Sunday, July 30, 2006

Corporate Casual

If ever there was an oxymoron, the description “corporate casual” applies. As most of you know, this phrase is used to describe an office practice of employees being allowed, sometimes permanently but often just for summer Fridays, to dress in a more “casual” manner, i.e., in the case of men, not wear suits and ties. It implies a looseness, an acceptance of humanity in both management and employees. It’s a gift to the workers from the bosses: here, please accept this warm gesture, we want you to be happier and more comfortable in our work place.

So why is that “corporate casual” simply means men in an office adopting a new and just as strictly enforced uniform that has all the leisure comfort of a cow having a 100-volt cattle prod being shoved up its ass in a slaughterhouse?

That new uniform consists of three things: a knit shirt, khaki pants and Bass weejuns. I’ve worked in many offices. How many times have I seen this? As many times as I’ve seen men in suits and ties. And just as often, the men adopting this new uniform wouldn’t know how to be casual if their lives depended on it. These are not casual people. Their lives are financial tightrope acts, making enormous sums of money to support a lifestyle that burns through money like a blazing furnace. They’re often not fun people. They don’t know how to relax. When they do relax, they become obsessed with work and break out their Blackberries.

Their lives are work, which they’ll probably come to realize when they put their spouses in the ground many years from now and feel a strange emptiness that they’ll mistake for true mourning. Nah. It will be confusion that they’ll be able to recall feeling much worse over lost battles in business than for people who have played secondary roles to money. In younger days, I would have frowned on this, but now I see that people simply make their choices in life. I’d appreciate it if people were more honest about what really mattered to them instead of playing these asinine emotional games that falsely ensure they “win” everything. Nobody wins everything, that much I have learned.

But getting back to clothes, I recently had an odd jolt, courtesy of your stock Human Resources impresario at a small company in midtown. (And let’s not get into what I think of Human Resources in general!) As with any job, my first day there I came in wearing a white shirt and tie. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m entirely comfortable with the look. It took years to get here. Like most people, I associate ties with assholes, with pencil necks, with the kind of people who’ve never done real work. But it’s just another uniform, and what’s funny to me is that you’ll get a bunch of construction workers having their 11:00 am lunches, all splayed out over the sidewalk with their coolers and roast beef sandwiches, nothing but jeans, dirty t-shirts and work boots … and I’d bet at least one-third of those guys are making just as much or more money than the guys with ties they’re condescendingly smirking at. It’s been my experience that everyone gets a healthy dose of shit to eat at work, whatever uniform they’re wearing. It’s a bad mind-fuck for working-class guys to think office-working guys in ties have an easier life. They don’t. Chances are, you put these guys in an office, the mental stress and head games of dealing with money-hungry weirdoes would blow their minds and have them quitting inside of a month.

I usually make note of what other guys are wearing when I come into an office. And this place was a mix of business casual types, and guys in white shirts and ties. So, I figured, just wear a white shirt and tie unless otherwise instructed. Not a big deal. Late that afternoon of the first day, the woman I’m helping out on this project comes by and says, “You know, we’re business casual here. There’s no need for you to wear a tie if you don’t want to.” So I immediately ask her, “Would wearing a clean black or navy blue pocket t-shirt be all right?”

I made that request specific because that’s what I own, and I can often get away with wearing them in a “corporate casual” environment. Ultimately, I don’t like wearing shirts with collars, although I’ve learned to tolerate them. If you get right down to it, I don’t like wearing shirts with sleeves! In summer, I spend months wearing sleeveless white t-shirts – when it gets this hot, I don’t see the point in wearing anything else. Think I’m monochromatic and dull? That’s fine. I don’t give a shit. I’m not “showing off my guns.” I box much more than I lift weights, and my “guns” aren’t that big a deal. I just like being as cool as possible, temperature – not image – wise.

“Sure, you can wear that!” she said.

And so I did the next day. Everything seemed fine. I went out to lunch. When I came back, this woman had left a note on my desk asking me to come see her. I don’t like seeing notes like that – they’re usually bad news of some sort. I went by her office, and she had a sheepish look on her face. She started off by saying she had just had a conversation with the Human Resources manager.

And at this point I’m thinking, “What could I have possibly done in a day and a half with virtually no contact with anyone in this place to merit the attention of the highly-esteemed HR manager?”

And she carried on, “I’m sorry, but I was wrong about t-shirts. He told me that you need to wear a collared shirt.”

“Look, I’ll wear a tux if you people want, it doesn’t matter to me. I guess we both know the rules now!” I answered.

We laughed it off. As well we should have. The clothes we wear in an office are basically a non-issue to me. I have no problems wearing a white shirt and tie every day. But understand that the woman laughing with me was wearing a light blue blouse, with straps, bare shoulders, and what appeared to be light red, some type of satin shorts and flip flops.

Which brings me to the core problem: “corporate casual” is a deeply sexist policy. Women can wear just about anything they want in these kind of environments, whereas men have to go the usual stodgy, not-really-casual (knit shirt, khakis, weejuns) route. If I had mimicked that woman’s dress style, I’d be wearing a tank-top, a pair of shorts and sandals. Please understand that I have never seen a guy dressed like this in any office – maybe if I had worked for the Grateful Dead’s record company, I might have seen this. (I might have even seen guys wearing sandals with black socks.) But otherwise, it’s either suits and ties, or this cruddy knit-shirt look that I will never endorse. Meanwhile, you have woman with bare shoulders, wearing shorts, wearing summer dresses that show off about half of their thighs, fuck-me heels, t-shirts – you name it, short of hot pants and crotchless panties, they’re wearing this stuff.

