I try to restrict my Twitter activity to less than 12 hours a day, because sometimes I need to work and sleep. However there are some obsessives you just can’t miss.
And then there’s Stephen King. He was a big, famous writer, some thirty or forty years ago. He was even more famous than Cathy Young. I think he even did one of those “Do You Know Me?™” American Express Card® commercials. Well now he’s old, and lonely, and eating TV dinners in Maine.
He likes the Hungry-Man™ line of TV dinners, apparently. Recently he tweeted about how he likes to eat the frozen brownie while he nukes the rest of the dinner. This is the proper way, he averred, to eat a Hungry-Man meal.
Recently I was dog-tired after a long day of writing and gymming, and I ended up guzzling vodka (in bed) at 11am the next day. Sun over the yardarm, you know. I got curious about these Stephen King TV dinners. I went to Amazon-dot-com and looked up the Hungry-Man line. Apparently the one with a brownie is the boneless-fried-chicken meal.
So I ordered two of those. You know, just as an experiment. But I felt foolish ordering two TV dinners, so I ordered another two, these with chicken-fried steak but no brownie.
Amazon/WholeFoods asks you when you want these things delivered, and I don’t know what I put down, but apparently I defaulted to the ASAP choice. Because at 5 the next morning, the concierge was calling up from the lobby to tell me Amazon Prime had delivered.
I dressed and went down. Two enormous bags, with boxes of dry ice inside. Two Hungry-Man TV dinners in each. I debagged them and stuck them in the freezer before the spouse woke up. How embarrassing!
When I was little we couldn’t write with ballpoint pens in school; only fountain pens were allowed. Ballpoints would ruin our handwriting, we were told. And looking around today, I can see that this is so!
So I stopped at the stationer’s in Berwyn to buy a fountain pen before starting back to school, and the big featured item was the Esterbrook Fill’er Up No-Leak Space Pen. It was the same kind of fountain pen used in NASA missiles. The kind gentleman at the counter showed me how to fill it up from an ink bottle, using the little screw-plunger doohickey at the end.
“That’s right, miss,” he said, “once you fill up this pen, you’ll never have to fill it again.”
Then I took it out of the bottle and twisted the plunger again to tighten it. And I sprayed blue-black ink all over the poor gentleman’s face!
Mr Jack Lipkis of Woodmere, Long Island enchants us with this embarrassing recollection from his “folkie” days in college:
When I went to Boston University I was in a little folk-music combo. This was back during the folk-music fad of the early 60s. We called ourselves The Bijou Folkies. The name was sort of an “in” joke. In those days the Harvard swells were supposed to call BU “Bee-Jew.” They stopped doing that some years later, when Harvard became about half Jewish. Big joke on them!
So we were The Bijou Folkies. We sang folk songs, or what were supposed to be folk songs. Songs about the joys of being a lumberjack, and how kisses were sweeter than wine.
There were three of us in the trio, except when one guy, our bassist who looked like the funny little guy in The Weavers, walked into a milk truck near Kenmore Square and had to drop out. What a spaz. That made us a two-man trio, which was really “bijou,” I mean in the other sense of the word, which means tiny and jewel-like. If you forgive the pun. Groan!
We weren’t all that good, but my friend Dave who played banjo and harmonica went on to run the Colony record store in the Brill Building in New York, so I guess he must have known something about music. We played mostly in bars and coffeehouses, when we played at all. Then we got this idea to start a Boston Folk Festival and play on the Boston Common. We got a couple of other combos and folk singers aboard, but we didn’t have a big name. We needed a big-name combo if we were going to do this right.
Everyone knew The Kingston Trio, and we thought maybe we could get them, since they were very popular in Boston for some reason. I wrote their record company, then I wrote the 7-Up company, then I wrote their agent, but never heard back.
Finally, around spring semester, I tried calling their agent. Long-distance, person-to-person! The agent told me they were all booked for the year, but might be able to squeeze in a set if this were a charitable event. I already told him it was a charitable event. And the agent said, “Okay, well the cost is $50,000, which they will donate to charity.”
I figured we could manage that, since it sounded like all we needed to do was give them an IOU for fifty thou, and then they’d push it back at us across the table. But it turned out the agent wanted a cashier’s check in advance so he could deduct expenses and his percentage. So to make a long story short, we didn’t get The Kingston Trio for our Folk Festival.
We’d already printed up our posters and flyers and they all announced The Kingston Trio in great big type, and The Bijou Folkies (that was us, remember) and other acts in really little type. I was bummed about the waste of money, but Dave, the guy who went on to run the Colony record store in New York, had another idea.
