Monday, January 28, 2008

Ida's Donkey

Time: 1990
Place: Chattanooga, TN

I was standing with Dad at the end of Saturday services at my synagogue. We were waiting for Zayde Paul, my grandfather, to join us. Right as Zayde Paul finished folding and putting his tallis away, Mrs. Libowsky called out to him from the front of the sanctuary.

Zayde Paul turned and Mrs. Libowsky proceeded to shake her fist and shout at him in Yiddish. Zayde Paul shook his fist back at her and gave her his retort, also in Yiddish.

I don’t speak Yiddish, so I asked Dad to explain what just happened.

“They’ve been giving each other a hard time for years,” Dad said. “It’s no big deal.”

“Zayde Paul and Mrs. Libowsky are both in their nineties,” I said. “How long have they been busting each other’s chops?”

Dad told me the story. Zayde Paul and Mrs. Ida Libowsky were from the same shtetl in Russia. When they were in their early teens, Ida used to ride into town on a donkey. Ida’s family was better off than Zayde Paul’s, which is why they could afford for Ida to have her own donkey.

When Zayde Paul saw Ida coming, acting so high and mighty on her donkey, he would become enraged. He felt that she was showing off. He would run up beside her and the donkey and punch her legs. Sometimes Ida cried, and sometimes Ida tried to kick Zayde Paul, but Ida never forgot what Zayde Paul did to her.

So here is what Mrs. Ida Libowsky and Zayde Paul were shouting to each other eighty years later:

Ida: “Do you remember how you used to punch my legs when I came to town on my donkey?”

Zayde Paul: “Yes, I do. And if you get close enough, I’ll punch you again.”

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Have Pets, Not Kids

Time: 1992
Place: Atlanta, GA

My girlfriend and I were in the pet supply aisle at the grocery store. We were stocking up on cans of cat food, because my girlfriend owned a big fat tabby cat and I owned a big fat tabby cat.

As we tossed can after can into our shopping cart, we noticed a mother with two children heading towards us. Her two children, a boy and a girl, were close in age, and probably between four and six years old.

The mother looked exhausted. Her cart was filled to the brim. Her daughter was in the upper basket, swinging her pudgy legs back and forth, and occasionally kicking her mother in the chest. The son was hanging onto the front of the cart, dragging his heels on the floor. The mother was obviously straining to push the cart against the combination of weight and resistance.

When the mother saw my girlfriend and me loading up on pet food rather than people food, she paused and addressed us.

“Have pets, not kids,” the mother said.

“Yeah,” said her son, “have pets, not kids!”

The boy giggled and shook the cart as his sister grabbed random items off the shelf. Meanwhile, the mother continued on her way. Compared to that poor woman, Sisyphus had it easy.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rehearsal Dinner Toast

Time: 1998
Place: Atlanta, GA

The following is the toast I gave for Jessica at our rehearsal dinner. I labored on it for weeks after a number of false starts. Though the speech was about Jessica, I had her read everything I wrote and make suggestions and revisions.

Jessica warned me I might have to say something nice about her. There are many nice things I can say about her, but deciding which one to share with you was a real challenge. I settled on this story.

First, I must warn you that there is nudity in this story. It's not a dirty story. But if we can all accept that fact that Jessica and I are both over 21 and have seen each other without clothes on, then there shouldn't be a problem.

It was a rainy Monday morning. Jessica was facing a really bad day at work. She was tense. She was upset. She was not happy. She had just gotten out of the shower when the toilet stopped up. This happens often.

We keep the toilet plunger just inside the basement door. Wearing only a towel around her waist, Jessica flung open the basement door, grabbed the plunger, then stood outside our bedroom door. She was dripping wet from her shower, and had tears welling up in her eyes, when she proceeded to explain to me why the universe was out to get her.

Now, I make my living writing humor. I understand that humor is tragedy that happens to somebody else. For Jessica, this was tragedy. For me, watching a half naked women waving a plunger and complaining about the injustice of life- this was humor. So I started to laugh.

At that moment, my worldview shifted from humor to tragedy. She glared at me and cried, "Why are you laughing? What the hell is so damn funny to make you laugh?" And then she took the plunger and threw it as hard as she could...down into the basement.

It took me forever to find that plunger, but considering where she wanted to put it, I didn't mind the search.

Once the tragedy passed and the toilet was running again, we had a good laugh. Jessica laughed at herself for throwing the plunger so hard and I laughed at myself for being stupid enough to laugh at her at that particular moment. Most important, we laughed together.

So tomorrow when Jessica is walking down the aisle in her beautiful gown holding her lovely bouquet, imagine for a moment that she's wearing only a towel around her waist and holding a plunger and know that that's the woman I love and want to spend the rest of my life with. To Jessica.

The toast was a big hit, but then I was playing to the home crowd. The next day at the wedding, people were still talking about the story. In fact, two of my father’s friends thought the story was so funny, that they went into the men’s room and found a plunger to shake at Jessica.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Shooting Baskets

Time: 1983
Place: Atlanta, GA

When I hung out at the Clermont Lounge, the strippers didn’t wear garter belts. They didn’t need them. Guys did not walk up to the stage and slip dollar bills into a stripper’s garter belt, because the strippers worked on a small circular stage behind a similarly shaped bar. When someone wanted to tip a stripper, they leaned over the bar with a dollar bill in their outstretched hand. The stripper also leaned out to reach her money.