What is this shit? Why are women allowed to truly dress in a casual fashion, whereas guys have a strictly delineated style they must adhere to, all in the name of “corporate casual”? Please understand I know this is not a life-and-death issue. It’s just one of those creepy, totally senseless, completely insane things I notice about office life that make me extremely suspect of office work in general, and not willing to commit to it in any real way. You know, it gets much worse than this in terms of that distancing – usually in the ways I see companies genuinely mess with people’s lives, firing them at a moment’s notice for no good reason, trying to lance them from their positions via wars of attrition, hiring people who are basically evil and just no fucking good by anyone’s standards, engaging in meaningless, harassing bullshit with workers that have nothing to do with them simply doing their jobs well, demanding so much from employees in terms of time that their personal lives become a sad, secondary joke, etc.

It gets much worse than these nonsensical dress-code issues. But, again, it’s just one of those things where I shake my head and think, why not just have everyone wear a jump suit? We did that in my dad’s factory, when I worked there in my summers during college. Whatever department you worked in, you got a certain-colored jump suit. I got a white jump suit, and I thought it was cool as hell. I remember Pete Townshend wearing this sort of thing on stage. It was the kind of thing DEVO would wear. It made sense. You had no option of “expressing yourself” via clothing. You simply got into the locker room every morning, took off your real clothes and slipped into that jump suit. It felt great. Everyone looked just like you did.

I strongly advocate the same for offices. And not just because a jump suit would be a thousand times cheaper than a suit! But because it would take away these nonsensical rules about “casualness,” which, again, has no place in an office. It would encourage workers to work as a unit – we all look the same, we’re doing the same jobs, we’re one. From what I’ve seen in offices, that vibe is sorely lacking. You get people talking that team-work horseshit, but usually that ruse comes from a corner office. Most people are out for themselves and use concepts like “team work” only in whatever sense it will further their personal fortunes. The only people I see engaged in real team work are the ones who would never consider some corny pep talk about “team work” itself. I honestly believe you put everyone in a jump suit, maybe even get rid of offices, put everyone in a cube, use the corner offices for meetings rooms, you’ll get much more team work out of people.

Of course, I know this will never happen! Offices exist so that people can exercise and demonstrate their status. It’s a totally insane system, I know this, but work to keep a business functioning must get done. This is the ultimate goal you have to concern yourself with, not all the extraneous nonsense that has absolutely nothing to do with people doing the work they are assigned to do to keep a business functioning. Actually, the ultimate goal is to get paid – but you have to work to get paid, and that’s why you’re here. I love to work – I’m one of the best pure workers you’re ever going to come across. I sense the value that comes with keeping yourself occupied and accomplishing whatever goal is placed in front of you. I just got no fucking use for all this other nonsense.

Going back to the factory and the jump suit, I have to say that the only jobs I’ve had where I had a sense of true work-place camaraderie were in working-class jobs, of which I only had a few before, during and after college. Once I came to New York, it was all offices after that. But back home in Pennsylvania, in those factories, I had a sense that my coworkers weren’t out to fuck each other over, weren’t money hungry, and most importantly, were sincere. You couldn’t get away with the sort of insincerity I regularly see in office places – it just doesn’t wash with working-class people (save for the management in any given factory). There were other problems. A lot of my coworkers were dumb as nails, prone to burning all their sick days and often deeply unhappy with life. But, surprise, it’s no different in the corporate world in that sense!

What does all this have to do with a pocket t-shirt? Call it a symbol of my discomfort with the corporate world, why I choose to stick with temp and freelance gigs, unless I find tolerable work places. (And the last place that happened was an investment bank, believe it or not, where I simply had myself in a good work environment and stayed with it for about four years. The place also had free lunch and beverages, which I sorely miss!) That pocket t-shirt is symbolic of a purity of life I respect. It’s just who I am in some sense. I fully expect and accept having it rejected in an office environment. But in some respect I also tie that t-shirt in with youth. And when you’re young, when you first encounter this kind of insanity, you tell yourself, “I’m never going to be that crazy. These people are nuts. Can’t they see that?"

Now that I’m older, my answer is, no, they can’t see that. And however young and wise you think you are, chances are somewhere along the line you will drink the Kool Aid and, at the very least, play along with those things you understand to be totally insane. And this is assuming you don’t take it a step further and actually start accepting it as gospel. My mantra: all I have to do is stay sane and healthy, and financially support my chosen way of life. The rest is bullshit. Sounds easy enough? Most people I know only get two out of three right in that equation. Guess which one they're missing!

Monday, July 24, 2006


If you’re reading this at home or in your apartment, I want you to do something. Kiss your TV set. Kiss your CD player. If you have a fan and/or air conditioner, kiss it. Whatever kind of lighting you have, kiss that, too. Do not attempt intercourse with any outlets, nor insert any wand-style electrical devices unless they are made explicitly for this purpose. But you get the gist: embrace any and all things electrical.

Why? Because I live in Astoria, Queens, and I just spent the past five days without any electrical power. Those words don’t quite register if you’re not familiar with the area, or what it means not to have electrical power for more than a few hours at a shot. The area of Queens that had power outrages followed by complete blackouts entails over 100,000 people in a very tight, enclosed urban area. We’re talking Astoria, Sunnyside, Woodside and parts of Long Island City. Temperatures in this area, at the start of the blackout, where in the high 90s those first few days of the blackout, and in the high 80s the rest of the week – all with high humidity, a few torrential downpours and thunderstorms.

Here’s a picture of what I, and just about everybody else, has looked like in this time period. I know – it’s the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. But I know exactly how that guys feels now, stooped over, wearing a jaunty cloth peasant cap, carrying a bundle of sticks on his back.


