Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Holiday Display

The coming Christmas celebration gives me a moment to weigh in on one of the vexing issues of our day. The holiday display. We had one in Wenonah, in the park, on E. Mantua Ave, across from Margies. The Lion's Club erected it shortly after Thanksgiving and the display consisted of a creche (life size figures of Mary, Joseph, the Wisemen, and baby Jesus all 2 dimensional cutouts), several pine trees decorated with lights and carols piped through a sound system. There may have been Santa and some reindeer but I can't remember. I do remember baby Jesus.
It was cheesy and nice. It mostly had a place in our collective little hearts but as a sincere demonstration of the miracle of Christ's birth it might have been lacking. Not that I don't think piped in carols would have made the manger in that long ago Bethlehem a better place but really I would have preferred just reindeers and Santa and we could leave Jesus in church where he seemed to look a lot better.
Last year I visited Suzy Parker's folks in Townsend's Inlet after the 4th of July. Dewey, Suzy's dad, told us about one year, maybe three or four before my 5th grade celebration, when he was in charge of the music for the Lion's Club. He allowed a young woman whom he and his friends found attractive to pick the music for the display. She picked "Rockin Around the Christmas Tree".
Needless to say this did not go over well in little Wenonah. But listening to Dewey tell the story reminded me of how cool it used to be that just a dumb old rock and roll tune could set everybody into high dudgeon. We were blessed with our small town nincompoopery and it's crazy little battles.
I don't know that it matters whether Jesus is in the park on Christmas eve if he's made of colored pressboard. I do think it matters that he's in the hearts of people that profess to believe that's important. I believe that Christmas is a joyous holiday. The Druids, the Christians, the Jews, all of us knuckleheads shaking in the dark, lighting candles and singing songs. God Bless Us Everyone!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Margie's Luncheonette

Downtown Wenonah didn't have much in the way of shopping. There was a BP gas station on the corner of West & Mantua. Across the street was Bowker's grocery store and in the rear of Bowker's was Tony Sacca's meat market. Next to Bowker's was G. Wayne Post and a woman's hair salon. There was a bank further up North West Ave., the Farmer's and Mechanic's National Bank and next to the bank was a building that was first a police station and then a small store run by Mrs. Fleming and Alice Brangan, the Village Shoppe. Across the street on E. Mantua Ave. was another building that housed various businesses and a second where Margie's Luncheonette was located.
Margie's was the center of Wenonah. It was directly across from the park and almost dead center in town. It had a lunch counter, a magazine rack, several booths, school supplies, and a candy counter. It could be said to be almost heaven. In 5th Grade I was finally allowed to eat lunch at Margie's on rare occasions rather than returning home. This meant a grilled cheese or hamburger and a chocolate shake. It was also mega intimidating since all the "cool" kids ate and hung at Margie's. The counter was generally filled with local businessmen and the booths in the back with teenagers and 6th, 7th, & 8th graders. Most of my time in Margie's was spent not in the booths but at the candy counter or magazine rack. Comics and candy. A dual addiction. There was also a cooler filled with sodas on ice. Cokes and vanilla soda and grape and pineapple. You'd stick your hand deep into the cold water and pull out what you wanted. All for a dime.
Candy was still penny candy, which was good if your allowance was .25 cents. My particular favorites were jawbreakers and a sour english candy whose name escapes me. While staring at the counter and making your selection you would steal glances at the kids in the booths. Girls in cashmere sweaters and guys with leather jackets and pompadours. Cool kids cracking wise and all no doubt laughing at me in my cowlicked glory. The Gernaga brothers, the older DeHarts, the Brangans, Bobby McQuaide, and a dozen other kids all too cool for school were back in the booths blowing straws at each other and sucking down fountain drinks. Hanging out.
I was forbidden to hang out. I'm not exactly sure why but I do know that Earl Rowland was one of the kids in the back and he was a real bad egg. Ralph Parkinson and his crew were there as well. Some girls my age were there, Dolores Lorenz, Sandy Fay, Jane Shiflet. All fast girls. Way too fast for me who know idea what any of this meant.
So I'd get my two comics and five pieces of candy and walk slowly home through the gathering dark. Inventing fantasies where the girls would dig me and I'd save them from evil. Then I'd be the cool cat. Then they'd see. They'd know who I really was inside. The fantasies of young boys are deeply disturbing and I'll leave you now to contemplate my terrible revenge. If Bobby McQuaide and Stewart DeHart could hang me in a closet by a fan belt, well, fine. But soon they'd know who they were messing with. I was smart. I was brave. I weighed 65 pounds soaking wet. My hair stuck up in the back and my shoes were scuffed and worn. My shirts screamed loser. My pants had flannel lining in the winter. Oh they'd soon see who they were messing with, yes, indeed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Happy Birthdays and Gifts