I was at the lounge one afternoon when a lanky blonde-haired stripper was dancing on the stage. Instead of leaning over the bar, some of the guys folded up their dollar bills into a tight triangle and then tossed the bill to the stripper. They had made paper footballs out of their dollar bills.

The guys had tossed plenty of dollar footballs to the stripper, when one guy said, “Hey, Susie, make a basket.”

Susie squatted down and held the front of her panties. The guy tossed his dollar football and it landed neatly into Susie’s panties. His buddies congratulated him on “scoring a basket.”

His success led to a basket shooting frenzy. Everybody wanted a chance to score. Some tossed their dollar footballs; others were more adventurous and “kicked” their dollar football by holding it upright on the bar with the index finger of one hand and flicking it with their other index finger. Susie didn’t look happy about being the basket, but she didn’t complain since she was making good money. The only thing she refused to do was toss a dollar football back after a miss. Apparently, Susie didn’t believe in do-overs.

The game was going fine with more baskets made than missed when one of guys ran out of dollar bills and decided to use a silver dollar instead. He slung the coin towards Susie’s basket, but he aimed a little too high and a little too hard. The coin hit Susie just below her belly button, bounced off and landed in the bottom of her panties. The unexpected pain shocked her and she quickly reached down into her panties to see what hit her. Susie pulled out the silver dollar and stared at it in disbelief.

“A fucking coin?” Susie shouted. “You son of a bitch!”

Susie threw the coin hard and fast at the guy. The silver dollar hit him right between the eyes. When it bounced off his head, it sounded the same as when you thump a cantaloupe to check its ripeness. The coin left a red welt on the guy’s forehead.

“That’s it,” Susie said, “No more baskets.”

Susie continued to dance and strip, but no matter how much the guys begged her, she refused to make her panties into a basket. They quickly gave up and glared at the guy who threw the silver coin. He was so embarrassed that he folded up into himself, hunching his shoulders and staring down at his beer.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Darlene's Dream

Time: 1975
Place: Chattanooga, TN

For one summer, I had a job as a short order cook at a pizza restaurant run by a nice Jewish couple. I worked on the night shift, preparing plates of spaghetti and bowls of salad in the back kitchen, while up front, a surly redneck made the pizzas.

The waitress was named Darlene. She was scrawny, had long dirty blonde hair, and lived with her boyfriend, a long haul truck driver named Travis. Darlene was a walking country song. She stood by her man even though he kept doing everything in his power to break her heart.

Travis had been laid up at home ever since the accident. The story Darlene gave us about how Travis had his accident was a confusing grab bag of details that included a violent rain storm, his truck sliding down an muddy hill, and Travis leaping out of the truck to avoid certain death.

“The accident was not his fault. There was nothing else he could do,” Darlene explained, though no one ever accused Travis of doing anything wrong.

Travis’s leg injury meant it would be months before he could drive a truck again. He got enough money from worker’s comp to pay his bills, but not enough to enjoy his recuperation period. Travis turned to Darlene to bankroll his good times. He would often show up at the restaurant and badger Darlene for her tip money and whatever extra cash she had in her wallet.

“I told you not to bother me at work,” Darlene said. “And where you goin’ tonight to spend my hard earned money?”

“I’m going to out for a beer,” Travis said. “Stop bustin’ my balls and give me some cash.”

Once Travis left with Darlene’s money, she would fume for the rest of the night. She never let the customers see how upset she was, but would vent to me in the back kitchen.

“I know what he’s up to,” Darlene said. “He’s going to our favorite country western bar. The women there are always making a play for him. Hell, I seen ‘em do it while I was there with him. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to chase those hussies away from him. That damn asshole Travis is going out to get drunk with other woman. And I’m the damn fool paying for it.”

I didn’t see what Darlene saw in Travis. He looked like a redneck version of Sonny Bono. What I really couldn’t understand was that if his leg was so badly injured, why was he able to drive a car and why didn’t he walk with a limp?

After watching Darlene come into work looking more and more stressed out, she came in one evening looking strangely calm and relaxed.

“You’ll never believe what happened last night,” Darlene said. “I had a dream that I finally had enough of Travis and I stabbed him with a knife. I just kept stabbing him again and again. It felt so good. But then, this noise woke me up. I didn’t know what it was at first, then I realized it was Travis yelling. He was saying, ‘Stop! Stop! Oh please stop!’ That’s when I realized that I was hitting Travis in the head. My fist was turned like I was holding a knife and I was slamming it down on top of his head. You think maybe I was acting out something that I had been keeping buried inside?”

“Yeah, probably,” I said.

“Well, the funny part is,” Darlene said, “today Travis has been as sweet as he can be to me. He made me breakfast and he drove me to work and before he drove off, he said he thinks his leg should be healed enough real soon so he can go back to driving his truck.”