Understand that I know it gets worse, that I know people in Third World countries live like this all the time. Use the concept of life being worse for someone who was rich losing money and becoming poor, as opposed to someone who always was poor. I live in a major city in America where the expectation is that a power outage of any sort will last only a few hours. A few years ago, the entire city of New York lost power one summer night (child’s play compared to the last few days in Queens) and had it fully up-and-running again within 12 hours. This time, we’ve had an area of Queens that represents a very small, single-digit percentage of land area in New York City without power for days on end. From what I’ve seen of the neighborhood, some of it still does not have power today (seventh day for some folks), and I’m over-joyed and thankful that my block, for whatever reason, does appear to have it again.

If you’re young and healthy, you’re asking what’s the big deal. If you’re older, as many Astorians are, namely old men or women living alone in their homes, you’re basically isolated with no way out. If you’re on any medication that requires refrigeration, like insulin, you’re fucked. Ditto if you have respiratory problems, mobility issues, an electricity-based water heating system (i.e., no hot water, possibly no water at all), or any number of issues that conveniently never occur when the power is on. You have a refrigerator filled with rotting food and are most likely depending on a long walk to a Red Cross truck by the subway train that has been dropping off fruit, sandwiches, water and ice, which you strap on to your cart and roll back to your dark hovel. The area around the truck is like a film clip from an African village where the UNICEF truck just rolls in stacked with food/water – a lot of angry, frustrated people fumbling for position. It’s some pretty foul shit to see happening in your neighborhood.

The worst part is the past week has been one big mind fuck. It started with that first day, which for me was Tuesday, and the power slowly browning out that night. Everything just sort of went halfway on, and over the course of about two hours, faded to black. The next day, I made it into Manhattan – the subway trains were unaffected, as they run on a separate power source from the neighborhoods they run through. Life was normal in Manhattan. Well, whatever that’s worth. I picked up a paper … to read virtually nothing about the then two-day-old blackout in Astoria. There was a footnote to a short article about heat/power problems in New York City in general, a small paragraph stating that 350 Con Ed customers in Astoria were without power.

And right there, I knew something was deeply off. The day before I had walked from above Ditmars Boulevard down to Broadway, about half a mile, to find that everyone in that section of Queens was without power. 350 customers?! My ass. I think 100,000 people is a conservative estimate, although that’s what I’ve been reading in various news sources.

Luckily, I had work the rest of the week which brought me into Manhattan. And there was a deep disconnect between the normality that was Manhattan, and the borderline riot world of Astoria that I would leave in the morning and return to at night. How or why the neighborhood hasn’t slipped over the edge and into random acts of pillaging and violence is a tribute to the people who live here. Again, a big deal was made how this didn’t happen in New York a few years back with that summer power outage. And that was 12 hours as opposed to just about a week. Hats off to the people of Astoria for not just keeping their cool throughout this, but for not reacting like a bunch of savages and turning the place into a war zone. I can goof on this place all I want, but the reality is there are enough sane people here, greatly outnumbering the lame-ass street bozos I often deal with, who prevent bad shit like that from going down. Much like any neighborhood I’ve ever lived in here in New York, it’s the people you don’t see so much in a neighborhood, the ones who are too busy to be annoying street trash, who keep it going.

As the week went on, a few stores, especially the supermarket on Ditmars and 37th, rented out gas generators, which cranked away in front of each establishment, and this probably went a long way to keeping the neighborhood halfway sane. Most stores went dark and stayed locked up the entire week. No idea how much lost revenue this would account for, but a vast majority of stores have simply been closed for nigh on a week.

At night, the neighborhood went pitch black. Some limited street lights from Con Ed rigs, but houses were darkened, and there was an eerie, all-encompassing silence, save for the jerk-offs across the street who have a perpetually crying baby which I normally don’t hear thanks to my fan and TV set. It wasn't that cute “let’s pull up lawn chairs and hang out” vibe from that earlier all-NYC blackout. This was some deep shit with no end in sight, and not too many people have felt like socializing.

I killed as much time as I could in Manhattan during the day, came home around sundown, lit up my stove with a match, ate some noodles or soup, read a book by flashlight until about 9:30, then went to bed. Had to throw out a bunch of meat, fruit, yogurt and such that started reeking after day two. Realized that non-cooled freon smells like rotting vegetables – the smell of it sitting in my useless refrigerator was almost as bad as the rapidly-spoiling food. I basically sweated it out in my apartment, reading, listening to the sound of nothing, the occasionally passing car or dingus on the street, but silence and darkness for the most part. Go to bed early, because there’s simply nothing to do, and those first few nights, sweat the sheets, which now smell like mangy ass, although I beat the stink back a little with some Febreeze. Thank God my landlord has a gas-powered water heating system, otherwise the smell would have gone straight from moldy ass to outright shit. It’s been like living in a Pink Floyd album, one of those mildly depressed Roger Waters ballads from The Wall, where you hear disjointed sound effects, a wailing child in the distance, a slamming car door, the sound of shuffling feet, and minor chords played dolefully on the piano.

Next morning, get up, shower, shit and shave by flashlight, get the hell out of my apartment, out of Astoria and into Manhattan, where it finally started registering in the newspapers that something was way off in Astoria. It was hard to explain to people at work that I was going home at night to a radically different world that was no fun at all. And it really is depressing to have no power for that long. Never experienced something like this before, but you get these draw-out moments of deep despair, sometimes rage, that really become like mild psychotic episodes. I’m a reasonably sane person, but I can see how you get a bunch of people together going through the same shit, you could easily have a riot on your hands.

All week long, my sweaty clothes piled up in the laundry basket. By Thursday, I’m thinking, if this thing doesn’t blow over by Sunday, and even if it does on Sunday, I’m not going to have clean laundry come next week, be it work-out or work clothes, as the laundromat will be mobbed. And I mean stinking, sweaty summer laundry piled up.

