My cousin David has an unusual profession. He is a lawyer/handyman. His clientele is mostly the local people in his Brooklyn neighborhood, where he makes his rounds revising wills, consulting on petty disputes, and fixing broken lamps.
I was privileged one evening to accompany Dave on one of his professional visits, and being a handyman myself, I went along as his assistant. We brought David's legal briefcase, and a box of assorted tools. When we arrived at the first house, Dave sat at the table and opened his briefcase, while I was provided with a list of the various mechanical problems that needed attention. Most of the items were minor repairs to furniture. But the first item was different.
The lady of the house showed me to the spot; it was a faulty electrical outlet. No one knew what was wrong with it, just that there was something wrong. She couldn't tell me anything specific in answer to my questions. It was as if a myth had grown up in the house that surrounded that spot with danger; no one ever went near it.
I walked over to look at the outlet, the lady waiting a few paces behind me, obviously quite nervous. The first thing I found was that the cover plate on the outlet was loose, and was hanging askew. I reached for an insulated screwdriver to remove the plate. As I was about to apply the screwdriver to the little screw, a small sound from the lady drew my attention. "Be careful," she choked out. "That's electric!" Her face was literally white with fear.
I've heard of that happening, but I had never actually seen it before. I put down the screwdriver, and in my best professional manner I assured the woman that I had experience with this sort of thing. My calm manner didn't impress her much; I think she interpreted it as a sort of insane recklessness.
But I just went back to the work, and let the lady take care of herself. I removed the plate, and visually inspected the wiring inside. I shined my flashlight in; all seemed intact. I wiggled the socket, I probed the connections with a well insulated tool; everything was solidly screwed down; there were no burn marks, no short circuits. I brought over a lamp and plugged it in to see if the socket was live; the lamp lit. Apparently there was nothing wrong; the only thing was that the cover plate had been loose, and was hanging crooked. So, after a final look around inside, I unplugged the lamp and put back the cover plate. I made sure the screw on the cover was firmly snugged down, because I'm a professional. "It's all set," I told the woman. "It shouldn't be a problem now."
The woman's relief and gratitude were palpable. Her whole attitude toward me changed. She didn't know how I knew what I knew, but now she believed in me: The Man is Here, and he Knows What He's Doing.
The woman showed me to the rest of the things on the list. It was all pretty simple, like the electric socket, just without that element of danger. The bureau in the bedroom had a loose piece of molding. I smeared some glue into the seam with a putty knife, and tapped the nails tight again. A corner of wallpaper in the kitchen was peeling off; I glued it down. Everything was like that. I had never seen a houseful of people that couldn't tap in a nail. But it was wonderful how grateful they were.
Meanwhile, Dave had finished up with his paperwork (I could only imagine what sort of fantastic legal problems these people were having), and together we finished off the last few items, handing each other tools and working together in an easy camaraderie. Job done. Sometimes, it's not what you do specifically, it's just the feeling of being useful that really matters.
My cousin David has an unusual profession. He is a lawyer/handyman. His clientele is mostly the local people in his Brooklyn neighborhood, where he makes his rounds revising wills, consulting on petty disputes, and fixing broken lamps.
My job was to play music and be cheerful, and give out the advertisements and magnets. So after about an hour of playing music and trying to drum up enthusiasm in the people strolling by, I was beginning to look around for ways to be entertaining. I saw a little old lady shuffling towards my station. She looked quite grim, and I thought, here is a person who could use some cheering up. So I engaged her attention as she passed, and I said brightly, "We have a special going on today! If you open an account at this branch, with a minimum of One Hundred Thousand Dollars, we will give you absolutely free, this nice refrigerator magnet!"
To my dismay, the lady fixed me with a piercing look of pure hatred, and grated out,
"I don't have that kind of money!"
Somewhat abashed, I quickly recovered and took a magnet out of the bowl, and held it out to her with a smile. I said. "Well in that case, just for you, you can have this nice magnet for nothing at all!"
Without a word, she snatched the magnet out of my hand, gave me a cold baleful look, and toddled quickly on her way.
"What did you want to say to Mr. Solomon?" her mother asked encouragingly, at which the girl gave me a fearful glance and scrunched even tighter into the dress. The mother looked at me apologetically.
I addressed the girl, and said, "Did you want to ask me a question? What can I do for you?" She only clung tighter to her mother, and wouldn't look at me. Then I said, "If you want to ask me will I marry you, I'm very sorry to say that I can't, because I'm already married."
The little girl immediately unwound from her mother, and rounded on me fiercely. "I WASN'T going to ask you to marry me!" Then she handed me a piece of paper. "Will you sign this please?"
I would be very happy to, I told her.
We lived near the Toms River, and my friend Danny had a 16' wooden sloop. He also had a tiny little coracle made from a blue plastic sandbox, in the shape of a boat. No sand; It had a plywood floor that his father made for it, so the little boat could be sat in and paddled using ping-pong paddles, one in each hand. The little toy boat was Danny's ship's boat; he would use it to paddle out from the bulkhead behind his house, to get to his sailboat which was moored to a buoy out in the cove.
The lawn sloped down behind Danny's house to the wooden bulkhead, smelling deliciously of creosote, and over that into two or five feet of water, depending on the tide. The river is more than half a mile wide there, opening out into the bay. You would step off the bulkhead and down into the little plastic boat, balancing to get seated without tipping into the drink. You had to learn the trick, like riding a bicycle, but once learned it was easy, like riding a bicycle. I used to love paddling around the cove in that little toy boat. One's wrists would get tired quickly, using the ping-pong paddles, so I tried paddling with a short canoe paddle, but that was not optimal either, because the little flat boat liked to spin around like a teetotum. So I built a wooden rudder that hooked over the transom, and the rudder made a big difference getting her to cut a straight wake.
People can fly only in their dreams. But out in the chops of the wide wide river, heaving up into the swell of the incoming tide with the sun setting across the water behind you, you get closer to that feeling than you ordinarily do.
I was bobbing in the tiny boat, far out in the middle of the dark expanse of water on a summer's night (my wrists were tired, yes), and I was having that feeling; I felt that if I just kept up my steady rhythm of paddling, with the stars wheeling overhead and the hypnotic pitching of the deck beneath me, I might just get as far as the moon.
But now I was conscious of the deep throb of a motor; it was coming closer, with lights. Then I was blinded in the face by a searchlight, and a megaphoned voice squawking: "Ahoy, the boat!"
It was a Coast Guard cutter patrolling the river; of course they were concerned to discover me out there in an active boating lane with no running lights; no lights at all. I hailed back, with a brief account of myself.
"You shouldn't be out here on the river in a little dinghy like that, without a light." There was genuine kindness in the squawking voice, not to mention unassailable authority. "I'll have to ask you to put back in to shore immediately." squawked the voice.
They were right of course. I couldn't show a light, so I acknowledged and put about, though perhaps a bit grudgingly; the spell was broken and I was back in the world. I applied myself to the paddles, my wrists aching as I shaped my course back to Danny's dock.
There was a long reach of water ahead of me, maybe three quarters of a mile; all of it wet, and all of it weary. But I smiled with exultation: they had called my boat a "dinghy"; it was real.
There was a raggedy man who would occasionally come over to the house, and hang out while the band practiced. His name was Klauser, and we would give him a beer, or whatever was going. One time, it was a bowl of vegetable soup that I had just finished making. Klauser took his bowl with a sort of reverence, and spooned it up with a look of rapture on his face. He said he hadn't eaten something like that, since his Mama used to make it for him.
One time, Klauser showed up with a small stout case, which contained several hundred little glass ampoules of morphine. He had lifted it somehow from a hospital, and he brought it over to share. Each ampoule was fitted with a needle, and designed as a disposable cartridge to fit into a hypodermic fixture. He didn't have the fixture, but he would insert a small screw into the end of the cartridge, and use that to push down the plunger inside. Klauser asked us all if we would like some. I don't remember why the others declined, but no one took up the offer, which seems strange, now. Drugs weren’t unheard of in our old house in that mountain town; neighborhood people were always dropping over, hanging out, drinking beer and what not, wandering off again. I myself declined Klauser's offer, because of my dislike of needles, especially when administered by an unsteady, somewhat poxed, raggedy man, however kindly intentioned.
So Klauser shot up by himself, and relaxed in a chair while we rehearsed. Presently, he shot up another, and he got all dreamy; his bumpy red face a little redder, his thin straggly hair a little stragglier; the case of little glass capsules tucked comfortably next to him in the big chair. For old Klauser, life was very good, and would remain so for a certain stretch of days ahead.