“Why don’t we get three negro singers, and say they’re from Kingston, Jamaica? Then we got a trio, and we can call them The Kingston Trio. And when people say, They’re not The Kingston Trio, we say—‘No, these are the real, original Kingston Trio, they’re from Jamaica and everything. They’re suing that white-boy group for using their name and stealing their songs. You don’t want some whitebread Pat Boone version, do ya? We got the real thing here!’”
I thought this was a great idea, a feasible idea.
Easier said than done, though. You wouldn’t believe the hostility that black people, or Afro-Americans, or negroes as we called them then, had for folk music. I went over to the Negro Table in the BU buttery (they always sat together) and tried to talk up the idea. They nearly pulverized me. “You muhfuh white people always stealing our culture, you and your Pat Boone honky tunes!”
I got out of there quick, but I was really mad. After all we’ve done for them!
So much for the Kingston, Jamaica, Trio.
Well our Folk Festival was now only two weeks away, and we had to find a solution or call it all off. Big waste of money on the posters. Then Dave remembered the Tingley girls, a pair of twins we knew. Real tough-talking swamp-Yankee broads—but they were from Kingston, Rhode Island! Or pretty close anyway. We teamed them up with a fat girl we knew. (She had a lovely voice, the Tingley girls couldn’t sing at all and mainly shook tambourines.) And there was our Kingston Trio, all set to go.
Not too many people showed up at our Folk Festival on the Common, though this wasn’t because we didn’t have the real Kingston Trio. Actually we had an electrical problem. Our amps all had grounded plugs, and we brought the wrong kind of extension cords, so nothing worked. We all did a set without amplification, then it started to rain and we packed it in. A few people stopped by to watch us, but mainly they laughed.
“It’s a learning experience,” Dave said to me as we left. We drove the Tingley girls and their friend to a diner on Commonwealth Avenue, because we owed them that much.
I was grateful it was the end of the school year, so people wouldn’t have much chance to make fun of us.
Next day, though, our Folk Festival was all over the Boston Herald. “Scam! Fraud! Schlockmeisters Promote Phony ‘Kingston Trio’ Combo! Can’t Even Sing!” And the paper said many worse things, but that’s the Boston Herald for you. I never found out who spilled the beans.
Skylaire Svenglad of Glen Ridge, NJ remembers the influential television programs of her childhood:
There was a strange television program when I was little, called You Asked for It, which was a kind of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” treatment of freaks and people with deformities. I think it ended before the whole Thalidomide thing began, but it definitely would have feasted upon those victims.
What we did see were a guy with no lower legs, but who played tennis successfully by bouncing around on springs attached to his stumps. And a guy who had no arms, but could shave himself every morning with a safety razor between his toes.
Watching this program brought me to a very embarrassing episode in my young life, because my little brother just assumed from this that crippled people and amputees loved to talk about their deficiencies and put on a show for you. Was my face red! But I’ll get to that in a moment.
I happened to remember that strange show recently because my husband and I happened upon a really gross cable series featuring Weird Body Modifications. One of the examples was a man whose dog was dying because of liver cancer (also the dog was old), and the man had the dog’s head and forelimbs sutured onto his own body. Like on his shoulder, you know. And this partial dog actually survived this way for a little while, so the man got to spend a few more days with his beloved pet. But the dog’s system and the man’s blood didn’t get along that well, and the dog paws quickly turned necrotic, and within a week or so the man woke up and found a dead dog-head on his shoulder. Then to make matters worse, the man came down with some serious blood disease that eventually killed him. He got buried with the (now detached) dog head.
Then there was a woman who wanted to be a Human Glove Puppet. She’d actually lost use of her legs, and bladder and bowel control through some progressive nerve damage, and the doctors wanted to remove the whole bottom half of her body. So she said, Why don’t you just hollow me out like a glove puppet, then I can be like Kukla and Ollie, and people can put their hands up me? This was not really medically feasible, since there were still vital organs in her thoracic cavity, but they did a little bit to make her happy. I think she died soon too.
I don’t understand people’s fascination with this stuff but obviously it’s been going on for many years. Getting back to You Asked for It, my brother Tim saw an episode with a quadriplegic artist. He could draw really well with a graphite stick or tortillon in his mouth. He did really good portraits.
So we are visiting some relatives in the city, and going up in the elevator, and this old woman in a wheelchair gets on. She’s got almost no hand control, because her fingers are all twisted from rheumatoid arthritis. She has to bang on a lever to make the wheelchair go and stop and turn. She’s getting on a lower floor, maybe fifth floor, and apparently going all the wall up to the penthouse, where our relatives are.