But I noticed something Thursday night. All week long, I made it a point to take a very long walk an hour before sundown, usually down to Astoria Park on the East River, and back. Again, mainly to get out of the apartment. But I did notice that down closer to the park, there were certain blocks that did appear to have power, however limited it may have been. I stopped in at a few delis for Gatorade, which was on the warm side, but these places clearly had some low-level refrigeration going. I didn’t ask if it was gas-generator supplied or not. I didn’t care.

Sure enough, on one of those blocks was a laundromat with an open door. I walked in on Friday night, and there was this old guy in there all by himself. I asked if he was open, he said sure, we got power, we’re open. I asked where everyone was, and he said I don’t know. It didn’t make any sense. This was the only laundromat I had seen open for a few square miles. I asked if he’d be open tomorrow morning. Sure, he said, come on back, I’ll be here.

Well, next morning, I got up, put all my shitty laundry into a soft-shell suitcase, strapped the load on my back, and did my best imitation of the old hobo on the cover of Led Zep IV. I walked 15 street blocks and two avenue blocks with that thing on my back, and sure enough, that great old bastard was there to greet me at 7:00. I knew you’d come back, he said. Thank God you’re open, was all I could say. Again, I got there early because I was certain the place would be mobbed. It wasn’t. I left around 8:30, and it got a little more crowded, but far from a mob scene. I didn’t quite get it. But leaving, I thanked the old guy again, and his response was, ah, go on, just doing what I do every day. But believe me, that guy was a fucking saint. I wouldn’t be surprised to go back there next week and find a vacant lot where a laundromat used to be 50 years ago … a celestial laundromat sent just for me!

One thing I should note about the walk – every two blocks, there were a pair of cops walking the beat, along with a traffic cop in each intersection. Which made me feel pretty good, a shame we can’t have beat cops around all the time. But round about Thursday night, when the media started jumping on the story, that’s when a heavy police presence came in, with vans of cops driving all over the neighborhood dropping off guys for their assignments. I understand the fire departments were kept pretty busy, too, with strange little blackout-induced fires along with the predictable manhole electrical fires as Con Ed crews went to work.

Those bastards showed up around the same time as the cops. Until then … I was walking the streets, thinking, where in the fuck is Con Ed? I might have seen five trucks before Thursday – after which time, there was practically a truck on every corner. It made no sense. What was more important than a total blackout in an urban area encompassing over 100,000 people, thousands of small business, dozens of factories, Rikers prison and a large sewage treatment plant? It was unbelievable how long they took to show up. And when they did … I was lucky to have power after six days.

I didn't know what they’re doing, and I don’t want to know what they did. Whatever it was, it must have been hellish. Reports of exploding manhole covers and such. I saw this happen once a few years ago … a massive explosion followed by the unbelievable sight of a manhole cover flipping 20 feet in the air like a tossed coin, flames blasting out of the hole, the manhole cover hits the street and rolls around like a giant quarter, finally shaking to a stop. You don’t forget a sight like that too soon!

I’d been seeing these guys the past few days, and actually heard one of them Saturday around 5:00 pm tell a neighbor that the power would be back on “real soon.” Well, this put me in a worse frame of mind then before, when six, then seven, then eight rolled around, and there was still no power. I went to bed around 11:00. I was woken around 12:45 am Sunday by the sound of a generator and what could have been a concrete saw. Loud as hell, right outside my window. Once the sound let off, I heard this, in loud, gruff Queens accents:

“What’s the reading on that meter, you fucking moron?”

“88.75. Too low. We better put in 30 more feet of cable, you fucking moron.”

“Got it. I’ll let the guys down on Ditmars know to send more cable up, you fucking moron.”

After each time someone said “you fucking moron,” every other guy, of which there must have been five or six, would laugh uproariously. Eventually, one of the Con Ed crew asked, “Why are you guys calling each other ‘fucking morons’?”

It turns out that one of my neighbors, a cranky old Italian, had heard them working, ran out of her house and called them a bunch of “fucking morons” at the top of her lungs. I know who they were talking about, this wacky old Astoria bat who looks like a midget Ernest Borgnine with size 44D tits pointing magnetic south. Just one of those total nuts who lives around here and makes her presence known. I sort of dread talking to her on the street, because I know I’ll never be able to get rid of her. Generally speaking, any time a woman has more facial hair than I do, that's real bad news.

While I didn’t appreciate how loud these guys were, I was glad as hell they were dealing with electrical shit right next to the house, meaning that the end was probably near. And I could also appreciate the camaraderie, as it meant they had a sense of humor about their lot in life. These guys were simply the rank and file, engaged in a very shitty job, crawling down rat- and sewage-infested holes in the street to untangle yards of fried electric cable and replace it. I wouldn’t call them heroes – they were simply doing their jobs – but by no means would I ever call them fucking morons either. It wasn’t their fault that upper management had dropped the ball on this whole scenario. (Please remember this next time there's a crisis and you get the urge to fuck with the rank and file trying to right the situation. They're not having fun either!)

I sort of dozed off to the pounding of pneumatic drills, which are actually very relaxing when they’re the only sound for miles, and woke up with a start around 4:15 am – to the sound and feel of my fan blowing wind on my body, meaning the power had just come back on. I was in heaven. It was like Christmas morning, the best I had felt all week. Sure enough, it’s been on ever since.

And sure enough, a walk through the neighborhood Sunday afternoon let me know most of the neighborhood is still without power and suffering. A whole lot of complaining, too. I don’t like complaining – it’s a waste of time – but I sure can tolerate it at a time like this. When I was at the laundromat, there was another old guy there, carrying on like a busted chain saw. Blah, blah, blah – those guys in ties sure screwed this one up – blah, blah, blah – don’t care about the little guys like us – blah, blah, blah – don’t need us until there’s a war going on, etc. He was basically painting the truth with a broad brush, but saying it once would have sufficed, and he went on a good half hour, retreading the same thoughts in the same words. Afterwards, I felt like soulfully wailing, "Yeah, yeah, yeah! Little pink houses for you and me!" I noticed this incessant whining a lot in the past few days, and I guess there’s just a comfort in some people to constantly complain and have other people nod their heads in silent agreement. It makes no difference to me. If things suck, I’d rather just deal with them.