And the band played on.
As we walk under a streetlight, the kid pauses by a black SUV idling on the midnight street; he is peering fixedly at the driver inside. I say, "Don't stare at him; you'll make him nervous." This is funny because the kid at my side is shadowing me with a knife at the ready; I have no idea if or when he will try to use it, and I can't run very fast anymore since I broke my leg a few years ago. The driver in the SUV rolls down his window and they begin conferring in low tones, and I realize, oh, they are discussing drugs: the driver isn't nervous, he's waiting there on purpose. On the street, they call it fen; the police call it heroin. But no deal, this time. We keep walking. There is almost no one on the street there, around midnight.
The kid compels me to accompany him into a strip club: I ask the bouncer, "Can you give me a slide on the 10 bucks [cover charge]?" I am feeling peculiarly whimsical; I'm wondering if they think we are father and son. Not many graybeards in this place. The bouncer tells me, very kindly, "No, I'm sorry we can't do that; we have to pay the performers." The bouncer has kind eyes, and he looks steadily at me as he tells me this. The kid says, It's OK, I've got you. He pays the bouncer for us both, after showing his ID, and we walk in to the dim interior; music thumping unpleasantly in my ears.
The kid–man can easily catch me if I try to bolt; he is shadowing my every move. I would rather not try something and get stabbed in the confusion while people try to figure out who is who. The kid has demonstrated quite graphically that he is desperate and is not going to let me get away; I am his ride, and he doesn't care who else he sticks with that knife. At this moment he is desperate, not just for escaping the scene of his crimes, but to get more drugs. We have been two hours on the road at this point; I have decided that since nothing else is at stake right now except my own skin, I'd better play it safe. And there is my ever present reflection that, even if I get away he knows exactly where I live: if I can ditch him and get back home, and if he should also elude capture, I will be perpetually looking over my shoulder in my own house. Paranoid, perhaps, unless you consider the moment two hours previously when I had been suddenly confronted in my own living room by a stout 4-inch blade held in my face by a raving wild total stranger; this is an image that I doubt I will ever get rid of.
We go over to the bar; the kid orders, and turns to me with a bottle of beer for himself and a glass for me. "You are drinking Red Bull and vodka," he tells me; "Drink it." I take a sip; my heart, already pounding, begins to pound harder after a few sips. The kid is conferring with a succession of the seedy patrons, black and white; I can't hear what they're saying because of the thumping music, but I know he is trying to score drugs. The kid's eyes are bloodshot as boiled beets. Presently he moves over to the stage, motioning me to stay close to him. I can't see the knife but I know he's got it very handy. He begins playing with one of the "dancers", tossing large sprays of dollars onto her and onto the stage; the dollars flutter down and one falls on the floor by my feet. I pick it up and toss it onto the stage. The kid has a besotted smile on his face as the dancer writhes closer to him, crotch foremost. I don't know if the other patrons notice me at all, or think that it is strange that I am looking so distracted. I am calculating: can I make it back to the car before he catches me? If I raise an alarm and shout a quick account of the situation, am I going to get out of this without being slashed? Probably not very good odds in a place like this. The kid had already shown me the deep self-inflicted wounds in his arm, and in his hip. When we had been back at my house, with one hand he had held the knife, with the other he had pulled down his pants far enough to show me the cuts: they were numerous, and they were fresh. The kid is obviously suicidal and psychotic; as far as I can tell, completely unpredictable. My immediate plan is just to keep him calm, to be his friend, in so far as that is possible.
All the patrons in the strip club seem very comfortable to be in that place; they all meet and hold my eyes if we happen to cross; this friendliness strikes me as incongruous in this place, in this situation, but it is oddly nourishing. But I am getting impatient, and soon I punch the kid's shoulder and shout into his ear over the music: "You should be saving your cash; you are going to need that. Straighten up, man, we have to hit the road." He replies,"Five more minutes; we'll leave soon." He has already used up almost $100 of the $500 he stole from his mother several hours ago, after breaking her arm and tying her up.
That is one of the many things he had told me in his initial raving, during our sudden confrontation back in my living room. He had entered my house through the unlocked back door while I was practicing piano, after he cased the house very thoroughly, going around it in the darkness and checking all the windows to make sure that I was the only one home. Another of the things he had told me - this was after he had been pointing the knife and shouting, "Do you like getting cut? Do you enjoy pain?" - is that he had just eluded a chopper that they had put in the air after him. He had made me sit on the couch, the knife inches from my eyes. "Do you have any idea how terrifying that is?" he had asked me wildly. I told him that I could imagine it was. It seemed that the irony of his question was completely lost on him. Then, in a calmer voice he had told me, "That thing you played on the piano made me cry, man."
I was puzzled: a few minutes ago, obviously unaware I had a "visitor", I had been going over and over a phrase from a piece I'm trying to learn that I can't play yet, a Chopin waltz that is well above my skill level. I told him, "That was just a thing I can't play, that I'm trying to learn." He said, "No, not that thing; that was fucked up. I mean the thing you played before that. It made me cry, man." I thought back to what I was playing earlier; it had been some Bach, which I can play alright, with a few mistakes. He had been listening out there for awhile.
Then still holding the knife, he had asked me if anyone else was coming to the house. My alarm increasing, I had told him my wife was due back at any minute. He came to a sudden decision: "Get your things: whatever you need; you'll be gone for eight hours; you're driving me to New York. Hurry up. Now!" he told me, "I don't want to have to tie anyone else up." I hurriedly got my jacket and gloves, dreading to see my wife returning, and we went out the door to the car; he staying within a foot of me all the time. I have weapons in the house, but in my agitation I couldn't even think where they were, which one I could try for; anyway, there was nothing I could get to, and now the point was moot; we were out the door, and we headed out onto the highway.
As we drove, he became more relaxed; he asked me what books I have read. We talked about Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Kerouac; we talked about life, and what makes life worth living. For him at that point, there seemed to be nothing. He told me he has a stack of letters to his ex girlfriend, which will never be sent. I suggest that he should send that letter; maybe she is thinking of him too. He rejects the notion. I have to occasionally ask him to define a word he uses. This is rare for me, as I have a huge vocabulary, but his is bigger. He is well educated and very intelligent. He recently got kicked out of the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, for doing drugs. I notice that there is a frayed rip on the sleeve of his coat; I find it curious that he would be wearing an old coat like that.
No need to tell all the things that happened in the five hours we were together; suffice to say that it was surreal; at times I felt like I was opening my heart to an old friend and vice versa, although the dread was always present. He smoked cigarettes during the ride, and I would ask him to just crack the window an inch. He would say, "Sure, man." and do it. I begged him not to make me drive all the way to New York; to let me drop him at a bus station. He agreed. We stopped in a couple of cities, but nothing was working for him, and then he suggested New Haven, where the commuter rail runs frequently. We headed there. But then the mood became much more tense again, in the few minutes before I dropped him at the New Haven commuter station around 1:00am; this being the moment of greatest danger for himself if he let me go, and consequently dangerous for me since he might decide not to. I had no idea what it would be until the last moment. During our ride, he had repeatedly demanded assurances that I would make no signal, or give any alarm, and I had had no choice but to give those assurances. But he did let me go, and as he got out of the car he turned back and said, "I hope you have an easy ride home. Don't call the cops too soon. Thanks for the ride." He got out of the car under the streetlights there by the station. I blasted off and did not look back.
My reasons for not going straight to the cops are complex. My first thought was to get home as soon as possible. I was still so shaken up - not thinking straight - that one of the possibilities that occurred to me was that I would not report the incident at all; he knows where I live, and I had given him my parole, as it were. In my state of shock, it actually did not occur to me until 15 minutes before my arrival back home, that the kid's mother might still be tied up, and maybe even dying. So my ambivalence completely disappeared at that point, and when I arrived home shortly after that, at 4am, I woke up my wife, briefly told her the story, and we called the police.
My wife had known that something unusual was going on, because on the outbound ride, the kid had had me stop to phone home. This was his idea, as a safety measure for himself. We had carefully worked out what I would say, and then we stopped at a service area to borrow a phone, as neither of us had one. (He had ditched his, and I've never owned one.) So I had called home from the highway, and given my wife the exact message that the kid and I had worked out, and agreed on: "I won't be home tonight. I am fine, there's nothing to worry about, but I can't talk now. I will tell you all about it when I get home." That's all I said, and after a moment's hesitation, she said "Ok," and we hung up. Getting back onto the highway after that, my whole sense of the unreality of the situation was re-doubled. Later on, my wife told me that she had been extremely curious, but not alarmed.