The elevator opens directly into my relatives’ hallway, because, as I say, it’s the penthouse, and they’re the only people on that floor. So we all get out and apparently this old woman in the wheelchair is this friend and neighbor they invited to dinner.
Throughout the evening, Little Tim keeps trying to get the old lady to stick a crayon or pencil in her mouth, and draw a picture of him. We’re all embarrassed, the old lady included, since she can’t draw. But Tim’s only five years old, so what can you do?
Maybe that’s not much of a story, but it was embarrassing at the time.
Mrs. Linsley Horgenrather of Hillsborough, California favors us with this hellish reminiscence of growing up in the 1950s:
Whenever Mumsy was in the insane asylum, I got sent to stay with Aunt Pudge and my cousins in Seattle. They lived in the U District, in one of those ugly brick houses that look as though they were built in 1840 but were probably built in 1930. I’m saying this just so you can picture it.
(If you’re wondering where my father was, it was probably Singapore where he trying to sell some deal to Jardine Matheson. At least that was the story we gave out, because it shut people up.)
Aunt Pudge was some kind of assistant dean or administrator in the University’s psychology department. Her job consisted of talking on the phone a lot, and signing memos. When I was really little my cousins and I spent a lot of time playing in the big anteroom outside her office. There were a lot of strange toys out there, like a mechanical bear that when you squeezed it would open its mouth, and a turtle would come out.
Sometimes psychologists would come in and watch us. They believed that the first toy a child chose in the room would determine your course in life. I always went for the bear, so they decided I was going to be a dental hygienist.
Aunt Pudge’s first husband died during the war, and she had a succession of men in her life afterwards. When I was about ten she was going with a guy name Moe. He was very exotic and foreign-looking. We called him Uncle Moe, though his real name was Moloch. He had pointy features and wore a goatée. He was going bald and often wore a beret, but he wasn’t French. Uncle Moe’s thing was trying to get you to undress, if you were a little girl. I don’t know what he did with boys. He was pretty creepy, so I didn’t like to be in his company unless Aunt Pudge was around. I don’t think she knew how creepy he was, because he seemed to behave himself around her.
One day we all went to the big supermarket in Wallingford. Aunt Pudge, Uncle Moe, my cousins Cecily and Curt, and me. Supposedly we were getting ingredients to make Cecily a birthday cake. She had very specific instructions for the cake. She wanted it to be three-layer, with the middle layer fudge brownie and the other two layers golden cake; with chocolate frosting that was colored orange, because her birthday was Halloween. Now, there was no Betty Crocker or Pillsbury or Duncan Hines cake mix like this, so we had to combine different mixes and ingredients.
Cecily and Aunt Pudge fussed over the mixes and frosting ingredients while Uncle Moe took Curt and me around the corner to the lobster tank. He asked us if we wanted a pet lobster. I couldn’t think of anything worse, but Curt actually said, “Oh yeah that would be keen.” This was an expression he picked up from Spin and Marty. “Oh yeah, that sounds keen!”
So Uncle Moe picked up Curt and held him over the tank and told him to choose a lobster. You weren’t supposed to put your hands in there. You were supposed to pick the lobsters up with a pair of long-handled pliers that hung on a hook above the tank. But Uncle Moe ignored that. Curt just reached in and grabbed a couple of lobsters and threw them on the floor.
This caused a lot of excitement among the ladies in the meat section, across from the lobster tank. One of them started to scream. There wasn’t anything to be scared about, because the lobsters had rubber bands around their claws. But when they scuttled across the floor it looked like they were chasing people.
The man in the white coat in the meat department came out of his freezer room to see what the commotion was. Uncle Moe tried to put him at ease. “It’s just the children having a little horseplay. You know how kids are!”
I don’t think the meat man believed Uncle Moe because, you know, with his beret and his pointed beard Uncle Moloch looked like a pretty shady character. But the meat man sighed and slapped his hands together and went over to fetch the lobster pliers.
What no one noticed up to now is that Curt was in the lobster tank. It was almost deep enough for him to swim in, and he was in all the way, kneeling on the bottom with the lobsters around him. Curt was making faces at us with his face pressed up against the glass.
I figured Uncle Moe was going to try to talk his way out of this, and he did, by saying it was me who put Curt in the tank. This was a sheer impossibility, but I always got in trouble if i talked back to grownups, so I stayed mum.