What have I learned from all this? That Con Ed is a stereotypically evil corporation who first tried to downplay the truth, dragged ass in terms of dealing with a serious, life-threatening issue and since then, hasn’t done enough to compensate or even assure their customers. It’s borderline evil how they’ve handled this crisis. I’m thinking reaction time more than anything. Why weren’t there all these work crews on the street on Tuesday, when it became obvious that the system was either down or well on its way down for this entire area? What were they waiting for … the power to come back on all by itself?

I’ve also learned what I knew from 9/11, or the last power outage, which, as noted earlier, was a walk in the park compared to this one. And that’s the simple fact that when you get placed in a shit situation, the best you can do is try to maintain some sense of normalcy and move forward the best you can. Shit, I cleaned my apartment on Wednesday night in the dark – dusting and the bathroom. Why not? I got tired of reading by flashlight, realized I could do this without electricity, and got to it. Ditto cleaning out the yard and sidewalk yesterday. You just have to make yourself useful when everything else shuts down. Besides, it was way too hot to masturbate.

It gets worse than what we've been through, but it sure as hell gets a lot better, too. All I know is if you get placed in the same shit situation, in 90-degree weather, with a total runaround in terms of the powers that be speaking any kind of truth, you’re going to be deeply pissed off, and hopefully in a position where you can fend for yourself. What I’ve really learned is the value of electricity, and, people, I’m never going to take that for granted again! If you haven't hugged your fuse box today, think about it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Easter Sunday, 1972

The picture on the left is cropped down to only me from the original family shot taken on Easter Sunday, 1972. This is primarily to shelter family members from the embarrassment of having their images on the internet, but in this case, it's also to focus in on a memorable incident that occurred earlier that morning.

If you could see the family members, they’d be dressed in their Sunday finest, fresh from church, even my mom, the filthy Protestant who was always on the outside of the Catholic stronghold my grandmother (who lived with us) enforced with an iron hand. (A few years later, we would learn the full extent of her anti-Protestantism after she had a debilitating stroke, which allowed her to make some extremely revealing comments regarding her thoughts on this topic … which were in bad form as my mother was her caretaker … but none of us took it too personally, especially Mom, who had every right to blow her top, but didn’t. Grandma was a good person who did a hell of a job raising five kids in the Depression, and most of my memories of her are nothing but fine. I recall her once picking turds out of my very full diaper and dropping them into the toilet by hand -- that's what you call unconditional, tough love of a kind many people are incapable of!)

The simple fact that I’m wearing a USA t-shirt while the rest of the family is dressed up is a tip-off that something is off here. That t-shirt says a lot to me. As some of you may recall, 1972 was a Summer Olympics year, this one encompassing the infamous Munich terrorist incident. But Easter was long before the start of these olympics. For some odd reason, all the kids in the neighborhood had caught olympic fever early, and we spent a lot of time that spring staging our own olympics: runs around the cemetery, throwing impromptu javelins and shot-puts, wrestling. All kinds of shit. No organization. Just a bunch of kids getting together and having their own olympics. The long run winner was usually determined by the last kid standing, as kids have no concept of distance and would conk out after a few hundred yards.

I was wearing that t-shirt because my Sunday’s finest was, uh, soiled. Why were my clothes soiled?

The story starts early Easter morning, which began as it always did for us as kids. Easter was behind only Christmas and Halloween in terms of childhood excitement. That’s because we knew we’d wake up to find the Easter Bunny had visited overnight and left us with baskets filled with goodies: all sorts of chocolate, jelly beans, our painted eggs, etc. Tons of candy. All to celebrate Christ rising from dead. We never quite made the connection between chocolate Easter rabbits and Jesus. Shouldn’t we have been eating chocolate crucifixes and such? But we gathered that Easter also represented some type of spring/renewal ritual, and the major joy wasn’t Christ’s resurrection – it was gorging ourselves on candy.

And that’s exactly what we did. Every year, we made pigs of ourselves. One of the few things my parents did wrong was indulge us with sugar products. Our youths were filled with junk food, and to this day, I can go back home and have a hard time finding real food anywhere in the kitchen. We normally had shitty diets and as a result were chubby kids. I think it was two things: junk food was cheaper and within the budget, and our Depression-era parents knew how to eat only small portions of junk, whereas we didn’t.

Easter was an all-out chocolate frenzy. Our parents would warn us not to eat too much, but that was fruitless. We’d go crazy on the Hershey’s and other candy bars thrown in haphazardly with the more Easter-styled chocolate products: rabbits and flowers that came in special boxes made for the holiday.

My undoing that morning was a gigantic solid chocolate rabbit’s head. This thing was the size of a doberman’s head, solid milk chocolate and must have weighed a pound or two. The whole thing went in my belly, along with about half a jar of peanut butter I kept dipping chunks of the rabbit head in. I’m sure I ate other junk on top of that, but that big head sticks in my memory. I must have been waddling around like the child version of Orson Welles after that.

That was the first part of the morning. The next was to go Easter mass, which meant getting dressed up in our best clothes and walking across the cemetery to our Catholic church for a long, special mass. Even Dad would go with us. (Dad was a different kind of Catholic – the kind who would get dressed up in a suit and tie, tell us all he was going to mass in the next town over, then he’d drive off, and no doubt cruise around for 45 minutes, listening to a Big Band station on the radio, over-joyed to have that much time to himself, probably his only “alone” time aside from driving to and from work, and then he’d come back with Sunday papers, and often treats like Tastycakes and such.) To judge by the photo, even Mom must have gone with us on Easter, even though I’m sure everyone understood she was a dirty Protestant who had no business in our church.