So now I have arrived back home, and we called the police. Within minutes they had several cruisers over to the house, and they took my detailed statement. They knew exactly who I was talking about; they were actively looking for him, and confirmed everything he had told me, including the chopper in the air. The mother was safe, having already gotten medical attention and was currently at a safe house. It turns out her arm was not broken.
The police were out of my house by 6am that morning; later that same morning they were back with a detective, for photos of the crime scene and further statements from me, and the FBI showed up the following day, since having crossed state lines, it is a federal kidnapping case among many other charges. All the authorities assured me repeatedly that I had done everything right. They didn't fault me in the least for waiting so long before I called, although truthfully, I'm not so sure myself. I keep second-guessing everything I might have done differently, but that's the way it went down and I have to live with it. During the lengthy FBI meeting at my house the second day, the timer went >ding< in the kitchen, and I excused myself to go turn off the burner. One of the men called out, "I hope you made enough for everybody." I came back in to the living room, and responded by saying, "You guys never brought me donuts." FBI people can laugh.
During the next two days, a succession of media reporters with cameramen kept showing up to my house, all of which I turned away. Still, it was all over the news wires for a couple of days; some of the accounts a bit garbled but essentially all there; withholding my name thankfully, but not his. Annoyingly, many of the reports stated that the knife had been recovered in the victim's car, which was not true. He had left some of his junk, including a box cutter, but that was not the knife he had held on me. In the stories, they already had clear surveillance photos of the kid from one of the places we had stopped, by way of alerting the public of an armed and dangerous suspect at large, and where he might be seen. Then, three days after the attack, Florida deputies picked up the kid in Key West; he was driving a stolen car, and was arrested at a convenience store without incident. He is now awaiting trial in Florida and then Massachusetts, on serious charges too numerous to mention: very deep waters indeed for a 23-year-old "with priors", as he had told me during our ride. One of the (lesser) charges against the kid is armed burglary, because on the way out of my house, he had grabbed a bottle of wine. He had made me a drink it with him while we were driving on the highway. It felt funny to be telling that to the cops, and one of them even joked that he was going to have to charge me with that.
The incident was five days ago as I write. My local police contacted me immediately on the morning of the kid's arrest in Florida, two days ago now, to let me know. It felt like a giant cinderblock had just been lifted off my chest.
A friend came over one time, and I asked him if he was interested to see my workshop. He said he was, so we climbed the tree and I showed him the various nails sticking here and there, and the twisted pieces of wire connecting them. I had a story and an explanation for each part of the work in progress; for instance, this particular nail was intended to be banged in deeper, but had bent over, so I had been obliged to put in this other nail next to it. My friend listened to my explanations very attentively. After I had shown him everything, I felt grateful: to have such a friend, who took my work as seriously as I did.
Then, as we were proceeding slowly through this, err... sketchy neighborhood, without warning we were almost lucky enough to be involved in a pretty good deal. A man with a cell phone to his ear ran out into the road, flagging us down and calling, "Yo! Yo!" (We were the white guys in the loaded down van with a bicycle on the roof; not a usual sight just there.)
"Ha, ha!" we waved; "Yo, yo, yourself, dude. Take care, now, we gotta bounce!"
I know it was rude of us, but we zoomed off. Our GPS, Jeeves, was still sounding absurdly confident:
Somewhere out in the Midwest, we woke up one morning to see a number of small grubs crawling on the walls of the van, and hanging from silk threads above our faces. We jumped out of our bedroll, and began sweeping the wriggling critters off the walls into a pan, and throwing them outside. We spent a fair part of the morning doing a thorough cleaning of the van, the bedding, and all our things.
The next morning, the grubs were back, and they were far more numerous; there were hundreds of them. They were hanging in the air all around us, all over the walls and all over us. Being the fastidious hippies that we were, we were naturally horrified. Once again we jumped out of bed in great agitation, and began a very thorough cleaning of our living quarters. We shook out the bedding, spread it outside, and took everything out of the van that was movable, going through it all. Then we gave the inside of the van a very good scrubbing from top to bottom. We didn't find anything, which made me uneasy.
The next morning, the grubs were back, worse than ever. They were slowly undulating in their multitudes across every surface, and hanging on strands from the ceiling. We didn't quite freak out, but we liked to almost did. That morning we went to a hardware store, and bought sulfur candles to fumigate the van. Once again, we took everything out, checking and cleaning each thing; then with all the windows closed we lit the sulfur candles. We had to stay out of the van for several hours during the fumigation process, and afterwards there was a hideous acrid smell clinging to everything inside. We aired out the van, put everything back together, and that night we went to sleep in some uneasiness, what with the lingering sulfurous odors, and wondering what we might wake up to in the morning.
Next morning, we did find one or two crawling grubs, but only a few, and they seemed dispirited. However, on the morning following that, they had reappeared; not in their previous numbers, but it was enough. This time we did freak out.
We began to systematically strip the van of everything that could be removed or unscrewed, including the wooden wall panels. In the back of the van, behind one of these panels, we found a small bundle of cattails that one of us had collected from a marsh, a few months previously. The bundle of cattails had slipped down behind a wall panel in the back corner of the van, and there forgotten. The whole mass was festooned with webs, and feebly-wriggling grubs. Most of them were dead, having been much reduced during the fumigation ordeal, but an obstinate number of them clung to life. So there it was.
We took that bundle of infested cattails outside, and pitched it far out into the woods, giving it such a heave that I think it probably sailed halfway to China.
Surprise! is a pale way to describe my reaction; I instantly dashed down to the basement to shut off the house water, coming back up to a dripping steaming mess. Then I poured myself a cuppa hot coffee (thoughtfully provided by Lauren before she left), and I contemplated my next move. I won't get to practice music this morning apparently, but on the bright side, it had actually been quite a lovely sight; like suddenly being transported on vacation to Yellowstone Park.
Aren’t I glad that I was home when it happened? Yeah, it would have been a shame to miss it.
The next day, I got a follow-up email from her, that confirmed my first impression; something about it didn't quite make sense. So I wrote a polite letter of refusal. But I didn't send it. The idea did seem interesting; it was just that she didn't seem to have a clear idea of what she was doing, organizing and producing a concert.
But I thought about it for a day, and I changed my mind; I decided to do it. For one thing, I wanted to hear her "Chinese cultural music," and for another, there was something indefinable about the whole thing that intrigued me. But there were a few details that needed tweaking.
Runyu, the girl, must have thought that the Callioforte was a traditional American instrument, because after all, it was right there on the street in America. She knew she had never seen one in China. But I didn't think her audience would be of the same opinion, because, in fact, the instrument is a homemade little pipe organ, a gizmo I made from plumbing parts and coat-hanger wire. So I made the executive decision to bring my guitar for the first set, which was fine with Runyu. (She's never even heard me play that! I was thinking.)
The mystery finally got explained just before the concert, and when I learned the whole story, I was very happy that I had decided to do it. An older woman, a teacher, showed up and performed the introduction for the concert, which is when I found out that the girl, Runyu, is just turning 15; she is a high school student from China on a trip to the US, with her music camp group. She had been assigned a daunting project: to present a concert for the people of Cambridge, and she had had only minimal help organizing it. Because of her youth, and her imperfect English, she hadn't made any of this clear to me, and her confident demeanor had made her seem much older.
So I was still in the dark about these details, on the day of the concert when I arrived early to the small art gallery in Cambridge. Runyu was there, all stressed; there were still a lot of things to do. I helped her and her assistant, to set up the room. Then she changed into an elegant red gown and high heels, put on a little makeup, and there she was, transformed into a beautiful elegant lady. The small house filled up; maybe 50-60 people, some of them her friends and group members, and the rest of them, people from the community that had seen the flyers.
Runyu was very good, she played piano and sang Chinese songs, and there was also a violin player and another pianist, and me. I did two short sets: some old-timey American folk songs with my guitar (she had taken it on faith that I could do that), and some rags and Russian folk music on the Callioforte. Runyu had performed some Italian opera in her set, so I decided I could take some liberties with mine.
The concert ended up being a great success, and I felt honored and pleased to be a part of it; to help a visiting student get through a challenging project, and to leave her with a positive experience for her big trip. Runyu was practically crying as she was thanking the audience after the performance. Afterwards, I asked her how she knew I would be able to do what she wanted, and she said, "When I first heard you, I knew."