So, tonight is my 56th birthday. Johanna is making a sopa de carne for her friends and I've eaten half a pepperoni pizza from Pizzamasters. I'm drinking champagne and reading the New York Times. I'm slightly whacked from the Infergen and a little tipsy.
What I'm not is forgetful. In 2001 I spent my 50th birthday throwing up. Danny and Patty came to visit me. I proceeded to puke vast quantities for most of the day. I weighed under 100 lbs. I was very, very cold all the time. My brother Mick's birthday gift to me was a warm throw blanket. Now my dog Cookie uses it to sleep in the evenings.
I may not feel 100%. But I weigh a lot more than 100lbs and while I get chilly I don't need a throw rug. I'm alive. God has given me a great and wonderful gift and I will fight with all my heart to be true to that gift.
So tonight I'm raising a glass of thanks and joy. Prosit. Cheers. Nostrovya. Salud. Lift one with me please my friends. It's the beginning of winter. If we all drink deep and sing loud the spring will come and then the summer and all this will be but a dream.
God bless everyone who helped me through my first illness. God bless all of you who hold me up now. Life is a rare blessing. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Interior Decorating

It's true that most houses were viewed for just a second from the porch. The exception was the houses of our friends. We spent lots of time in our friends homes and we were being taught lessons, about what rooms were for, about where we could go, and about what we could do.
My own home was decorated in a mix of hand me down furniture and store bought couches. The basic motif was "colonial". At least that's what my mom said it was. Lack of money meant some pieces of furniture were periodically repainted to fit some new color scheme my mom came up with. Some chairs were periodically reupholstered. Once in a while a new couch or chair came to the house from Sears or the furniture store. Once in a while. Not often. It was always a sensible piece. And it was "colonial".
My friend Terry Fleming's house was the exact opposite of ours. One of the few contemporary homes in our neighborhood it boasted fireplaces and a finished basement. The look was "modern". Probably Danish modern but I'm just guessing. There was a kidney shaped table made from weird wood. There were thick odd carpets. There were glasses in the cabinets with racy sayings on them and skimpily clad girls. Downstairs in the basement there was a slot machine that worked.
A slot machine! In Wenonah! You couldn't do anything bad in Wenonah but in the Flemings you could gamble. Sadly you couldn't keep your winnings but then you didn't have to use your own money either.
The basement had wood panelling as did the kitchen and small first living room. Everyone in the Fleming house slept late. Mick and I were up at 6am and banging on Terry's door at 7:30am. Mrs. Fleming would open the screen door and stare at us as though we were martians. Terry was asleep and that's where we should be. Boom. The door would shut and we would meander out to figure out what to do till 10am when Terry woke up.
Mrs Fleming was fascinating to me. The house was filled with the smell of her Toni hair treatments. She was a tall, loud, brassy Irish woman. Big hearted and filled with noise. The exact opposite of my house. Years later I met her sister. She had sung with the Dorsey brothers in the forties and was married to a NY stockbroker. Their son was "damaged" in Nam and spent his days flying a biplane. Their daughter worked at MOMA.
The Flemings went to clubs. The Latin Quarter. Philly. They drank and laughed. They were like grown ups on TV.
Mick and I would go back to our colonial home and bumble around with our soldiers or read some comics then back to Terry's and the slots. It was like going from Christmas in Connecticutt to Viva Las Vegas every day.

Friday, December 07, 2007

5th Grade Report Card

Well, here's my report card from 5th Grade. As you can see I'm doing quite a bit better than I was with Mr. McIntire. Also you'll note Mrs Fuller has nicer handwriting. After a year of hard, hard work 5th grade was proving to be cake.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Parker's Lake

The cold weather and light snow, as well as the coming holiday, remind me that in 5th grade I received my first pair of ice skates. As per usual my brother Mick received a pair as well. Mick got a pair of black figure skates and I got a pair of hockey skates. It's my guess that my parents had no idea of the difference between the two and that my father thought hockey skates might be more manly and make me feel more grown up. Or not.
In any case sometime in early Jan of 1963 my Aunt Gert (I believe this was the case though I could be wrong) took Mick and I to Parker's Lake to ice skate. Parker's Lake was the premier ice skating location in Wenonah. It had a dock for changing your shoes to skates and an island with a fire going all day and all night long. You walked the length of S. Clinton Ave and then down a long dirt road till you came to the lake. If it was frozen of course you just walked across to the dock. Above the dock, up a steep hill, was Dewey and Edna Parker's house. It was the childhood home of my friends Suzy, Danny, and Billy. Behind it Dewey ran his West Jersey Biological Supply business (the rat farm). But we could care less. For us all that mattered was the lake.
There were other lake's to skate on in Wenonah. At the end of Jefferson by the Wenonah lake was Davidson's lake, perfect size for ice hockey, and upstream from Parker's Lake was a much larger lake, Langston's. We didn't much go there till we were in our teens.Over in Sinnott Tract there was Sinnott's lake. We'd skate on any one of these lakes but during my youth everyone in town went to Parker's.
It's gone now. A hurricane in the 80's wiped out the dam and NJ DEP restrictions made it too costly to rebuild the dam so no more lake, no more skating.
In any case that cold January day my Aunt Gert dragged me and Mick and our brandy new skates down to the lake. This is probably going to come as a shock but I sucked at ice skating. Over the years I've attained a measure of competency so I don't look like a complete klutz but that afternoon was disaster piled upon disaster. Most of which were caused by the fact that no one with me, including Gert, knew how to skate on hockey skates. Everyone had figure skates. All over the ice people were executing twirls and figure eights, and tearing up clouds of ice with their toes. But hockey skates have no teeth on the tips of the skates. You stop on hockey skates like you do on ski's. Sideways. With edges. But no one knew that, least of all me.
So once again I was hurtling around on a new Christmas gift with no way of stopping. Except to fall face forward. I grew colder and colder. Mick got better and better. The day dragged forever. The young girls in my class skated around me like I was a lump of coal skittering across the ice.
I'd like to give you some epiphany here. Say that I at last mastered skating that day and executed a gorgeous turn and stop. But I didn't. I hurtled into the dock, banged my knees, cursed what little curses I knew and tore the skates from my feet. I'd be back the next day, and the next, and I sucked just as much.
There were some benefits to this little bit of torture but they bore no fruit till I was in my late teens. In the meantime I looked like the rough tough cream puff at a time when I wanted to glide like a god.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Sears Catalog

It being the holiday season it seems pertinent to mention the Sears and Roebuck catalog. The catalog came to us on a quarterly basis and in many ways was our primary shopping vehicle. School clothes, spring wardrobes, bathing suits. All from Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck. This is from a time when there were no shopping malls. When people had to go to Philadelphia to Wanamaker's to shop. There was an actual Sears and Roebuck store in beautiful downtown Camden but we rarely went there even though it was 20 minutes away.
But the catalog that mattered most was the Christmas catalog. It came out, as I recall, sometime in mid November and we eagerly grabbed it and began our gift choosing. Army men, Easy Bake Ovens, Chemistry Sets, dolls, football helmets, bikes, everything, everything was in the Sears catalog.
But they weren't just in the catalog. No, things were laid out so you could see just how great they were and how you could use them. These layouts were spectacular. The army men were storming the beaches, the tubes and vials of the chemistry set were bubbling with sinister potions, men and boys were playing energetic games of touch football in authentic NFL jerseys wearing authentic NFL helmets. The bikes had gear aplenty, rear view mirrors, dangly shit that hung off the hand grips, lights and mileage devices. It was mesmerizing. It also was perfect for pointing out exactly what you wanted to your clueless parents. Left to their own devices god knows what they might pick but with the Sears catalog you could clearly circle your first, second, and third choices.
The bulk of the catalog was in black and white but the cover was in glorious Christmas colors. It, more than any religious event, marked the beginning of the holiday season. Fuck Thanksgiving, fuck Advent, this was the real deal. And by arriving well before Thanksgiving it stretched out the gap between whatever day it was and Christmas to near unendurable lengths. Ninety years till Christmas, only sixteen thousand shopping days till Christmas. The gap between getting the catalog and the lighting of the tree on Christmas morning was the size of the Snake River canyon. Unfathomable.
So we'd soldier on, day after day after day, the only thing keeping our hopes alive the catalog. In the last weeks before Christmas we'd begin the hunt for hidden toys. This was hard on everyone. Usually the gifts arrived at the Post Office in town while we were in school so Mom had time to squirrel them away before we got home. Over the years their hiding places became more and more obvious. The problem was that if you found them you didn't really know whose gift anything was. It was as if God had created some cruel laboratory experiment in envy. Part of you would be pleased you found a gift, part would think it was for your brother and your parents hated you, then another part would hate yourself because you begrudged your brother a gift. Cruel cruel fate.
The only way your hopes and dreams would be revealed was on Christmas morning. Then we'd run down the stairs to see the tree ablaze with light, our parents in their robes and dozens of wrapped packages scattered about the room. At that instant you were sure you'd get everything you wanted. In that moment Christmas was glorious. It would inevitable come crashing down around you as you opened the gifts. Cold economic realities would raise their head. No radio controlled planes in the Wiler house. Yes, we'd get a set of army men but it was the second best set, yes, we'd get a chemistry set but not the complete set in the catalog. A little knowledge is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
Still and all there was always next Christmas. And at least we could use the Johnny Reb cannon to blow the Christmas balls off the tree one by one. Then there'd be turkey and a week of no school. Not bad, not bad.