“I’m going to have a word with you when we get home, young lady!” Aunt Pudge said in the car when we stopped at the light at 45th and Roosevelt. I knew I was really in for it. Was my face red!
Genevieve MacDonald of Rowayton, Connecticut entertains us with her epic adventures in the bottom-feeding end of the Office Temporaries racket.
I was pretty sure I was going to be an opera star, so I did not bother to pick up any special career credentials that would help me to get by in life. I mean, beyond my musical education. My father was a partner in a big CPA firm, and encouraged me to become an accountant. “Something always to fall back on,” you know! But let’s face it, once you have the easy life of a CPA, you’re not going to exert yourself to take daily voice lessons or seek out piddly-straw roles with bus-and-truck opera companies, are you? That’s the way I saw it, anyway.
So I did not become an accountant, though I did a lot of accounting work during those long Postwar decades when I was struggling hard to become a star mezzo of the Metropolitan Opera. It was very easy to get a job as an office temporary in that Postwar Era, by which I mean roughly 1950 to 1990. All you needed to do was collect a lot of names of temp agencies from the classified ads, and go visit them.
Most of them were a block or two from Grand Central Terminal, because the buildings there were very old, usually had bad elevators and no air-conditioning, and the rents were cheap. To get a job from them, you basically just had to a) dress up and b) show up. If you were halfway presentable and not too old or fat (I struggled with this much of my life), they might send you out on an assignment immediately.
Dressing up of course changed as the years went by. Usually it meant a skirt and high heels. For a long time in the 50s and 60s it was also a good idea to wear a hat and white gloves. You could wear slacks, I mean trousers, later on, but that tended to send out the wrong message. There was a definite class-divide in the office world, between the women in skirts and the women in pants.
As for the men doing temp work, they were usually assumed to be homosexuals, even when they had wives and girlfriends you might meet at an evening get-together. They were a special case, so when I talk about temps I’m usually talking about female temps. The dress code loosened up as time went on, because it had to. In the early 80s I sometimes saw young women coming in wearing silver-lamé jumpsuits. This looked very weird, but they got work anyway. I guess because they were white.
We had a big influx of negroes, starting in the 1970s, and it was very hard for the temp agencies to deal with them. The clients did not want you sending them a negress for a receptionist or a secretary. Sometimes a Jew would ostentatiously order a colored girl to sit outside his office and be noticed, but that was a special situation. But the bottom line is, if you were white all you had to do was show up and the temp agency would try to find something for you.
Mr. D. Runyon Smythe provides us with this charming reminiscence of the New York Literary Scene in 1957, a golden period when Anyone Who Was Anyone really wished it were 1932. Take it away, D. Runyon!
So I am sitting in my favorite booth at Mindy’s, eating rhubarb cobbler, which Mindy’s is very famous for, while I am trying to cobble together my famous “Lullaby of Broadway” column, which you doubtless know about because of the many movies and popular songs it inspires.
It is a hot day in late summer, with no new shows on Broadway for at least another month, so you may well imagine that I am up poo-poo creek, column-wise. I have a couple of lame items from the Coast, about such forgettables as Arlene Dahl and Roddy McDowell . . . you know, the sort of stuff I usually use as filler . . . but nothing eye-tingling or local. Moreover there are five column-inches of blank space staring back at me.
What to do? In such a situation a popular columnist such as myself sometimes buys jokes from the Jewish gag-touts who stand outside the Hippodrome and try to finagle you into buying a joke, although I do not like to buy them because I write better jokes myself. But here is Mickey the Mockey, one of those selfsame joke-machers from 43rd Street, and he is coming up to me here in Mindy’s. Me, the famous “Lullaby of Broadway” columnist! What does he want this time?
Mickey the Mockey is a terrific name-dropper, so I am not surprised when he tells me he eats with Mayor Wagner last night, and all of the big names are there, as it is Mayor Wagner’s monthly literary salon where the Mayor always lays out a big spread, for literary names are big eaters. There is Dawn Powell, and Truman Capote, and Mark Van Doren, and also the famous Edna de Mourcy Childs, who is one of our greatest living poets.
“Such a big name she is thirty years ago, Edna,” Mickey the Mockey tells me, “but now she lives in a tub-in-kitchen flat on St. Mark’s Place, where she eats cat food. Edna, she falls upon some hard times!”
“What do her cats eat?” I ask, for my mind is busy trying to create jokes for “Lullaby of Broadway.”
“I do not know,” says Mickey the Mockey. “I believe they starve.”
“Not a good punchline, Mickey,” I say. “That is pathetic, and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ can never be pathetic.”
