... something everyone likes (hope a hope a hope a).

We got out of the car in the driveway, and I could smell the lamb from the kitchen exhaust, and so could Genna, who said, out of respect for my mother, "Don't you say a word!!"

Genna and my parents got off to a good start, and the meal was going very well under the circumstances.  Genna was eating everything else on her plate, except the lamb, which she was gradually cutting in small pieces.  Then I realized that she was also gradually feeding them to Jon Jon, my parents Chihuahua, whom I've already told you about (he has his own story).  When her lamb was almost completely transferred to Jon Jon's gullet, my mother said, "Genna, have another piece of lamb," as she simultaneously plopped it on her plate. 

I started to howl with laughter; the gig was up.

Back to our Turkish friends. Needless to say, Genna required assurances from George's friend's parents that there were plenty of other things on the menu at the Turkish restaurant that we were going to, besides their lamb specialty.  The restaurant was in North Bergen, NJ, and I was glad it was the four of us, because from the looks of the outside, I alone would never gone into this place.   Once inside, it was pretty charming, actually.  We let them order for us, since they knew the cuisine, provided it was lamb for me, and beef for Genna.  Throughout the different courses, we were all sipping a Turkish liquor, which was licorice based, similar to my Italian Zambuca.  It certainly was a lubricant, because we became looser, happier, and certainly more painless as the night wore on.

Around 11 o'clock, with the mics and music getting louder, the Maitre 'D announced the arrival of Yasmine, the belly dancer.  This girl was like a giant tube of toothpaste, squeezed in all the right places, and she could make all those baubles attached to her two piece costume move in every direction.  She dervishly moved from table to table, and the Turkish men would stand up, dance with her, then fan a wad of one dollar bills over her head, letting them drop to the dance floor around her.

Yasmine eventually made her way over to our table, and bending down over the loud music yelled to me, "You're not Turkish, are you?"  That was an easy assessment on her part, since I was the only guy there with light skin, and without a hook nose and moustache.  

Yasmine laughed, and bent down close enough to my ear to whisper "Neither am I.  I'm Jewish!"

We both laughed privately at each other for a few seconds.


Genna and I were in our first house a few years when our next door neighbors invited us over for drinks.  We were very close to Lisa and Joe, having a lot in common, around the same age, married a few years, struggling to carve out our new lives, etc.  After Joe served the first round ( drinking in those days was more like a boxing match, now its more of a one and done), he said they had an announcement.  Genna and I glanced at each other, thinking the same thing.  They already had a little girl, but we knew they planned to have a couple, or few more.  Great, here comes number two.

"We're moving," Joe said.

Lisa chimed in, "Wait til you meet Barney and Flora.  They both were recently widowed, and this is the second marriage for both.  John, believe me, they are both just sooo nice!!"

Shit.  What was she going to tell us?  First of all, its tough to replace really nice neighbors, with another set of really nice new neighbors (this was proven to us when another neighbor moved out a few years later, but that's another not so funny story that I'll make into one anyway).  They're a generation older.  That usually doesn't make for alot in common.  When we left to go home, we weren't sick from drinking, but were sick  from the news.

Guess what?  Lisa was right.  They were both delightful, and we all hit it off from the get-go.  This is how delightful.  We've kept in touch and continued to visit each other, although the four of us have moved a couple of times each.  Their company has been a constant joy, and we just had dinner with them last night, 31 years later!

All I really had to know about Barney's goodness was the way he related to children.  When our son, George, was a toddler, Barney came home from work one afternoon and saw his good little buddy playing on our front lawn.  George ran over to him, yelling, "Boinie's home!!" and jumped into his arms.  

Before I could correct George's speech, Barney said, "You know, George, everyone calls me Barney, but you're the only one who pronounces it the right way!"  We've called him Boinie ever since.

A few years after they moved from Bergen County in northern N.J. to East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y., we visited Boinie and Flora one mid week summer day.  Boinie mentioned another encounter with a child while he was an usher at a local museum.  The young boy was accompanied by his parents, but had obviously had too much sugar for lunch, or missed his dose of ADHD medication.  Before he bounced off a priceless painting or sculpture, Boinie quietly called him over.