After the concert, one of the community people who had showed up, asked me if I was getting paid for this. I said no. She said, well then, here's my contribution, and she slipped me a $20. Since I wasn't expecting anything, the gesture made me very happy.
So, despite my misgivings in the beginning, it was a great experience.
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A person was asking me how the key of the bellowphone is determined. He noted that it seems to be happiest in D, which is correct, except it is actually a few cents shy of D: flat, you know, not the other thing. The bellowphone can also play in A to some extent, and by dint of extreme coercion and contortions, it can be made to play in F# and others. This is entirely due to the chaotic arrangement of the pipes, which were added as required for specific pieces, not from any coherent plan. As the repertoire grew, I would either add notes, or just try to work with what was there.
The kazoo has nothing to do with determining the key of the music, as my friend erroneously suggested; the kazoo is limited only by my singing ability. With my voice alone, I can theoretically sing in Harry Partch's 43 tone scale. In fact, I usually do sing that way, although not on purpose, I can assure you.
So the theory of the Bellowphone, is in fact, lack of a theory.
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I said, "That's a good guess; you were very close: it's actually… lower."
Some of the teachers thought this was funny, but a very annoyed 3rd grader, goaded beyond civility, piped up, "She wasn't close! She was wrong!"
I admired his sense of justice, but he should have raised his hand.
I was in my jeans and flannel shirt, looking around, confused; "Me?"
A group of people on the platform looked over, and began gesturing and whispering: "Look; he's Someone. I think he's Someone."
So, there was my 15 minutes of fame. Literally, as it turns out, because my 15 minute set was featured on national TV. For a short period of time after that, I would get recognized in unexpected places, but it didn't last, of course. A few weeks later, I was back to performing at backyard barbecues and church suppers for 15 people.
But getting back to that limo ride; there might have been champagne in the limo's bar, but I have no idea. Since there were no groupies, I didn't feel like rolling around by myself in all that empty space, so I asked the driver if I could just ride up front with him.
"Whatever you want, sir." he intoned. (I wanted groupies, but, whatever.) So we rode along to the hotel, with the cavernous pleasure-dome of extravagance, following hollow and vacant behind us.
There's glory for you.
"So what? You just cut the knot off."
The boy's mother, who herself had been baffled by the illusion, tried to explain to her boy what made the trick astonishing, but he was too young and literal-minded to be properly impressed. So I had to sac my rope just to prove a point. I let the kid take the scissors and cut the rope in half. I helped him tie it back together, and then I let him "just cut the knot off." Which he did, whereupon, of course the rope fell into two pieces.
The boy's response was, "Well, you were just more agile than me." That was a pretty good word, since the boy was only 6 or 7.
The problem was, I didn't get paid. Of course, once they've used the video, it's easy enough for a big company in London to forget about a small operator like me; the money I was owed wasn't enough to warrant my bothering with legal proceedings, so there wasn't really anything I could do but write it off. With, of course, a few I-told-you-so's from my friends.
Even so, I would periodically email my contact person a polite reminder that they still hadn't paid me, and I would always get back a graciously-worded apology, with assurances that it was an unintentional oversight, and that the matter would be speedily resolved. I would usually wait for a month to go by, and then I would send them the next polite reminder. Then I would get another gracious apology, accompanied by a brief explanation of what had gone awry in the accounting department, which had now been resolved, and I would be hearing back from them shortly.
After many months of this, I waited a little longer than usual to send my polite reminder, and to my dismay, the email got bounced back: addressee unknown. Such a shame to lose my contact, after the lovely correspondence we had been having. Well, it was time to move on, I had to admit. But as a last-ditch attempt, I found an address for general inquiries, on the company's website. I wrote To Whom it May Concern, and I briefly explained the problem, and outlined the general details. Against all expectations, I actually got a reply from a staff person: the usual graciously-worded apology, with explanations and assurances. So we were back in business. I was content.
I waited another month, and by now I was persuaded that they had never intended to pay me in the first place, so I thought I would at least have a little fun with it. Writing to my new contact, I fired my best shot:
Re: Payment for my video -
The Mill of Destiny grinds slowly, but exceedingly fine. Your account team has done a great job so far, unraveling the labyrinthine coils of our stalled business arrangement, concerning the use of my video Hungarian Dance #5 which aired on your TV show [blank blank] in November 2014.
But in fact, I still have not received as much as a ha'penny, nor a copper farthing nor even a clipped brass groat, of the payment specified in our contract. Please inform the powers that be, that I am confidently expecting a satisfactory conclusion to our contractual agreement of ₤200 for their use of said video. The principle of the matter would suggest that this obligation should be honored without further delay.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
I didn't hear anything back from them for many days, so I figured that my sarcasm had made them mad. No more polite apologies would be forthcoming. But then, to my astonishment, I received this:
I do apologize again that this still has not been paid out to you. We are currently checking with accounts as to if a cheque was sent out but it did not reach you. Can you just confirm your correct address, and also give me the following account information and we can get the payment to you the quickest way:
Bank Account Number
Sort Code (if applicable)
Iban number/Routing Number (if applicable)
Now, for the first time, I was angry. This is the exact sort of thing that the Nigerian Prince always asks you for, when he wants to give you 7.5 million dollars because you are the only one he can trust out of all the others. I was honestly puzzled. The film production company had seemed like a real company. And why had they waited all this time to try to spring a scam on me? I wanted to just stop wasting time trying to figure it out, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. Several angry responses occurred to me, then some humorous ones; finally I just decided to give them the benefit of the doubt one more time. Figuring that even if I was being made a fool of, one can never go wrong being a gentleman. So once again, I thanked them kindly for pursuing this matter, told them they had my address correct, but I regretted that I could not provide them with the additional information they requested; a cheque in the mail would be perfectly acceptable.
Wonder of wonders, 2 weeks later I received a check in the mail! Mailbox money! I treasure it, as if it were a fortune presented to me by the Royal Exchequer of the Crown.
The Cedars Motel, Toms River, around 2000-
The door is stuck. I'm jiggling the key, twisting the door knob, and finally I lean in with my shoulder and give a powerful shove; the door bursts open. It is a bare, shabby room before me; not even an end table by the bed or a chair to put my clothes on. The paint is fresh, though. That's why the door was sticking, and why a powerful smell of turpentine is mixed with the strong odor of disinfectant and decay that greets me.
I am surprised at how sparse the room is. The only furnishing besides the sagging bed is a rickety dresser with a broken TV on it. The TV is not plugged in, and there are a few of its parts lying on top. No phone, either, which is inconvenient, as I don't have a cell phone. I get some tissues from the bathroom, and ball them up to wipe off the top of the dresser, so I could make a space for my suitcase. The tissue comes up black. I have to throw the used tissues in the corner, because there is no trash basket anywhere. (Actually, it's toilet paper I'm using; there are no tissues.)
I remove two drawers from the dresser, and turn them on end to place by the bed. This makes a cozy little end table, so I have a place to put down my watch and clothes, and a book. That's nice and convenient.
Curiously enough, the bathroom amenities, besides soap, include a new comb, toothbrush, and razor. I would rather they had given me a bath mat, though, to cover the uneven linoleum where the corners are sticking up. Anyway, I have to leave my shoes on, because the carpet around the bed is wet. It seems that they had just been trying to clean the carpet, but there are still grimy tracks through it, and a powerful musty smell like an old dog. And the carpet is too wet for walking on in socks.
Earlier in the day, when I had called about the room, the man had quoted me $55. for the night, but when I arrived, he informed me that he had forgotten that the summer rates were in effect; it was going to be $75. He was very apologetic; he would let me have it for $65.
Then I took out my wallet to pay, and the man informed me that he can't take credit cards: the machine is busted. He showed it to me. Then he also told me he can't take a personal check either; it's cash only. I finally came to the realization that the usual clientele of this establishment consists of indigents, who are provided with a State Welfare check. Those are good. The man told me that when the credit card machine broke years ago, they just left it like that, as it was no longer needed.
I did have cash on me, but just a few dollars more than 65. The man generously agreed to waive the sales tax, and make the price 65 even, so I wouldn't be flat busted. What a deal. He seemed like a nice guy, but I could tell he was wondering what I was doing here.
So finally I got checked in, and now I find myself lying on the hard bed, in the glare from the naked ceiling bulb. Over my head, the broken smoke alarm is dangling by one wire, and through the thin wall I can hear a man shouting at someone in the next cabin. He sounds drunk and furious. That's surprising, in a nice place like this.