“We must do something for Edna,” says Mickey. “I believe she is an old pal of yours. You are once literary editor for her in The Tiny Magazine. You publish her poems.”
The Tiny Magazine is a legend in Gotham literary circles. During its long reign, 1927-1932, it publishes every known poet in the Western world.
However, Mickey the Mockey has his facts wrong. At The Tiny Magazine my title is actually Sports Editor, and I believe my only encounter with Edna is at Jack & Charlie’s speakeasy, where one night Edna mixes her drinks and vomits all over Herbert Bayard Swope.
I correct Mickey the Mockey on this historical point, but he waves me away with his fat hand. He tells me a scheme for putting Edna in the dough. Edna’s wealthy uncle is about to die, Mickey tells me, and he does not have any heir but Edna. But there is a catch. Edna must have a baby, or her uncle leaves all his millions to his cat, which is named Ulysses.
“Edna has to be sixty years old,” I point out, taking the last lick of rhubarb cobbler from my spoon.
“None the same there is a baby,” Mickey insists. He tells me that in the year Nineteen-hundred-and-thirty-two, Edna is briefly married to an able-bodied seaman, who deserts her. Edna puts the baby in the Foundling Home and never thinks of her again. It is a girl baby, by the way. Finally, Mickey opens his eyes wide and says, “And you know her very well!”
At this juncture I drop my spoon in my lap, for I remember that my very own young wife is a Foundling Home baby, born in 1932. She is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Ed Sullivan, who raise her as their very own and send her to a music conservatory. I meet her one night at the Sullivans’ hotel suite, which is a very swanky place indeed, where the Sullivans always lay out a big spread, because show people and newspaper people can eat quite a lot. Their daughter, by the name of Mabel, is at the piano playing “Liebestraum,” which is my favorite. We fall in love and two months later we tie the knot at St. Malachy’s.
It is Mabel’s birthday next day, so instead of a card I give her a double surprise. I tell her she is filthy rich, or almost so, and that she has a granduncle who is waiting to meet her. And all because she once told me she was a Foundling Home baby born in 1932.
Mabel is very unpredictable, and bursts into tears. “Nineteen-thirty-two! Oh honey, this is a lie. So long I carry this lie, now I must tell you the truth. Actually I am born in Nineteen-thirty-one. So long I lie about my age. Now you wish to divorce me, I suppose!” I take Mabel into my arms and comfort her, saying, “Twenty-six is still very young, Mabel. Too bad you are not filthy rich.”
I think about how to break this to Mickey the Mockey, for I expect great disappointment. He has a deal with me for a ten percent finder’s fee, just for connecting Mabel with her rich granduncle, only it turns out he is not really her granduncle.
Then I think about how there is a nice piece of change in this for me too, if I do not spill the beans. After all, I am married to Mabel. Mabel is very pretty and can pass for twenty-five. She does not look like Edna, but then again Edna does not look like anything. So I tell Mickey the Mockey that all is on the up-and-up, and next week we meet this fine elderly granduncle about to make Mabel his heir. I gather Edna gets something too, but those are just details.
With the help of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Sullivan we rent a suite at the Savoy-Plaza, which is one of the swankiest hotels in town, although not the same swanky hotel the Sullivans live at. We find Edna and clean her up, and feed her nutritious food for few days, because we want her uncle to believe she lives at the Savoy-Plaza and is not just an old rummy poet who lives on cat food. At first she is reluctant to eat nutritious food, however we discover she will eat tuna casserole if it is smelly enough. Soon enough the roses come back into Edna’s cheeks, although this may be because we provide her with a better quality of bourbon.
We sit Edna down at a Hepplewhite secretary (Grand Rapids reproduction) and tell her to write poems, because our plan is to tell the granduncle that Edna lives at the Savoy-Plaza because she is a successful poet.
However, Edna is more interested in the bourbon, and her hand shakes too much to hold the pen for long. So we copy a few lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Amy Lowell onto elegant notepaper, and leave them scattered over the desk.
Meanwhile Mabel moves in, and practices being very daughterly to Edna. She learns lines like, “That is such a beautiful poem, mother, you really ought to finish it.” And, “Mother is in her boudoir right now, for she is feeling poorly today.” Mabel thinks up that second line herself, and says she expects to use it a lot on the Big Day.
We decide to keep Mabel’s marriage a secret. The granduncle fellow sounds like the kind of guy who does not approve of newspaper columnists.
