Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sound Of Silence

Two days later and I'm still struck dumb by the six-year-old autistic boy who ran through the store clutching his ears yelling, "It's too quiet in here. I can't stand the silence."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tell Me, Where Will The Adults Idle?

Having endured first hand, less than a year ago, the closing for good of the Borders where I worked for several years, I sympathize with all my former co-workers and all the other 10,000+ employees who will soon be out of a job. Too many great memories to share here of shopping, working, reading poetry, and just hanging out at various Borders over the years. The people I worked with were dedicated, very literate, and so much fun to be around daily (EYP forever!). And yes, all the usual suspects that have been rounded up to blame for the company's demise--e-books, e-everything, the economy, etc.--share some of the blame, but there were also years of some pretty poor upper management decision-making. The fingers point several ways, Borders.

But one of the first things I thought of when I heard my Borders (and my job) was biting the dust, and the one that saddens me the most right now, is what about all of the people who hang out at Borders, not so much customers but tent-pitchers, if you will? The people, dozens at my small store alone, who spent so much of their life's time in the store, most never buying much, but whose presence came to define the store for me as much as the books and employees. So many...

...the guy who showed up every morning at opening and read, held court, napped, whatever for hours. The very sweet crossing guard who would come in from out in the cold for coffee, browsing, napping--I never made her the Fine Young Cannibals mix I always promised myself I would. The late great Nate who would chat me up and gave me some hand-me-down sweaters. Johnny my decaf-hating buddy with the great laugh and the unrequited crush on the statuesque, impeccably dressed Avon lady who pretty much ran her business out of our cafe. The scruffy strange guy who walked in circles outside our store smoking "borrowed" cigarettes and who we'd find in some nook reading some deep book on world politics. The chess players would would set up camp and politely take on all comers. The handsome teenaged Orthodox Jew who would sit reading for afternoon hours fantasy books, political books, even romance novels. The lovable nutty guys who would show up Friday afternoons and besiege us with strange and eternal questions. The young would-be Romeo who wore a Buffalo Bills winter coat in all kinds of weather and would approach any female in the store with the same, unfailingly unsuccessful line, "Hey good looking, looking for a good man?" The R&B guy we called him, the guy who would call at opening on Tuesday mornings, new release day, and ask if we had the new Luther Vandross, or John Legend or Mary Blige or whatever CD, ask us if it was "any good," ask us how much it cost, ask us if $20 would be enough, etc. The old guy who looked like a shriveled Gene Hackman who was always on the prowl for Bonanza DVD box sets. And Bonnie, the sweetest person I've ever known in my life, skinny as a rail and wearing short shorts all year long, asking our opinion if she should get another high calorie chocolate drink, or if we thought her proposed lunch of wieners and beans was any good. The same woman who, on the day when Sting was making an appearance in the store, asked me if it was all right to go into the bathroom and try on the new underwear she had just bought at Wal-Mart, to which I said, sure, why not, and then proceeded to walk through the teeming store, oblivious to the hundreds of Sting-hungry fans all lined up, go right to the restrooms, which Sting's handlers had commandeered for the past thirty minutes, and talked her way past a bodyguard so she could indeed go into the bathroom and try on those new drawers...

...all these people and so many more, who just needed a friendly place like Borders to go to and spend some time. What will become of them? Where will they go now? One of the saddest things I ever experienced was at six p.m. one Christmas Eve when we were closing and had to shoo out people who had nowhere else to go. Borders missed the boat--they should have applied to the Department of HHS for a grant for being a temporary social service shelter. But now, across the country, a few hundred more clean, well-lighted places are turning the lights out for good and allowing dust to collect forever. Good luck, folks.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Have Become The Old Man I Laughed At

It happened. Just now, the last couple hours. