Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Balloon Boys of Paris

Time: 2006
Place: Paris, France

My wife and I were in front of the Hôtel de Ville. The city had put up an ice rink and a carousel. Vendors were selling roasted chestnuts, sodas, and cotton candy, which in French translates as “daddy’s beard.” Families were having a great time. It was during the week between Christmas and New Years and everybody was in a festive mood.

We happened to notice these four boys zigzagging through the crowd. They were around ten years old. They had that breathless excitement of boys looking for mischief. What really caught our attention was their balloons.

We had noticed the balloon vender earlier. He was dressed as a clown with red, white, and blue stars and stripes. I couldn’t decide if he was pro or anti American. An argument could have been made for either direction.

All of the clown’s balloons were the same. They looked long pink sausages with a twist on one end. Normally the only time you’d see a balloon like that was right before it was further twisted to resemble a poodle. Maybe the clown was only providing the raw material and the buyer was expected to come up with his or her own design.

“Come on,” my wife said, “they look like penises.”

“Penises a man could be mighty proud of,” I added.

The resemblance that was so obvious to my wife and I was also obvious to the ten year old boys. Each boy had a balloon attached to his belt so that he had a long curved pink balloon protruding from his crotch.

The boys’ elongated pink balloon penises bobbed gently as they scampered about. One boy tried to catch the tip of his balloon with his mouth, but it kept bouncing just out of reach, making the boy look like a chicken trying to capture a giant worm. It also reminded me of the limerick of the man from Nantucket. I was inspired to write my own limerick.

There was a young boy in Paris
Who wore his balloon to embarrass
It was attached to his waist
He showed very poor taste
But, it excited that young boy in Paris.

One of the boys noticed my wife and I watching him and his friends. He gave us an aren’t-I-naughty smile before disappearing into the crowd.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I heard this story through the TV grapevine. I embellished the narrative a bit.

This happened to a woman executive for a large cable network. Let’s call her Dawn. She had a male secretary. Let’s call him Eric. Dawn assumed they had a good working relationship, though she couldn’t be sure. She and Eric had no contact with each other outside of their jobs.

Dawn knew Eric was gay, which was no big deal. Gays and lesbians have always been part of the television industry. All Dawn cared about was that Eric worked hard, because she worked hard.

One afternoon, Dawn was having lunch with a few of her fellow executives, when the creative director, let’s call him John, pulled her aside.

“Have you ever been to Ziegfeld’s?” John asked.

“I’ve never even heard of it,” Dawn said. “Is it a nightclub?”

“Well, sort of,” John said. “I was there last night. You must go there tonight. I’ll email you the address.”

“I don’t know,” Dawn said. “We’re about to launch a new show and I’ve been working non-stop. I don’t have time to go to a nightclub.”

“Make time,” John said. “I insist that you go there tonight. You have to go, you just have to.”

Dawn was taken aback by how adamant John was that she go to Ziegfeld’s. That night, she took a cab to the club. She had considered asking a friend to go with her, but for some reason felt that maybe this was something she had to do on her own. Once inside, she noticed all the small tables surrounding a large stage, the predominant gay crowd, and the men dressed as slutty women. That’s when Dawn realized that Ziegfeld’s was a drag bar. Dawn had been to a few drag shows and had enjoyed the campiness and overblown representation of femininity.

She found a table in a dark corner that was close to the stage, ordered a gin and tonic, and settled in for the show. She still wasn’t sure why John had insisted she come tonight. Perhaps he felt she was in desperate need to unwind from all the pressure she had been under at work and a good campy drag show would do the trick.

After sitting through a Cher, a Madonna, a Liza Minelli, and what looked like a cross between a Las Vegas Showgirl and Cruella De Vil, Dawn finally discovered why John had insisted she go to Ziegfeld’s that night.

The stage lights dimmed in preparation for the next performer. The opening electronic beats to the Donna Summer song “She Works Hard For The Money” blared from the sound system.

“Okay girlfriends,” said the announcer, “coming up next is a business girl who’s wants to give you the business. Give a big round of applause for DAWN!!!!”

The spotlight came on and Dawn was shocked to see herself walk out onto the stage and start lip-synching to Donna Summer’s tribute to all the overworked, underpaid women of the world. Dawn gulped down her gin and tonic and took a closer look. She quickly realized that the drag queen on stage wearing a dark red pants suit, white silk blouse, platinum blonde wig, and garish makeup was her secretary Eric, who had apparently decided that mimicking Cher was nowhere near as exciting as mimicking his boss.

Odd thoughts raced through Dawn’s head.

I never realized I wore red so often. Who is he kidding? I would never wear those shoes. And I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that much eyeliner. Can I sue him for defamation of character? Should I let him know just how fired he is tonight or should I wait until tomorrow? Do I really move like that? I hate this song. It could be worse. He could have chosen Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five.”

The audience rewarded Eric’s performance with a standing ovation.