At the end of our shift, Travis picked up Darlene up to take her out their favorite country western bar.

“Sweet dreams, Darlene” I shouted as they were drove away.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Clermont Cheshire Cat

Time: 1983
Place: Atlanta, GA

Just about everybody in Atlanta has been to the Clermont Lounge, the city’s most famous dive bar and oldest strip club. And everybody who has visited the Clermont Lounge has left with a story. Here is one of mine.

I was at the Clermont Lounge on a Friday night, watching the strippers dance on the small circular stage behind the bar. Sitting a few barstools to my right was a man with a jutting chin, squinting eyes, and a jet black pompadour with mutton chop sideburns. He looked like Popeye with Elvis hair. I overheard the bartender call him Lonnie.

A group of Asian men came in and stood by the cash register. They looked to be in their early twenties and they were very excited about being at the Clermont Lounge. They giggled and nudged each other while chatting in Vietnamese or Korean or wherever the hell they were from.

One of the Asian men acted as ringleader. After pointing at each man and getting a spoken response, he signaled for the bartender.

“Eight beers,” said the ringleader, holding up eight fingers.

“What kind of beer you want?” asked the bartender.

“What is cheapest?” said the ringleader.

“Honey, it’s all cheap here. Cheapest beer in town.”

The ringleader studied the beer posters Scotch-taped on the walls.

“Pabst…Bloo…Wibbon,” said the ringleader.

The bartender went to get the men their beers.

I realized the ringleader was the ringleader because he was the only one in his group who spoke English.

Lonnie was sitting one barstool over from where the Asian men were standing. He leaned over and rested his hand on the empty barstool. He grinned at the Asian men. It was a wide grin that showed plenty of teeth. The Asian men saw Lonnie’s grin and grinned back at him.

“Let me tell you something,” Lonnie said. “I went to Vietnam. I used to hunt gooks like you when I was over there.”

Lonnie kept grinning and the Asian men kept grinning back at him.

“I used to kill gooks like you when I was over there,” Lonnie said.

Lonnie kept grinning and the Asian men grinned back. Some of them started to laugh and nod their heads. They had no clue what Lonnie was saying. Lonnie never raised his voice. He spoke in a low monotone that was almost soothing. I could hear the menace in Lonnie’s voice, but the Asian men could not. He just sounded like another white guy.

The ringleader did understand what Lonnie was saying. He didn’t smile back at Lonnie or laugh or nod his head. He stood still with his arms by his side and stared at Lonnie.

“Now let me tell you something else,” Lonnie said. “I didn’t risk my ass over in Vietnam just to come home and find gooks like you gawking at our pussy. Nothing would make me happier than gettin’ my gun and shootin’ every damn one of you yellow bastards. Now you tell me what you think of that?”

And Lonnie kept grinning and all of the Asian men, except for the ringleader, grinned back at him.

Lonnie was like some kind of deranged Cheshire Cat. I wondered if something ugly was about to happen right in front of me. For about two minutes, Lonnie didn’t say anything. He just kept that big grin on this face and waited to for the Asian men to respond. The ringleader said nothing. His friends kept smiling and laughing. The Asian men’s relentless friendliness finally unnerved Lonnie.

“Aw the hell with all of you,” Lonnie said with great disgust.

He spat on the floor, got off his barstool, and stormed out of the bar. A couple of the Asian men waved goodbye. The bartender came back with the Asian men’s eight beers. The ringleader paid for the drinks and led his friends a booth in the darkest corner of the bar, much too far back to see any pussy.

Once seated, the Asian men stopped laughing. The ringleader must have told them what Lonnie had said. I looked at Lonnie’s empty barstool. Like the Cheshire Cat, all I could see of Lonnie in my mind was his big grin. About an hour later, the Asian men marched out of the bar.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Photo Album

I don’t remember the time or place. I went to a party at a couple’s house. I had never met the couple before. I went with a friend who was friends with one of their friends. I was hanging out in the living room, knocking back the free beer, when I noticed a photo album sitting on the coffee table.

“You can look at it if you want to,” the wife said.

She was sitting across from me on the couch. She was obviously very proud of the photo album and was waiting for me to look inside. I wasn’t interested in what was in the album. I was curious why the couple had left it out on the coffee table where anybody could spill their beer on it.

I didn’t want to be rude to my host, so I opened the photo album, expecting to see badly composed snapshots of elderly grandparents and babies with food smeared on their pudgy faces. Instead, there was page after page of naked women. Each page was a collage of photos had been cut out of men’s magazines. The photo album was like a shrine to the female form as envisioned by a horny teenage boy.

“I made it for my husband,” the wife said.

“Very nice,” I said. “Birthday gift?”

“No,” she said, “He was in jail. I made him this photo album to help him survive. Doing time can make a man feel so lost. I wanted him to have a daily reminder of what was waiting for him on the outside. I didn’t want him to give up hope.”

I looked at the naked women with new eyes. The wife beamed at me as I flipped through the pages. Her photo album was one of the purest expressions of love I had ever seen. She had ever reason to be proud.

Thursday, January 3, 2008