We always had the same pew in church – the first one on the right. It was ours. I don’t know how this happened. I think it was our grandmother was so fanatical about church attendance that we’d always get there early and stake out the pew. Not just that – we’re talking a small town of a few hundred people, and it was mostly the same people attending each week. So most people had their prime spots staked out, the smart ones in the back, near Sharon M, wearing her huge peace-sign necklace as she pumped out religious numbers on her Wurlitzer. It was a rare experience that we didn’t get that front right pew.

You better believe we got it Easter Sunday, which was no small feat, as Easter, along with Christmas, was that mass where all the part-time Catholics made sure to put in a cameo appearance, an SRO experience. I stopped going to church all together in my late teens and don’t regret it. (When Grandma had her stroke, she could no longer attend church, and brothers J, M and I would "bag" church in the cemetery, hanging out in front of one of the mausoleums, talking about David Bowie and school for 45 minutes before hearing the church bells ring, signifying the end of mass and the time for us to haul ass back home. This was a bit of a town scandal, but what the fuck, you better believe kids got up to much worse than what we were doing, occasionally to the tune of time in jail.)

I never liked church, wasn’t particularly enthused by the mass itself (I often hear more artistically-inclined folk harping on “the beauty of the mass” as their reason for attending) and had a boat-load of issues related to Grandma forcing us to go constantly when we were kids, to the point where it felt like not so much a chore, but a punishment we had to endure. I certainly don’t fault anyone who does attend mass and feels some sense of spiritual enlightenment and duty from it – in fact, I praise people like that and respect the fact that they have this thing in their lives that serves as a rock of stability. But it just wasn’t for me, and I find myself getting just as spiritually cleansed on Sundays popping a heavy bag in a gym.

So, we got to Mass, and it began. Father B was the new priest in town, replacing old stand-by Father M, who was well-loved and had been the parish priest for decades. I remember him once grabbing me and wailing, “Sing, child, sing” when he noticed none of us kids was going along with the hymns – probably “Faith of Our Fathers” or something. He was a good old guy. Father B seemed like an all right guy, too. But years later, while he was serving in another parish near Allentown, PA, a break-in at his rectory lead police investigators to uncover a photo album packed with pictures of Father B cavorting in the buff with underage boys. You hear about this stuff, think it’s anti-Catholic bullshit, but as I well know, sometimes it isn’t, and I thank God for not letting the dirty old bastard get his hooks into me. Despite my grandmother’s burning desire to make all us kids altar boys, my parents put the ix-nay on that, possibly sensing that Father B was chickenhawking his way through life. We came to call him “Father Bendover” – a ghoulish play on his last name. It really wasn’t all that funny to learn this about him all those years later, and I hope he never got to indulge his sick fantasies with the kids from my neighborhood.

But that revelation was years in the future, and all was well that Easter Sunday morning in 1972. Save for one thing. I was starting to feel nauseous. Feverish. Dizzy. Not good. Not good in a way that suggested I should get the fuck out of there. Now. It came over me in a hurry. No doubt, I was white as a sheet and sweating profusely. Easter Sundays were weird in that one year we’d have a blizzard, the next it could be 70 degrees. This one was a typically moderate spring day. I knew I had an upset stomach from eating all that candy.

I communicated this to my grandmother, who was sitting a few people down. I was on the end of the pew, near the stained-glass window, brothers J and M were next to me. They let my grandmother know I wasn’t doing well, and her response was to pass me her hanky. But under no circumstances was I to leave. Just couldn’t happen on Easter Sunday. Probably wouldn’t happen on any Sunday, but certainly not this one. I was told to tough it out, that this spell would pass, and I’d feel fine in a few minutes.

Well, my stomach had other plans. I don’t know how I did this, but I somehow managed to choke up a sample puke into that hanky. A little stream of dark-brown bile. I held it out in front of me, like an offering, and quietly pleaded with Grandma to let me get out of there. She still shook her head no. I could see J and M getting queasy, like a pair of inmates in a cell with a lunatic who was about to have a psychotic episode.

I don’t know what happened next. I’m sure I did everything I could to stop it. But there was no stopping it. Moments later, I vomited. And when I say vomited, I don’t mean some tasteful little ralph into my lap. I exploded, a gushing brown fountain of stomach bile. Projectile vomiting of all the chocolate I had gorged myself on that morning, along with whatever I had stored up from the night before. Nose and mouth. It nearly came out of my eyes. Some went straight into the pew, some went over the dark mahogany railing.

Until you’re doing it, you tend to forget how traumatic vomiting is. It’s a really awful experience under any circumstance – frightening, painful and jarring. To do so in the front pew of Easter Mass was mind-blowing. If a naked savage had burst into the church and heaved a spear into a statue of the Virgin Mary, it would have been less shocking. This was during a quiet part of the Mass, just Father B talking and parishioners silently praying, so the full effect of my groaning, sobbing and splashing was heard, seen and smelled by all.

I recall directly afterwards, looking up, brown chocolaty shit still oozing from my nose and mouth, like blood, and seeing the altar boy Joey C laughing so hard he was doubled over. (Joey was quite a character. The youngest of a very odd, volatile family. I thought his older brother Larry was Satan – everyone did, as Larry was totally nuts and frightening. Joey was much more friendly and gregarious than that, and would much later come out of the closet, a surprise to nobody. I still recall that when we played baseball in the summer, he preferred hanging out with the girls near-by who were practicing their cheerleader routines for the upcoming football season. If any guy made fun of Joey for doing the routines, Joey would run over and literally kick the guy’s ass. You didn’t mess with anyone in their family, and just because the guy was geared that way didn’t mean jack shit.)