That’s just great, Dawn thought. I’m a gay icon.

The next day, Dawn asked Eric to join her in her office for a private meeting.

“Eric,” Dawn said, “You’re doing a great job. I like to think we have a good working relationship. Would you agree?”

“Oh yes,” Eric said. “I’ve enjoyed working for you.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but here’s the thing, Eric. I saw your show last night at Ziegfeld’s.”

“You did?”

“Yes, I did. Now what you do in outside of the office is your business. However, you do understand that you can’t do me in your show?”

“I meant it as a tribute.”

“That’s not the point, Eric. I mean, I wouldn’t fire you for doing it, but I would consider legal action.”

Dawn wasn’t sure she could actually sue Eric for impersonating her, but she figured Eric didn’t know if she could either.

“Well, I also do a pretty good Hillary Clinton while lip-synching to Pat Benatar’s ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’.”

“Good idea, Eric. Stick with the classics.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Selecto Meats

Time: 1979
Place: Knoxville, TN

To date, I’ve only been outright fired from one job and that was at the Selecto Meats meat processing company in Knoxville, Tennessee. I found out about Selecto from my roommate, Ted, after he got a job in their hot dog room. I applied, was hired, and was assigned smoked hams.

The first thing I noticed on my first day on the job was the crying. Trucks loaded with cows and pigs were parked in the courtyard. The animals’ moos and oinks were filled with fear. Somebody commented that they were crying because they could smell burning hair. Selecto Meats was proud that they didn’t waste a single part of the animal, but since there was no use for hair, it was burned off. The courtyard cows and pigs knew they were next. At first, I was creeped out, but I got so used to the sound that when I arrived in the morning, I would shout “See you later for lunch” to the unfortunate livestock.

Selecto Meats’ main building was a long red brick rectangle with the cows and pigs from the farm going in one end and the trucks carrying the packaged meat to the grocery stores out the other. Inside, the temperature was always 45 degrees to keep the meat from spoiling. Workers wore hair nets, aprons, long coats, gloves, and thigh high black rubber boots. The air had that stale stink you get from old freezers that are never defrosted.

I worked in the smoked hams room with a dozen fellow workers. We lined up along a conveyor belt that snaked through the room. As smoked hams rolled through the room, we did our assigned tasks, standing, for two hours at a time, followed by a fifteen minute bathroom break. My job was to yank off a mesh girdle that had somehow had made its way onto the plump hams.

The only time that I saw Ted was during lunch break. He was having a great time in the hot dog room. Everybody there was, like Ted and me, in their early twenties. Ted led me to believe that the hot dog room was a non-stop party. I ate my lunch with Ted and his hot dog room buddies. I didn’t have any smoked hams room friends.

I noticed that four men ate by themselves at a table in the middle of the lunchroom. There was plenty of room at the table for more people, but nobody ever joined them. I asked around and found out that nobody socialized with the four men because they worked in the “kill room”.

This is how the inner workings of the kill room were explained to me. The cows and pigs were herded off the trucks into a wooden chute that became more and more narrow, forcing the animals into single file. At the end of the chute was the kill room. A kill room man would poke the animal in the head with an electric cattle prod. The stunned animal would fall to the floor. A kill room man would then slip a metal noose around one of its legs. The animal would be hoisted up and while it was dangling in the air, a kill room man would slice it open from neck to groin. The animal bled to death as its blood drained through a hole in the floor.

During lunch, the four kill room men sat in stony silence. They never smiled. The bottoms of their coats and their black rubber boots were covered with brown stains.

One day a supervisor came by looking for a warm body to fill in a temporary vacancy in another department. He asked my boss, who in turn, pointed right at me. The supervisor took me to the bacon room. For the rest of the day, I pulled hunks of cooked pig meat off metal hooks and laid them on a conveyor belt. From there, the slabs were sliced into thin strips. Portions of the strips were put in plastic pouches, then shrink-wrapped and labeled.

From then on, I would start my day in the smoked hams room, then at some random time during the day the supervisor would show up to take me to another room. I was never taken to the same room twice.

One day I pulled slabs of raw pig meat out of an ice water trough and hung them on metal hooks. The slabs were then taken by conveyor belt into a room to be cured and smoked. The sleeves of my shirt were soaked by the end of the day from the water dripping off the slabs.

On another day, I stood by a scale in a room the size of a concert hall, surrounded by dumpster-size plastic bins. Smoked hams rolled down a metal chute to where I was standing. I weighed the ham and then tossed it like a football into the bin with hams of similar weight. I only missed the bin a few times. I was alone, so I just scooped those hams off the floor and flung them into the appropriate bin.

I can’t explain why, but doing these different jobs began to bother me. Maybe it was the uncertainty. I never knew what kind of labor I was in for when they took me out of the smoked hams room. Usually it was much harder work than yanking mesh girdles off hams. Since I never knew when the supervisor would show up, or if he would show up at all, a sense of dread filled my days.