It is late. Eventually, I will have to put on my shoes, so I can get out of bed without getting my feet wet. I'll walk across the sodden carpet to switch off the light. Then I will lie back on the sagging bed, in the glare of red neon gleaming through the thin curtains, and the rumbling of trucks down Rt. 9 will eventually rock me to sleep.
I emailed this story to my brother. He had also seen this motel many times, and he had thought it looked interesting too. He emailed back and said, "Thanks a lot for letting my wife see this story. Now she'll NEVER agree to let us stay there!"
It was nestled in a jar among some old pens, pliers, and odd junk in my mother's collections. I held it up: a real test tube; such a treasure! The sight of it conjured up exciting thoughts of scientific experiments, danger, and unknown worlds. I considered the object for a few moments, and then I put it carefully back where I'd found it.
Later that day, my friend Corky wandered over from next door, and we were playing in the yard when I remembered my discovery. I told Corky, "Wait here. I want to show you something," and I went into the house.
I retrieved the test tube from the back room, took it into the kitchen, and put some water into it. Then I pushed a chair over to the cabinet and got down the little bottles of food coloring, and I put a drop of yellow into the tube, then a drop of red. The test tube now contained a fine and rare-looking orange liquid, which I thought looked rather impressive. This was going to show my friend that I was not to be trifled with, and I carried it outside to the yard where he was waiting.
"Corky, this is a chemical!" I told him ominously, holding the test tube up for him to see.
"No it isn't. You just put some coloring into some water," he said, narrowing his eyes at me in his annoyingly skeptical way. I was astonished at his ignorance.
"It's a chemical," I repeated, a bit weakly.
"No, it isn't."
I withdrew back into the house, stung at Corky's lack of appreciation, and dismayed that he didn't believe me. I was lying, but so? Couldn't he see that this was a real test tube? I poured the useless orange water down the drain.
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"Why are we not going?" the people were asking, but no one knew. I circulated among them, going from dining car to coach and back to my cabin, nodding to everybody and listening to their excited murmurings. If you had been me in that situation, I'm sure you would have done what I did. What I did, was to say nothing.
No, I hadn't pulled the emergency brake or something stupid like that. I was having a problem, and I was as concerned as everybody else, but for a completely different reason.
I was a passenger on that train, returning to Boston from performing a show in Chicago. Thanks to my gracious sponsor, I was traveling in a first-class cabin, and I had been enjoying the restful luxury of it on the return trip. The ride had been like a dream, gazing out the window at the endless miles of factories in the outskirts of Chicago, rolling along under a fantastic sunset.
The next day, for some reason we had stopped at an unscheduled station in NY state. I had just been thinking of settling down for a nap after lunch, and I was taking off my shoes when I looked out the window onto the platform. There, gray in the drizzling rain, I saw a baggage cart came wheeling by my window, heading towards the front of the train. The baggage cart was piled with luggage, including some very large distinctive cases. They were my cases, containing all my hand-made instruments. This was a very bad sign.
The cabin I occupied was in the first car of the train, right behind the locomotive. Way back at the rear of the train was the baggage car, in which all my instruments had been carefully stowed. So why is my stuff now being pushed forward on a cart, through the rain, at this unscheduled stop?
All thoughts of napping were now banished as I feverishly put my shoes back on. I ran out of the cabin and dashed forward down the aisle to the end of the car, unhooked a chain and made an unauthorized exit out the door onto the platform.
I ran up to the retreating cart, now heading forward past the locomotive. "Where are you taking this?" I panted. "This baggage is supposed to be on the train."
"We're losing our baggage car here. These will have to be transferred."
"These cases contain my homemade instruments. It was clearly stated in my contract that these were to arrive in Boston along with me. I made sure of it."
"Don't worry. These will go out with the next train that comes along."
What next train? "No." I said, "That won't be acceptable." I had already engaged a van to meet me when the train arrived in Boston, to bring all my stuff home from the city. This sudden development wasn't just an inconvenience; it brought up a vivid memory of a previous trip, in which one of my cases had been misplaced and had been lost for three days. I was never going to risk having that happen again. Plus, it was raining, and I was quite concerned that everything was getting wet. It's a lucky thing that I had looked out the window when I had!
Meanwhile, the conductor had come out into the rain to inform me, "Sir, no passengers are allowed on the platform."
"These cases have to come back aboard with me."
"There is no place to put them."
"My contract says they have a place. That's what we arranged. Why are we losing our baggage car?"
By this time, more men had congregated in our little group, and anxious conversations were being conducted into big wireless devices that looked like walkie-talkies from a World War II movie. I suggested that we could bring my instruments into our cabin car; there was enough room. The suggestion was not considered. Soon we were told that another baggage car could be switched to our train from a yard only about a mile away.
"Sir," the conductor insisted, "you'll have to re-board the train while we wait."
"Can you please put my instruments under cover? These cases are not waterproof."
That would never have occurred to them. One man pushed the cart down the platform and under a very scant overhang in a baggage area., while I reluctantly allowed myself to be ushered back onto the train. From there, I uneasily peered back through a window towards my precious cargo, which was only partially protected by the overhang, and still getting rained on. We waited.
After a while, I sought out the conductor, and asked for a progress report. "We're working on it." he told me. Then again, somewhat later, "It looks like we won't be able to get that baggage car."
"We have to find a place on this train," I told him. "What will we do?"
"I don't know yet, sir."
Meanwhile, I had been trying, in my anxiety, to get back out of the train to go over to the rain-blown cart with my instruments on it, to try to move it to a dryer place. But now I found that all the doors to the outside were locked. I had gone up and down the whole train trying doors; seven or eight long cars with a door at each end. It was in these wanderings through the train that I had heard the people voicing their curiosity and concern at our delay. None of the officials had told the passengers anything about the reason we weren't moving, and that's all everybody was talking about: trying to figure out what was going on. As I mentioned, I certainly wasn't going to tell them.
Now and then, I could see men moving along the platform outside, sometimes talking into their walkie-talkies. I had made the conductor swear several times that he would not let the train leave the station until we had this sorted out. Everyone was in a fine buzz.
At last, what they decided to do, was to bring my large cases into the passenger car where my cabin was. That's what I had suggested in the first place; but no, they had said it wouldn't do. Now they decided it would do; although it did mean stowing them in the aisle itself, and partially obstructing it, though not badly. At this point, we had been at this station for over two hours; we were over two hours behind schedule.
The passengers, seeing these cases coming in to our cabin car, were naturally curious. So was the steward who served my cabin, and whom I had gotten to know a bit. Now he was surprised to notice that as the cases were coming aboard, I was helping to handle them myself.
"You seem to have some direct knowledge of what this delay has been all about." he ventured.
"Yes, I do," I told him, as I wiped down the outside of a case with a towel. I felt a bit awkward, but I was greatly relieved to get my instruments out of the rain and safely aboard again.
"Yes I do; it was all about me."
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The native knew what the rifle could do; he had seen it work, and now he was trying everything in his power to make it do that thing. He carefully twisted wads of grass, cuts of bark, and stuffed them into the chamber. He tried using stones, earth, a burning ember; he used incantations and interpretive dance; he prayed; he anointed the rifle with sacred dust, with purified oil.
The persistent native spared no effort or ingenuity, but it was all in vain; nothing would induce the rifle to utter its terrifying lightening and thunder: the deadly magic which could slay from a distance and provide meat for his lodge, or cause his enemies to flee in terror.
The native's considerable experience of the world was not sufficient to unlock the secret, even if he spent his life studying the inner workings of the rifle. The simple mystery of gunpowder would forever be concealed, in a parallel reality separate from his.
This scenario is from a story I came across many years ago. I sometimes feel that it is a metaphor for my own life, as I stumble forward in darkness.
Apparently, he liked it. A few days later, our family was eating in a restaurant, and I ordered a beer with my dinner. When it came, my little son asked if he could have some, and I told him I didn't think it was a good idea this time. To my astonishment, he began reaching over the table, and calling loudly, "Beeyoo, beeyoo!' in his piping little voice. Many heads in the restaurant turned to see what was happening.
My son is a good, biddable lad, and this outburst took us all by surprise; it was quickly quelled by a stern word or two by myself and my wife, but not before I was mortified to notice the expressions on the faces that had turned towards our table: "Just look at that little boy having a tantrum; calling for beer!" they were frowning sternly; "Now, that must be a nice house."