Joey C was laughing so hard that he screwed up that part of the mass where one of the altar boys rings a small xylophone-type instrument three times. He just couldn’t get it right, as I sat there with my Sunday’s finest coated with dark brown vomit, which had the appearance of shit and blood mixed together. I turned to see brother J in absolute shock, and trying hard not to vomit himself. Brother M was much like Joey – in total, crying hysterics, cackling away, and trying to push J into my very large pool of vomit, in which, no doubt, one could still pick up chunks of that rabbit’s head, an ear here, an eye there, a half-digested marshmallow chick also in the mix.

Well, I finally got out of there. No one stopped me! The strange thing was, aside from J and Grandma coming out the front door with me, nobody moved. Father B didn’t skip a beat – he’d probably seen stuff like this many times before. Those were some hard-core Catholics. That church must have smelled like a dead dog’s asshole – I had unloaded the contents of my stomach, and it’s always unbelievable how much strange substance that entails. But not one of those people left, although I recall making eye contact with a few people who had hankies and tissues pressed over their noses and mouths. The look wasn’t so much outrage or pity as “you little asshole.” If I were them, I would have fled that church as if it was on fire. Anyone with half an ounce of common sense would have bolted. But not on Easter Sunday! No one flinched, the mass went on, people stepped around the brown, stinking puddle after receiving holy communion. I guess a real show would have been me blowing chunks directly after receviving communion, but I couldn't hold out that long.

I can’t recall exactly what happened next. Grandma probably yelled at me, not realizing that I had given her full warning, pleaded with her to let me go, and all I gave her was payback for not recognizing the gravity of the situation. (She was the one who would later clean up my mess with mop and bucket.) J was still too freaked out to do anything. Grandma simply asked if I could walk home. I could – I felt great, as does anyone who has one of those life-affirming pukes where it feels like every negative thing in your life has just been expelled from your body. So, I pretty much just skipped home through the cemetery on that sunny day in my puke-stained suit, actually feeling pretty good about life.

There was no punishment afterwards. I got sick – I surely hadn’t intended to. Just one of those freaky kid things. Went back to church the next week, and all was fine after that. But you better believe this act took on legendary proportions in my childhood. I was the kid who puked in church on Easter Sunday, and this had a large cartel of coolness attached to it. I recall at the time playing this up as some grand statement of how I felt about church, and when movies like The Exorcist and The Omen came out, I would always tie in this act with and Regan and Damien’s anti-religious acts in both movies. But the truth is, it was just one of those things, something that could have been easily avoided if my grandmother hadn’t been so adamant about making me stay the course that day. Otherwise, it would have been a kid blowing chunks into a bush by the side of the road and coming back into church. But a combination of events turned it into one of those mythical childhood exploits that I’m never going to forget.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Cabbage Head Malarkey

No, that’s not the name of a new Pogues-style celtic rock band. If I could think of a perfect name for a new band, it would be The Strip Mall Psychics.

Cabbage Head Malarkey was the smartest kid I knew: a genius. Why his parents didn’t push him forward through a few grades, I have no idea. He had the brains to be one of those kids who graduates Harvard at 16. We called him Cabbage Head because he had an oblong-shaped head, and since he was so smart, we thought the shape of his head was necessary to hold all those brains.

His parents still live out the road back home in Pennsylvania. I imagine finding out what’s going on with him would be as easy as pulling up in their driveway, telling them who I am (they would remember me) and asking how he’s doing these days. But it seems like one of those mysteries of life that people you once knew but have lost track of will always remain this slightly out of reach. Maybe having that mystery is better, or maybe I just don’t care enough to follow through. Last I heard he was a lawyer working for the U.S. government in Germany (which, as I’ll illustrate later, makes perfect sense).

His parents freaked out many people back home when they planted “Bush/Cheney 04” signs in their front yard. The Malarkeys had been staunch Democrats for years, but I guess they changed their minds somewhere along the road. Bush/Cheney signs and bumperstickers are not unusual back there, but the Malarkeys swinging their allegiance so far that they’d willingly put signs up in their yard is.

Back in the 70s, I can’t recall how Cabbage Head and I became friends. It must have been that we went to the same grade school (right next to my house, which is now a day-care center), and since we were both recognized as smart kids, we usually sat next to each other and got put into the same groups learning-wise.

This explains my most vivid memory of him: vomiting all over Joy R. in our first-grade reading class. We were in that upper-echelon reading group, sitting in a circle. I’d imagine that month’s package of Scholastic books had just come through. I used to love that function in grade school – having the teacher pass out the circular, filled with books for us to choose for our reading assignments. Some kids loathed that stuff, but I’d have my parents buy me books on top of the assignments. Since they were cheap paperbacks and often only a buck or less, it wasn’t that big a deal. I loved seeing that huge Scholastic box being delivered and knowing that my books were coming in.

Kids were always puking in grade school. Why is that? I’d imagine it has more to do with wacky diets, kids eating anything they can get their hands on, junk on top of good stuff. But it seems like kids were always blowing chunks at school, usually in the lunch room or halls. This was often hilarious, provided you weren’t directly involved. (I never vomited in school, but I do have my infamous “vomiting in front pew of church on Easter Sunday, 1972” story, but for another time.)

But I’ll never forget Cabbage Head looking woozy as we all sat in a circle in our “enlightened” group, reading a biography about Roberto Clemente or something. He casually stood up and gushed out a stream of vomit that absolutely coated Joy R., who was sitting next to him, from head to toe. I’d never seen anything like it, before or since.

