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.