"Would you do me a favor?  Please tell your parents to be very quiet, and not to touch any of the artwork on display.  Would you do that for me now?"  The child did just that, and his parents relievingly smiled at Boinie, knowing their trip to the museum would be more enjoyable.

Last night for dinner, we went to an excellent, reasonably priced, store-front Greek restaurant.  After 31 years, Boinie and Flora live right down the street from us in South Florida.  They're permanent residents, while we are still "snowflakes", but we see them every time we come down.

Looking at the menu, Boinie said to me, "I've never had octopus."

I summoned the waiter, and said,"  This man just told me he hasn't had octopus in 94 years.  Please make him a special dish."  We all laughed, Boinie the loudest.

As we left the restaurant, I looked at the both of them.  Flora is 84, but doesn't look 65.  Time has bent and bowed, but not broken Boinie.

"Boinie," I said, "You're still my gold standard."

After 31 years, I still hear Lisa saying, "They are sooo nice!!"


Genna's sense of direction

I met my wife, Genna, on a blind date, and I soon found out that her best excuse for her sense of direction would have been blindness. 

Our first date didn't go that well.  At the time, I was an undergrad at Rutgers in New Brunswick, NJ, working near full time hours to pay for my full time schooling.  The date was for a Saturday, the busiest day at the Sears shoe department on Route 1.  I was tired, cranky, and sorry I said 'yes' to her good mutual friend about the date.  Well, when I picked her up, I saw that she was (and still is) gorgeous.  In fact, she still has a friend who, to this day, calls her, truthfully, 'gorgeous'.

That didn't stop me from being a total boor the whole evening. From the wise cracks, unknowingly taking her to dinner at the same place she had lunch earlier, to the unsuccessful liberties I attempted before dropping her off past curfew at the dorm (curfew was still a big thing in those days, and I had to sweet talk the dateless girl on the other side of the locked door), I was not very nice to her.

The next day, the better side of my Gemini nature compelled me to call Genna and apologize.  To this day, I don't know why she took my call, but she did, and now we're together 42 years later.  Anyway, I told her back then I wanted to make it up to her, to show her I really was a gentleman, and also to unmortify our mutual friend whose idea it was to meet in the first place.  I told Genna I had two tickets to "Romeo and Juliet" then the hit date movie of the day playing at the Paris Theatre in New York City.  I also told her I had made reservations at Vesuvio, a great Italian restaurant in the late 1960's..

Genna said yes.  I found out later that she said yes because I had mentioned Vesuvio, a favorite restaurant of her family, and her father knew the Maitre 'D.  So unknowingly, I was back in Genna's good graces, and so far in  her father's, whom I hadn't even met yet!  Thank you, Vesuvio,  in restaurant heaven!

Genna didn't have to give me directions to her house, just the address.  Once she gave me that, I was familiar with the neighborhood, having grown up two towns away, but definitely on the other side of the tracks. When I arrived to pick her up, I thought, definitely other side.  After some small talk meeting her mother (her father wasn't home yet), we were out the door and into my car.  Genna said, " Make a left out of the driveway," which was the opposite way that I thought.  We went several blocks, "turn right, turn left," along the way, until we came to a dead end.  Lost in her own neighborhood!

I thought to myself, she doesn't get out of the house much.  Four or five blocks from her house, and she's LOST!!  Genna looked at me sheepishly and seemed to blush the thought "If you forget this, I'll forget the other night."

I was able to back track, and go the way we should have.  The dinner and show were terrific, and we hit it off from then on.  However, after 42 years, she still gets lost.  Its better now with her GPS, but I still get "Where am I?" calls when she is out, and I'm at home.

I've tried to find an explanation why she always gets lost, and I can only come up with a theory.  One time she told me her parents, when she was a toddler, would put her in the car and drive around the block, to help her fall asleep.  To this day, she gets very sleepy in the car. and closes her eyes quite often.  I was always awake in the car as a kid, taking in landmarks, and developing a sense of direction from a young age.  She was asleep most of the time in the car, as a youngster, and as an adult, since I do most of the driving.  

I've always been able to find her, because, of course, I never want to lose her.