Another grade-school hallmark: chain vomiting. One kid vomits, the sight and smell of it freaks out kids in the immediate vicinity, and they start vomiting, too. This started happening – three other kids started blowing chunks, albeit with far less shock and awe than Cabbage Head’s original fountain. I remember laughing hysterically, although when Cabbage Head got Joy R., he also tagged some on the corner of my red plaid polyester bell-bottoms. (I was a fat kid – I looked like a mental patient in those pants.) It looked like clam chowder and had that awful stomach-acid smell. The teacher freaked out, heaving kids away as if Cabbage Head had spontaneously human combusted. It was a disaster zone, complete with weeping, hysterical children, that took about half an hour to calm down. When Louie Balls (“Balls” being a playful shortening of his much longer and hard-to-pronounce Slavic surname), the janitor, showed up with his mop and bucket, things slowly got back to normal. All throughout this, Cabbage Head just stood there with a maniacal gleam in his eye, while Joy R. wept in disbelief. I can’t remember how she got cleaned up.

The problem with Cabbage Head was that while he was clearly the smartest kid in the entire school, including kids a few grades ahead of him, he was also diabolical. In that same first-grade class, I also remember him getting Melissa M. to show us her tits in the back row of class. Please, no freak-outs here – this was all very much in the “playing doctor” category of kids innocently finding out about each other’s private parts.

Besides, as a chubby kid, I had bigger tits than Melissa M., who had a crush on Cabbage Head because of his huge brain. Still, I can recall the slow process of Cabbage Head convincing Melissa it would be advantageous of her to show us her tits, bribing her with cartons of milk and orange juice, to the point where one day she turned around at her desk and flashed us. Both of us probably had erections like those science-book bananas frozen to 100 degrees Kelvin used to hammer nails. It became a regular thing, until someone squealed on us, and our parents were called in for a stern talk which didn’t really amount to much.

Worse, by far, was Cabbage Head’s fascination with Adolph Hitler. In the fourth grade, he kept a picture of Adolph in his locker and would give it a “Heil” salute every morning.

What do you do when the smartest kid in grade school appears to be a Nazi sympathizer? For a long time, nothing was done, because it was a well-kept secret among all of us. His parents were staunch working-class Irish Democrats. His father may have been a World War II vet, although I suspect he was a bit younger than my dad, and probably a Korean War vet.

Cabbage Head’s fascination was based more so on the documentary The World at War, which we all watched religiously Saturday nights on the local PBS station. (Our grandmother also forced our family to sit through The Lawrence Welk Show before this, which frightened me more than the Nazis. But, later, we’d also watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Saturday night was a wild time on PBS back in the 70s.)

I have The World at War series on DVD. It’s a very well-done, comprehensive documentary on World War II, from the causes in the 1930s to the aftermath in the mid-1940s. It’s what documentaries should be and no longer are: a fair-minded, historical look at an event without shades of personal politics thrown into the mix. Much of it was horrifying: the episode on concentration camps in particular, which gave all us kids nightmares for months afterwards. But it was deeply influential on kids like us who still played army and were enmeshed in that culture, thanks to movies, TV shows and comic books, who had older brothers in Vietnam, and never quite got the memo that war culture was a no-no. Most of us had army-style fatigues and uniforms, and played war regularly with toy guns. Rural America in the 70s still lived very much in the shadow of World War II.

For whatever reason, Cabbage Head took a real shine to Hitler. I don’t ever recall him espousing anti-Semitism or such. He was just enamored of the war process and how Hitler came to power. I think in his nutty, advanced mind, he saw that Hitler pulling his country out of a deep depression and then moving forward to near total domination of Europe was an amazing transformation, and he was also probably fascinated, in that little boy’s way, with the darker side of how this transpired. He threw in the "Heil" salutes as a show of black humor.

By the way, none of us followed him on this endeavor! I knew that the Nazis were bad news and couldn’t quite wrap my mind around putting a picture of Hitler in my locker, much as I wouldn’t put a picture of Charles Manson up there either.

Cabbage Head’s undoing was writing an essay about Hitler for our fourth-grade teacher, Mr. D., whom we called Wedge Head because he was a big guy and had a very angular shaped skull, with a giant forehead. Wedge Head thought the essay was brilliant, but was a little freaked out by its thoroughness and scholarly intent. He knew Cabbage Head was a genius, but he thought that either he must have cribbed some of the material, or if he hadn’t, needed a serious talking to about Hitler. This coincided with Wedge Head seeing the Hitler picture in the locker, and that called for a parent-teacher sit down. After which point, Cabbage Head got over his Hitler fixation in a hurry.

The nicest thing Cabbage Head did for me was let me win the class spelling bee in the third grade. I knew he was miles ahead of me in terms of intelligence and could easily out-spell me. He knew it, too, but must have also sensed that I was tired of always coming in second to him in these sort of contests. The spelling bee came down to him and me, and I can clearly recall him purposely blowing a word I knew he knew how to spell. Then me pulling in for the glory and getting some kind of paper crown with the word “champ” scrawled on it in blue crayon. I went along with it, and felt fine, but I knew he had let me win. He was basically a friendly, well-adjusted kid beyond his intelligence -- he was a good friend to me back then, and vice-versa.

Cabbage Head eventually went to Catholic school, which was where we started losing contact with each other. I played basketball on the CYO team in the 5th/6th grades, but felt like an outcast because I was one of the few public-school kids in the program. That was probably the last real contact I had with him, although we’d see each other occasionally in our teen years. Catholic school was like that – even kids in our neighborhood, houses apart, got separated by that divide.

So, right now, Cabbage Head is probably sitting in an office at some consulate in Berlin, late afternoon, making plans on where he’s going to watch tomorrow’s World Cup match between Germany and Italy. Hats off to him. A strange, brilliant kid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the adult version was any different.