I had the mournful task today of cleaning up and putting away all of Peter's things: the kibbles, the hay, the wood shavings, the cage itself; all the reminders of the life of the family guinea pig. For seven years the "little rat" had been with us, with his charming little ways.
The impatient rodent had a way of yanking rhythmically at his hay hopper (it sounded like someone was knocking at the door), if someone had the discourtesy to begin making coffee in the morning before attending to him: a little orchard grass, a piece of carrot, a few scratches behind the ears. He would purr like a cat when you would stroke his soft furry head.
At dinnertime, as soon as someone would open the vegetable drawer in the fridge to get something, Peter would again begin chewing and yanking on the metal bars of his cage. Watching him with amusement, I would comment, "He has very well developed nose parts" (from all that energetic yanking). I would wait just an extra minute before giving him the carrot, or broccoli trimmings.
"He loves those metal bars," I would tease. "The metal must be really good for him."
Or, "He's trying to tell us something! What is it, boy?" He would chew and yank with renewed frustration. Then I would hand him his treat, and he would make a soft murmur of satisfaction as he took it.
But, you know, if I ever offered him my finger to bite, he would only nibble it very gently. He was a generous and sweet-natured creature, in spite of all my teasing. There's a lesson.
He lived a long time for a guinea pig: seven years. For the last few years he was with us, every time I would buy a big bag of wood shavings, or kibbles, or hay, I would think to myself, I wonder if most of this is going to end up not getting used? Well, that's just another thing that I found strangely moving at the end: there wasn't much left over in any of the bags; we had used up pretty much all the current supplies.
When we first got Peter, we couldn't agree on what to call him: Jaw Pickle, Poop Kitty, Stoopid;
we got him for our young boys, and to begin with, I resented having one more thing in the house that I would have to take care of. Well, if I did, it's a burden that I will miss. I keep thinking I hear knocking, and I reflexively look over to where his cage had been. I thought it was going to be a luxury to not have to do anything; but then why do I feel a pang when I look over and see no cage, no little animal that needs my attention?
Well, Peter is with his ancestors now, in that great meadow-grass place in the sky, where no hawks are. He crossed the bridge peacefully in the night, after a brief illness in which he stopped eating. For two days, he just muttered to himself once in awhile, and whimpered occasionally, and refused even his beloved carrots. But even right before the end, I could just hear him purring softly when I stroked his little head.
"Never give your heart," sadly advised Kipling, "to a dog to tear."
Who knew a little rat could do it?
Let's say your toilet was leaking underneath; it was dripping through the floor and making a puddle in your basement, and you wanted to fix it. You would have to disconnect things, take off the tank, unbolt the contraption from the floor, and at some point you would have to lift it up to move it off the spot. Have you ever tried to lift a toilet bowl? It's damned awkward, actually: you have to sort of hug it. Now you're getting the idea.
When you're putting it back again, having settled it carefully on its wax seal after getting the wobbling bolts to go through their little holes without falling over underneath, you also don't want to over-tighten the nuts because the porcelain is very brittle. I knew this, but even so, as I was carefully snugging down the nuts the first time, I felt a sickening feeling as I turned the wrench; a sudden slackness. It wasn't the porcelain cracking: it was the flange on the ancient cast iron pipe underneath, crumbling away. The bolt was free as a bird.
I was strangely calm. Well, I did swear a blue streak, with a rising note of hysteria in my voice that was a little frightening, but if there's no one there to hear you, did you actually make a sound? But then I thought, I can take a piece of steel bar stock, and with a hacksaw and files, I can make a flange to fit under what's left of the broken cast iron rim of the pipe. So that's what I did, and it worked; it took me about 2 hours. But I must mention: in the meanwhile, since you've lifted and moved the toilet away from its place, there is the dreadful menacing 4 inch hole in the floor; the pipe that goes straight down into the netherworld of the septic tank far below. This hole was just inviting me, for instance, to fumble and drop a tool down it; never to be seen again, or something worse. Your instinct bids you to cover that hole, so I did; I cut a plastic cover out of an old piece of tupperware, and I used it to seal the hideous hole while I was working on the broken flange.
Now, before I relate how I came to install the toilet bowl not one more time, but two more times, I will mention another good reason for keeping the pipe covered while you are working: septage flies. These interesting creatures actually live in the fetid subterranean darkness of the septic tank, flying around above the liquid in the underground chamber, and communicating with the outside world via the vent pipe on the house roof. And you thought you had a bad job. Perhaps you can understand that I didn't want any of these little denizens of the dark to visit me in my world. And in fact, as I worked, I would occasionally see one of these small flies flying around under the cover for a few moments, perhaps contemplating the wondrous light that he could see through the translucent plastic.
When I was done making the new flange, I reformed the squashed wax seal around the hole in the bottom of the toilet, buttering it around with a putty knife, like frosting a cake. When I was satisfied that the wax ring was well formed and would seat properly, I carefully lowered the toilet bowl down over the hole for the second time, getting the bolts to go through their holes without knocking them over. It took a couple of tries, but I got it done, and I felt the satisfying "give" of the wax spreading out and sealing the joint. A perfect job, and I would be very careful tightening down the nuts this time. But something was nagging at the back of my mind. Think carefully, I told myself; is everything shipshape? It ought to be, but think...
NO! That's right; maybe you guessed it: the tupperware cover was still in its place down under there! Not as perfect a job as I could have wished. One more time, I get to bend my back to this fascinating job, and hug the toilet bowl. Off it comes again, and although it's too late now to make a long story short, I finally made an end of it, and as of this writing, there's no more puddle under the pipes in the basement.
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- Correct the error(s) in the following sentence -
"Jack seen Fred fix them cars hisself."
I would always think, who could ever get these questions wrong? Everyone knows where Fred ain't smart enough to fix no car by hisself!
I was living in a house with a group of people, and we shared a communal pantry. A lot of people came and went in that house, and it wasn't always clear who bought what.
One day, a great stash of sardines appeared in the food closet; there were about 20 cans of them. Nobody claimed responsibility for having bought them, and it was strange to see so many. I shrugged my shoulders along with everyone else.
So a couple of cans of the fish were sampled by several people. My friend Gene was the first. His nose wrinkled as he opened the can; he had a doubtful look on his face as he peered at the contents, but he cautiously tried a bite.
"These sardines are spoiled!" he pronounced, and he just left the remainder on the table for someone else to deal with.
Another person tried opening a new can, with much the same results. It soon became clear that none of the cans were any better; the fish was unpalatable. So the several opened cans got discarded; a stinking mess in the garbage can.
But in the pantry, there remained the large and mysterious stacks of unopened cans. About 20 of them sat around on the shelf for a few weeks. In spite of all the hungry mouths around that house, no one had anything further to do with those sardines.
The question eventually arose of what to do with the stacks of cans; nobody seemed to own them and certainly no one wanted them. I hate to see food get wasted, but we finally agreed that they would just have to be thrown out. This was done with little fanfare, and the mystery was soon forgotten.
But a few days later, what a commotion ensued when an even greater mountain of cans of the same dismal stuff appeared back in the cabinet! Everyone became greatly excited, and questions were flying back and forth.
"Who is bringing this stuff? Was it a friend of yours?"
"Is it a well-wisher, or an evil doer?"
"Can we just waste this food?"
"Even the cat won't eat it. I tried giving him some."
Without much more discussion, the pile of cans went out in the garbage a second time; this time I watched it go. I even saw when the garbage truck came and picked it up. As I watched the truck trundling off, I was grinning a secret smile that nobody noticed.
Several days after this, the mystery took on sinister proportions, when, incredibly, there was a third appearance of Manna from Hell in our food pantry; the biggest pile of cans so far: about 50 of them.
This was truly a profound study in human perplexity. The people were buzzing around like a hive of stirred-up bees.
"They're here again! This is incredibly strange!"
"This is freaking me out."
"We should start locking the front door."
The only problem this time was, as hard as I tried, I couldn't keep a straight face. I was cracking up, and suddenly all eyes were on me.
"Solomon, what do you know about this?!"
The high drama was completely spoiled; I had cracked under the pressure. Yes, I was the culprit;
I myself had been the unwilling recipient of a "gift" of several cases of very old sardines, which had been purchased by a traveling friend from a cannery several years previously. As the aging fish were becoming inedible, she had begged me to take it all, in hopes I would find some use for it.
Well, I had told her, I'd see what I could do.