Finally the Big Day arrives. The old gentleman is dressed like Lucius Beebe in 1938. Walking stick, carnation, white tie, topper. In fact at first I think this is Lucius Beebe, but then I remember that Mr. Beebe, who is a confirmed bachelor, now lives in Nevada with his boyfriend.
Our visitor tells us his name is Cuthbert C. Childs, which is not news to us, and bows low. Mabel kisses him, and greets him as “Uncle.”
“They tell me your name is Mabel Sullivan,” Mr. Cuthbert C. Childs says, bowing low again to Mabel while tapping the floor with his stick. “I suppose Sullivan is the merchant seaman who runs off and abandons you and your poor sainted mother. Personally I do not trust anyone named Sullivan. When I enter Yale in 1885, the only music anyone ever plays is this Gilbert N. Sullivan person. Day and night, wherever you go, all you hear is this Gilbert N. Sullivan. To this day I have an earworm of ‘Three Little Maids from School Are We,’ playing at fever-pitch. I try to rid myself of it by listening to operetta and later ragtime and hot jazz, but it is all for naught.”
“Sullivan’s melodies are very haunting, Uncle Cuthbert, it is true,” remarks Mabel, who is rather at a loss.
“Well then! They tell me you are a conservatory girl and play the pianoforte exquisitely. Do you know ‘The Oceana Roll’?”
“If you hum a few bars I’ll fake it,” Mabel replies, scooting over to the piano stool. The old gent goes, “buh-buh-buh” a few times, then coughs into his pocket square. Mabel plays “Hands Across the Sea” instead, and Uncle Cuthbert starts to tap his feet. “Ah, yes. That’s it,” he says.
Mickey the Mockey and assorted other acquaintances on hand now look at each other, and me, for the old gent is clearly past it. But we must ignore that and press on to affairs of business. “Sit down, Mister Childs,” says Mickey, leading the dapper reprobate to a vast chintz-covered chesterfield by the window. “I am the money manager for Edna and Mabel. Oh yes I am. That is why I invite you here today. I understand you wish to settle your estate.”
“My estate, it is gone,” says Cuthbert Childs, and we momentarily sink into gloom. “I sell it for ready cash and marketable securities in the year 1952, top of the market. I believe it is now a convent school.”
“Such good news that is, I suppose,” says Mickey the Mockey. “And now you wish to make your niece Edna your heir. Or heiress.”
“Where is Edna?” says Uncle Cuthbert, banging his stick. “It is my understanding she wishes to meet me here today.”
“Mother is feeling poorly,” Mabel says, swiveling on her piano stool and shuffling some sheet-music. “She is up ever so late last night, trying to finish one of her epic poems.”
“Take me to her bedside,” says Mr. Cuthbert Childs. “I have not seen her since the Harding Administration.” So we all go into Edna’s bedroom and find her fast asleep, or maybe passed out from the many bottles of top-shelf bourbon adorning the night tables. Uncle Cuthbert leans over to kiss his niece, but jumps up with a start. “Why! She is stone cold! How long has she been lying there?”
It is true. Edna is dead. Later the coroner says it is a brain hemorrhage, but probably she just drinks herself to death, like many a poet before her. But this is neither here nor there. Right now Mabel and I are most embarrassed and we blame ourselves.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Uncle?” Mabel asks, trying to smooth things over. But Cuthbert Childs sits in a chair, weeping. “This morning I think I have an heir, a lively young niece, a niece who writes those poetry things. Now I am an old man with nothing, save a bundle of cash and marketable securities.”
Mabel runs over and kneels by his side. “You still have me, Uncle. Your loving grandniece.” “It is too late, alas, my dear!” sighs Cuthbert. “In clearest black-and-white, my last will and testament sets forth: ‘My entire assets are bestowed upon my niece Edna de Mourcy Childs, in the event she has living issue, unless she predecease me; in either which-wise the entirety goes to my cat Ulysses.'”
“You can change the will, Mister Childs,” says Mickey the Mockey. “I’m a money manager and I seen it done. They have these new things called codicils. You just add them to the end of the will and put your initials. Sure, that’ll work.” Mickey the Mockey runs to the living room for some of the notepaper we write poems on.
He is about to write out a codicil for Uncle Cuthbert, but Uncle Cuthbert is not interested. He takes off his shoes and climbs into the sack with the dead Edna. “Here is a codicil for you to initial, Mr. Cuthbert Childs,” says Mickey, waving a sheet of notepaper. Just put your JH right here!”