Meanwhile, the party continued for Ted and his hot dog room buddies. In fact, Ted’s good times extended beyond Selecto Meats. He was having an affair with one of his female co-workers. It was a ballsy thing to do considering he was driving his girlfriend’s car to and from work and his female co-worker was married.

The dread I felt for working at Selecto Meats kept growing as the weeks dragged by. The cold, the stink, and the uncertainty of what my job would be from day to day. Plus, there was never an excuse to not go in to work. I was never sick enough. I knew the job was getting to me when I had a dream in which I was in my bedroom getting ready for work and I heard a loud noise outside. I looked out the window and saw that a hurricane, a tidal wave, and an earthquake were rumbling together towards my house. In my dream, I laughed with joy. Finally, the weather was bad enough that I couldn’t make it to work.

One Friday my supervisor asked all the smoked hams room workers to work a half day on Saturday. We were promised that we’d be out by noon. I got along well with the supervisor and told him I really didn’t want to get stuck at Selecto Meats on a Saturday. He promised me that we would only be there half a day, maybe less, and that he’d give me a ride there and back.

So, I went in on Saturday and sure enough, one hour into the day, a supervisor came by and took me to another room. I was assigned to help this surly guy hoist long sides of beef onto the metal hooks of a conveyor belt. Once we were alone, I asked surly guy how late he was going to be working today. He replied that we were going to be there all day.

During lunch break, I waved goodbye to my smoked hams room co-workers as they drove away. As the supervisor drove away, I realized I didn’t even have a ride home. I had been royally screwed.

I decided to leave anyway. I knew I was expected me to spend the afternoon lugging beef with surly guy, but I just couldn’t do it and I left. I walked the four miles home. Along the way, I berated myself for leaving. I was a spoiled college boy who couldn’t handle a real job in the real world. However, no matter how much I kicked myself, I didn’t turn back.

On Monday, I showed up for work like nothing happened. The supervisor asked me why I left work early on Saturday. I explained that I was told that I would only be working a half day, so I assumed that I could leave after lunch. I pretended that I truly didn’t realize that Selecto Meats expected me to stay any longer. The supervisor looked at me like I was the stupidest man who ever walked the earth, but he didn’t fire me. Later that day, I ran into the surly guy. He couldn’t believe the supervisor didn’t fire me for deserting him. He was very upset. Why was I being treated special? I was equally baffled.

About a week later, Ted decided to call in sick. Since he was my ride to work, I called in sick too. The next day, I was called into the plant manager’s office and he fired me for taking too much time off without a really good excuse. But then, he offered to not fire me, but move me to another department, which he promised, I would never be moved from. I refused his kind offer. I told him that it would be better for everybody if they just fired me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Safety in Numbers

Time: 1986
Place: Atlanta, GA

I used to date a girl who was very cautious about sex. She wasn’t satisfied with just one method of birth control. She insisted on the combination of a condom and spermicidal foam. If we only had one of the two, there would be no intercourse that night.

I had no problem adhering to her precautions. I had gotten a girl pregnant when I was a teenager, so I was all for safe sex, the safer the better. What bugged me was that we were always running out of birth control supplies. Though my girlfriend had to have her spermicidal foam, she hated buying it. She would never go to the drugstore unless she had to buy other stuff, hoping that the cashier wouldn’t notice her box of sperm destroying foam injectors.

One Saturday afternoon, we were fooling around when we discovered that we were out of condoms and foam.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s go to the drugstore.”

“But, I don’t need anything from the drugstore,” she said.

“You don’t want to have sex?” I asked.

“Oh, I want to have sex something terrible, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in and only buy the foam.”

“First time for everything. Put your bra back on, we’re going to the store.

She was going to do it. She was going to go inside the drugstore, buy a box of spermicidal foam and nothing else, but she only made it as far as the drugstore’s parking lot.

“I can’t do it,” she cried, “I’m too embarrassed.”

“Fine,” I said. “Write down the name of the foam. I’m going in there and buy it, while you wait here in the car. I might as well, the foam is for me too.”

My girlfriend wrote down then name of her preferred brand of foam on a sheet of paper. Inside the store, I found the foam, and was about to grab the same box I remembered my girlfriend used, when I realized that she always bought the smallest box. There was a jumbo box with four times as many spermicidal foam injectors right next to it. She never had the nerve to get the larger box even though it would have meant fewer visits back to the store.

Well, I had the nerve. I wanted a longer lasting supply of birth control at home and I didn’t care who knew it. I grabbed the biggest box of foam injectors and the biggest box of condoms the drugstore carried, and I marched up the front register. The cashier was half asleep with boredom until she saw what I was buying.

“OOOOWHEEEE!,” shouted the cashier. “Somebody gonna be partyin’ tonight!”

“Well, I wasn’t planning on using it all in one night,” I said.