When we were 9 or 10 years old, our family was over at his family's house for dinner. Just as Allen was sitting down at the table, his younger brother Gene pulled his chair away, and Allen landed with a thump on the floor. He immediately flew into a shouting rage, sitting there on the linoleum, and his mother Charlotte drew him up onto his feet and gave Gene a sharp reprimand. Then she tried to soothe Allen. He was raving in anger, and nothing she could do would stop him, so she finally just grabbed a dishtowel, balled it up and stuffed it into his mouth. She pointed, "Go to your room!"
Without a pause, Allen continued to shout a fluent stream of invective at Gene and the world in general, but now his raving was in a strangely muffled howl through the dishrag. He toddled angrily but obediently out the door and down the hall, still flailing his arms and shouting through the gag. I thought it was very peculiar that it didn't occur to him to pull the rag out of his mouth.
The noise receded and abruptly stopped, with the slamming of his door. Charlotte shook her head with a helpless but amused grin, "That's my boy!"
On the kitchen wall, there was an office phone for the family's landscaping business. This phone was right next to the house phone, and the two looked identical, but their rings were different, to distinguish incoming calls. It occurred to my wicked mind one time to switch the receivers on their hooks. The switch wasn't obvious to look at, because the long cords hung down side by side. It seemed like a harmless prank, and then I forgot about it. A few days later I was there again, and I noticed that the receivers had been put right, so I switched them again.
A few minutes later, I was in the next room and I heard a phone ringing. Allen picked up, and I could hear him saying, "Hello… hello…?" Then, to my mortification, he became furious, and began swearing. "The #&*#-ing phone is &#%-ed up AGAIN!! NOTHING ever works around here!!" He slammed down the phone in a fury.
There was another person in the kitchen with Allen, and I could hear him trying to calm things down. "It's all right," the friend was saying. "The phone's not broken. See? Someone just switched the receivers here."
"Is that all it was?!" Allen shouted, cursing some more. "What kind of IDIOT would keep switching the receivers?! How can we run a *#%-ing business?!"
I slunk away, quite abashed. Of course, the business caller on the line would have been able to hear Allen cursing and shouting, because before Allen hung up again, the live receiver was sitting right there on the other phone's hook. I'll be tortured in hell for this stunt, or sooner, if Allen ever reads this.
Allen nourishes a myth about me, that I will eat anything. This is actually not true at all; I'm very particular about what I eat. The myth began because of an event one day when he came over with our friend Brady, to visit me in my workshop. Earlier that day, I had been eating a peanut butter sandwich, and I had put the half eaten sandwich on a plate near the table saw. Then I did some cutting with the saw, which of course throws up some dust.
When the guys came to my shop a little later, I spied the half-eaten sandwich on the plate. I picked it up, blew off the harmless sawdust and resumed eating it. Then I noticed Brady's reaction; he was green with disgust. His impression was that I had found some ancient moldy food in a corner and had begun carelessly devouring it, after having blown off the accumulated filth. The next day, Brady and Allen excitedly related this story to others, with some interesting embellishments, and thus the myth was born. Whenever Allen would introduce me to someone, he would be sure to tell them, "Solomon will eat anything!" So I would encourage him, saying, it's no big deal.
Allen conceived of a dare; he thought he could stump me by proposing that I eat a tuna fish ice-cream sundae. If I ate it, he would pay for it. That didn't sound so bad to me; it was really no challenge to say, "Sure!"
Accordingly, we went out with some friends to an ice-cream parlor. When the waitress asked me for my order, I said, "I'll have a chocolate banana split, with a scoop of raspberry, a scoop of tuna fish salad, and a scoop of... um..."
The waitress interrupted me, before I could say, "vanilla"; she completely ruined my comic timing.
"Tuna fish?!" she frowned at me.
"Yes. Tuna fish, and... um... a scoop of vanilla."
"You're not serious!?"
"Yes, I am."
The waitress refused to go along with it, and after a little more discussion, she ended up bringing over the manager. The manager listened to the case, and finally responded by saying,
"If she brings it, you're going to have to eat it!"
"No he won't." Allen broke in, excitedly. "No he won't. He'll just have to pay for it."
So the manager gave the nod, and the waitress clamped her mouth tight, and wrote down the order, obscurely annoyed.
Everyone was eagerly watching as the tuna fish sundae was brought out and set before me. By this time, the entire restaurant was alerted, and watching me with rapt attention. I had made sure that I was good and hungry before we went out, and to tell the truth, the sundae didn't taste bad. I've tasted better combinations, but there was nothing disgusting about it, and I ate it up.
But somehow, to Allen this was all very remarkable, and he gladly paid for the sundae. This event gave them all something to talk about for a while, and the myth remained intact, with no very great effort on my part.
Allen's wife affectionately refers to him by the title I gave him once: the "Waddling Encyclopedia".
In some ways Allen is a lot smarter than me, but, as with all enduring friendships, there's a balance there. To my way of thinking, he can be really simple at times.
I made a very exciting discovery while poking around in the basement of an abandoned house. The house was an antique colonial from around 1810; it was nominally owned by the Park Service, but in fact it had been unoccupied and unattended for many years. The ancient place was in a state of disrepair; and the fieldstone foundation had a crumbling hole on one side. I felt it was only my civic duty to make a tour of inspection of the historic building, and so I contorted my way through the badger-hole in the foundation wall, and I entered the dank earthy basement. What I found among the rough stones of the inside wall, gave me a shiver of excitement.
No, it wasn't a brittle leather sack stuffed with gold coins, that gleamed when you rubbed them with your sleeve. That's what I was hoping to find, of course, but it must have been too cleverly hidden. Also, I didn't even find an alcove that held a moldering oaken chest, bound with iron bands and a hand-forged padlock, filled with minted silver.
None of that, but what I did find, in the cracks between the stones, was an encrustation of powdery grayish-white material; with here and there some translucent brownish crystals. I found it more where there was mortar between the stones, and not as much where the stones had been laid dry. Examining the powdery deposits in the beam of my pocket-light, I thought, "Can this stuff be saltpeter?"
I had some sketchy notions of how saltpeter had been obtained in colonial days, for its use in the manufacture of gunpowder; the king's men would periodically rove through the countryside, breaking open stone walls to collect the saltpeter that accumulates inside them. I also remembered Poe's story, "A Cask of Amontillado," in which two men are deep within the catacombs of an old European city, and one man mentions the white webwork of "nitre" which they could see encrusting the damp stone walls. Nitre is the ancient name for saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. I thought it was a pretty good possibility that that's what I had just found. Gold would have been better, but this was interesting too.
So, I crawled back out of the hole, and I returned with some jars for collecting samples. I collected about 1/2 cup of the crystalline powder from between the stones, and then I headed back to my lab for some experiments.
To refine the samples, I put a stainless steel pot on the stove with about a quart of water, and added the powdery material. I boiled and stirred for a few minutes to dissolve out the soluble salts, let the sediment settle, and then filtered the liquid through a coffee filter. Then I put the clear liquid back into the pot, and boiled it away, which took about fifteen minutes. I was left with a brownish white crystalline residue in the bottom of the pot. This would be the saltpeter, if that's what it was. I scraped the stuff out of the pot with a wooden spatula, and I ended up with about a teaspoonful of the brownish powder.
The easiest way I had to find out if the material was in fact saltpeter, was to go ahead and try to make gunpowder with it. If the material was something else, the worst that would happen is, I'd waste my time making mixed dirt.
First I made some charcoal. Using a propane burner, I heated chunks of willow wood in a covered clay crucible, monitoring the crucible until it stopped off-gassing, then keeping it sealed until everything cooled. The third ingredient of gunpowder is sulfur, and for this I had to cheat and use store-bought from a lab supply, because I don't know of any natural deposits of sulfur in my location.
After grinding the ingredients separately in a mortar and pestle, I weighed them out in the correct proportions, mixed in a few drops of water, and ground the resulting paste in the mortar. Then I spread the black paste on a sheet of glass and left it to dry in the sun for a few hours. When the paste was dry, I lightly crunched it up into granules, about the consistency of very coarse salt. I ended up with about 6 1/2 grams of finished powder. This is about one hundred grains, in firearm parlance; enough for a musket-load, with some left over for priming.
Now came the moment of truth. I put a small amount of this stuff on a metal dish, applied a flame, and Foomph! It flashed up! It wasn't as fast as commercial power, but it actually worked!