“No, alas, it is too late,” says the old gent. He pulls the bedclothes over his face, and expires, then and there! This is a great disappointment to us all. Like Mr. Cuthbert Childs, we start this morning with such high expectations, and now all we have are huge bills to the Savoy-Plaza and the East 58th Street Liquor Shoppe. “This cat Ulysses, this is one lucky cat,” moans Mickey the Mockey.
But Mabel has an idea. “Why not initial this codicil ourselves, Mister Mickey?” she says. “I’ll write his initials and you other people witness it.” “That is a feasible idea,” says Mickey the Mockey, and so we do this. Unfortunately the will is tied up in probate for twenty years, and by the time Mabel gets the money we are divorced and she is married to a plastic surgeon in Palm Beach, Florida.
This is why I still write the “Lullaby of Broadway” column for the New York Graphic-Tribune, and Mickey the Mockey still peddles bad jokes on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-third Street. In case you wonder what becomes of Ulysses the cat, well Ulysses the cat is dead these many years.
In 1958 my father took a job building an oil refinery in the far-off land of Bulgaria. I was eight years old. As Bulgaria was now a Communist country, my parents decided I would have to go away for my schooling. After sending off for some brochures, they decided to send me to a convent school in Switzerland, the Academie of St. Eustache.
There were no Catholic schools in Bulgaria. All the local schools were run by the state, and like public schools in America, their curriculum consisted mostly of teaching the pupils Communist propaganda about how the Catholic Church was evil and had supported the Nazis. Also I did not understand Bulgarian, which is a difficult tongue spoken by very few people.
At St. Eustache, people spoke only normal languages, that is, French, German and English. You could pretty much begin your sentence in French and finish in German or English, and you would still be understood, more or less. This is one advantage of going to school in Switzerland. Another is that my boarding school was near Gstaad, so I got to learn how to ski, just before Christmas 1958.
Unfortunately my education in Switzerland did not long continue. After reuniting with my family for the Christmas holidays (which the Reds in Bulgaria called “Winter Holidays”), the Communist officials refused to let me leave the country. They said there was now a law against permitting children under 14 to travel internationally unless accompanied by parent or guardian. My father was busy with work, near the oilfields by the Black Sea; whilst my mother had to take care of my little brother and Baby Pugsy. There was nothing for it but that I too would need to remain in Bulgaria.
The only English-speaking school in Bulgaria was a Montessori school next door to the American Embassy in Sofia. It had only seven students. I attended it for a week or two, but then it was closed down. We were told this was because it didn’t have enough enrollment to continue. Later on I heard that Moscow had decided to ban all Montessori schools from the Iron Curtain countries. The local commissars forced me to attend the Communist state school in my neighborhood. I have already mentioned that I did not understand Bulgarian. Therefore I was beaten every day for not knowing my lessons.
Instead of regular schoolbooks, the teacher distributed pamphlets that appeared to be repair manuals for battle tanks. These were in Russian. They had been printed during the War, and were illustrated with drawings of the tanks killing many Germans.
Russian is a language very much like Bulgarian, and some of my classmates had little difficulty memorizing a paragraph or two of the repair manual. This is what we were given as homework. After I made friends with one or two of them, they taught me to recite the lesson phonetically, although I did not know what I was saying. But if I could recite it well enough, I would not be beaten.
My father brought a colleague home for dinner one evening. My parents wished to show me off, because they thought I was learning Bulgarian. I recited a little bit, and my father’s coworker laughed and applauded and told me my Russian was very good.
“What did she say?” my mother asked.
“She did say, ‘Congratulations Comrade on making friends with new T-34 tank which Comrade Stalin has personally built for Great Patriotic War! May you have many days of enjoyment, and run over many fascists with your stout Soviet treads. The T-34 you will discover is easy to maintain but like all Soviet craftsmanship will sometimes need extra care. You should keep copy of manual in tank at all times, and change oil every 30 kilometers…'”
By and by, I learned a little Bulgarian and Russian as the weeks passed. My classmates and I were required to join the Junior Pioneers, an organization something like the Brownies in America. Except we did not sell cookies, and our uniform was not brown. We wore white blouses with blue and red kerchiefs.
At our meetings we marched around and sang songs in Russian. I could understand some of the words by this point:
O comrades of Bulgaria
Put faith in glorious Soviet friends
Who give you freedom and factory…
Premier Khrushchev of the USSR was going to visit Bulgaria soon. Our Comrade Leader, a large, wide woman with a deep booming voice, told us Comrade Khrushchev would be reviewing the Junior Pioneers and giving awards. If we wished to gain an award, we needed to earn 100 merits. We could do this by selling subscriptions to Bulgar Youth magazine, and by reporting on counter-revolutionary activity in our neighborhood.