In commercial production, the ingredients of gunpowder are milled together for several hours, always being kept moistened to prevent accidental ignition. I milled my batch for only a few minutes, but it performed well enough for proof-of-concept. The samples I had collected in the old basement probably contained a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, because my powder burned with a softer, yellower flame than ordinary powder: a sign of sodium.
For my final experiment I wanted to load up my big .68 caliber flintlock pistol to try out the powder, but I didn't have enough powder left for a proper load in that. So I used a .45 cal. caplock pistol, which would work better with a smaller charge, although I would have preferred the flint ignition. I loaded the pistol with about 25 grains, a little under 2 grams, of my concoction, (most of what I had left), then wrapped a .44 lead ball in a greased cotton patch, rammed it down over the charge, and placed a percussion cap onto the nipple.
With the loaded pistol on half-cock, I carried a couple of phone books outside, and propped them against a stump. Then I presented the piece, brought the hammer to full cock, and squeezed the trigger. When I felt that pistol kick and heard the boom, I was quite pleased; I had made functional gunpowder from found materials! I felt I was one step closer in kinship to the ancient ways of our colonial forbears, whose self-sufficiency and resourcefulness I have always admired.
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After showing me everything, Dave started right in with the kibitzing; he was worried that the wood was hard, and he thought my screws might crack it if I didn't drill the right size pilot holes. "These are new doors." he reminded me.
I told him, "Dave, I have every size drill from a human hair, up to an inch and a half, and that's not counting the hole saws. I think I'll find something that will work for the pilot holes."
"But how will you line the holes up, to get the doors on straight?" he wanted to know. "They have to look good."
"Oh! You're right; that is a good point," I agreed. "I guess I'll have to measure stuff."
"No, I'm serious; I mean, how will you do it?"
"I'll clamp the doors to the brackets, and mark the locations of the holes very carefully,"
I reassured him. "You don't have to worry about it."
"I don't know about using clamps," he told me doubtfully. "Do you have a type of clamp that won't damage the doors?" This was starting to get on my nerves.
"I'll pad the clamps, of course. And I'm not going to do this job unless you go into a different room while I'm working."
So Dave went into the other room with his laptop, to watch ebay and see how his paintings were selling. Back in the kitchen, I fumbled a clamp, and it made a noise. "Are you OK?" shouted Dave from the living room. "How's it going?"
"Don't talk to me, or I'm leaving," I shouted back.
"OK. I'm just checking." Dave subsided back to swearing at the computer, where the ebay people were certainly underbidding his goods, the morons. "Those bastards," I heard him muttering angrily.
I kept working as silently as I could, although the pivoting arms of the corner cabinet were puzzling me. They had a motion that I wasn't familiar with; I couldn't get the clamps to fit, and I wasn't sure how I was going to locate the screw holes. Dave's radar picked up on the silence. "Can I do anything to help?" he called a few moments later.
Now he's finally got me rattled; I can't figure this out. "I can't do it!" I admitted. "I'm going home; you'll have to get someone else; there must be a template or something that they use."
Dave instantly came pattering into the room, full of concern. "You can't figure it out?" he asked. Yes, he had known all along, it would be too tough. "It's OK," he told me. "We tried." Nothing ever works right; Dave knew that much. "I'll have to hire a cabinetmaker," he concluded, with a deep sigh. "It'll be expensive. I'll call Ted."
Ted! I worked for Ted sometimes, too. He's a brilliant cabinetmaker, a mentor to me in that line. I could picture Ted coming into Dave's kitchen, and looking at my unfinished job. Ted would be shaking his head sadly, and he would be thinking, "Leonard, Leonard… " That image was too much for me. I suddenly decided: By gum, Ted's right! I can do this!
I picked up my measuring tape and my square, and I went back to the problem, this time with determination. But now Dave was not so easy to convince. Disaster is always right around the corner in Dave's world. "No, Len. We tried, OK? I don't want you to screw it up. You don't have to do it."
"I'm fine. I'm OK now. Go back in the other room and check your computer. I think they're really screwing you on ebay."
"No, Len. You'll mess it up. These are new doors. You know how expensive these cabinets were?"
I finally persuaded Dave to go away, though he was now extremely uneasy. "What could go wrong?" I shouted cheerfully. That didn't help. I went ahead with my measuring and marked the holes, confident at this point that I had them correct. From the other room, I heard Dave explode with a string of expletives in his Brooklyn accent; apparently, things on ebay had just taken an ugly turn. I began drilling the holes. I knew Dave could hear the sound of my drill, and I could feel him wincing.
"What if you put the holes in the wrong place?" his voice wailed.
"I'll patch it up, don't worry!" I kept drilling.
"No! Those are expensive doors!"
"What do they say again?" I called with demonic glee, "Measure once and cut twice? Oh, damn!"
I went on, "I cut this same board three times, and it's still too short!"
Dave came running into the room. "What board? What are you talking about?" Dave is rarely in the mood to laugh, and this certainly wasn't one of those times. "What do you mean, 'cut the board'?"
"Never mind." I had screwed the mounting brackets onto the doors, nice and snug, and now I wrangled the doors into position in the corner cabinet, then I screwed the pivoting arms onto the brackets. Now came the moment of truth! I swung the doors closed, and they lined up perfectly.
"Cut the board three times and it's still too short!" I cackled, way more relieved than I cared to admit to Dave. "Still too short; get it?" No he didn't get it, but it didn't matter.
"You did it!" he said. "They're perfect! How did you figure it out?" For one moment in Dave's life, all the stress was forgotten. "How did you do it?"
"I have no idea," I told him.
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During the day, the optical beams emitted from the eye pass easily through the rarified aether, and upon reverberation back into the eye, an image is formed. However, as nightfall begins, there is a cascading descent of myriads of darktons (this is, literally, the fall of night). These descending particles being dense, they render the aether into a viscous medium which inhibits the passage of eye-beams. Ergo, one's vision becomes less keen at night.
The fall of darktons slows and stops by midnight, and the particles are gradually absorbed by the ground and and other objects (this accounts for why it is impossible to see through a rock). The rising of the sun, with its powerful rays, completes the dissolving and absorption of the remaining darktons, and one's eye-beams can once more penetrate through the aether without impediment.
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My housemate Jan, an older woman, had her room next to mine on the third floor of the old Victorian. I loved to spend time with Jan in her room; the place was filled with life; caged birds and a dog, and a luxurious profusion of tropical plants everywhere. I often watered Jan's plants for her when she was away, and I took care of the birds.
It happened that I had some friends visiting overnight one time, when Jan was to be away, and she offered us the use of her room. I agreed with Jan that I would sleep in her room, and that I would let my friends use my own room for the night. Jan seemed pleased with this arrangement, and I was too; I felt that it would be an interesting experience, to sleep in a jungle among all those plants. I felt a slight, momentary uneasiness about the idea, but I dismissed the feeling.
As it turns out, my night in Jan's place was filled with hellish nightmares: the plants were gruesome and hostile; they bent over the bed in my tortured visions, writhing and emanating a demonic energy; they were jealous of my intrusion, commanding me get out of that place, or die.
First light the next morning didn't come too soon. I took the hint, and I got out of there. Before anybody else woke up, I spent a groggy morning drinking coffee and letting the unpleasant reverberations slowly dissipate.
I never told Jan that I had had such a dreadful night in her bed. She was my friend: a very sweet person, and we got along well. I never perceived any sort of negative energy from her, so the whole thing was strange and a bit embarrassing; and that's why I never mentioned it to her.
Some time after that, I had another friend visiting. Again Jan was going to be away, and she offered the use of her room for the night. I had no wish to try the previous experiment again, but I thought there was no reason not to let my visiting friend Allen use the room. Allen is a plant person; his avocation is cultivating rare plants, and I felt that he would be delighted in the variety and profusion of plants to be found in Jan's "jungle". Physically, Jan's room was also the nicest one in the house; a very elegant room filled with arched windows, air and light. So I decided I wouldn't mention to Allen about the peculiar reaction I had experienced when I slept there. Perhaps a shadow of a doubt entered my mind about letting Allen try it, but I'll have to admit, I was curious to see how he would like the room.
Strangely enough, Allen was not amused. When I met him in the hall the next morning, to my complete amazement, he looked shattered and wild-eyed. "That was the worst night I've ever spent; I hardly slept at all!" he exclaimed accusingly. "I was having horrible nightmares all night!"
After that, I became really curious about the whole thing; it was too strange to be mere coincidence. I would have loved to know if Jan would have any thoughts about it, but I still thought it best not to mention it to her. And I never did.
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