My friends and I did not wish to sell subscriptions to Bulgar Youth, as it had not been published since 1953. But representatives of this dubious periodical came regularly to our classroom and our Junior Pioneer meetings, exhorting us to sell subscriptions door-to-door. We could win useful prizes, we were told. A young man in army uniform told us how he had sold 500 subscriptions and won a bicycle.
It was a very solid, sturdy, Soviet-made machine, he said, and it had seen service during the War. It had an electric horn, and an electric lamp in front and a reflector in back. He said he once allowed a friend to borrow it, and the friend accidentally crashed into a tramcar on the route leading to the mental hospital. The tramcar was dented, but the bicycle was not damaged at all.
That is what a fine, strong bicycle it was. And we could have one too if we sold 500 subscriptions.
My friends and I decided to devote our afternoons to hunting down counter-revolutionary activity. There were still many fascists hiding out in Sofia. Many of them sold ices and meat pies from pushcarts in the marketplace. They became very frightened when they saw a group of us Young Pioneers approach them.
There was a wizened old peasant woman in the square who sold trinkets and handmade dolls painted in the Bulgarian manner. She was rumored to have a son who fought for the Germans during the War, a son who was grievously wounded and spent years in Soviet prison camp. He was a mindless invalid now. We liked to form a circle around the old woman’s pushcart, and taunt her. “Come, little grandmother, give up your secrets,” we would taunt, tugging at her babushka. Well you know what, she was completely bald!
Reaching deep into the folds of her clothing, she brought out a red leather coin purse tied to a string. She handed each of us a coin, and told us to go away and buy sweetbreads from the gypsy on the corner. Bulgarian sweetbreads were new to me. They are made of some animal’s internal organ, which has been cut up and fried, then dipped in honey or molasses, and fried again. I spent my entire month’s allowance (15,000 Bulgarian pounds, or about $1.50 at current rates) on a big bag of sweetbreads and became quite ill. I ate half and took the rest home to my mother (my father was back at the oilfields on the Black Sea) and she pronounced them absolutely disgusting. She left them outside for the dustman. Unfortunately the neighbor’s dog discovered them and soon perished.
I missed three days of school after that. The teacher was quite cross, and forced me to write a 5,000-word essay on “The Wisdom of Atheism in the Time of Scientific Socialism.” This I did, but I did it in English since I could not write more than a few words of Bulgarian. When I was asked to read it to the class, and try to translate it in my few words of halting Bulgarian-Russian, I just ignored what I had actually written and made something up. I said something like, “Comrades, it has been categorically proven no God exists. Wherefore then shall we put our noses to the plow for a false idol. Would not we better spend our hours in dancing and frolicking and hunting down revisionist and neo-fascist offenders within our own families and friends? Has not Comrade Lenin shown us the true path?” (Etc. Etc.)
The teacher purred with delight.
What I had actually written, in English—and I cribbed most of this from an essay I had written a few months earlier at the convent school in Switzerland—was something on the order of:
Holy chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balm, blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. Confirmation is the sacrament in which the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way, to make us strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.
Forgetful me! I did not destroy or even hide my English-language original! This sin of omission would come back to haunt me.
But I had other affairs to attend to. Comrade Khrushchev would be visiting our school soon, on a state visit with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Comrade Yugov. I was selected to be chairman in charge of the Decorations Committee. (To be continued)
When I was a little girl staying with my grandparents, they told me we were going to visit old Captain Bottomley, who was a sailor. I had just seen Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh! so I had a very firm idea of what a sailor looked like. I was most eager!
However, Captain Bottomley was nothing like this. He was about a hundred years old and had a huge goiter. He had old green tattoos on both arms and he had a wooden hand that kept opening and closing, going clack-clack-clack like a castanet. He was so scary that I couldn’t look at the rest of him, and just focused on the wooden hand moving by itself. Clack-clack-clack!
My grandparents pretended nothing was wrong with this, and that Captain Bottomley was just this friendly old man with lots of stories about fighting whales and sailing ships in the olden days. He had shelves full of ships in bottles that he’d made himself, and little sculptures and etchings he had made on whale teeth when he was at sea and being bored.
He told me I could have one of them. In fact, I could have anything in the room, because he was going to die soon, he said. Without even thinking, I said, “Can I have your wooden hand?” Was my face red!
Funny thing was, Captain Bottomley took it off then and there and gave it to me! My grandparents had a big argument about whether I could keep it.
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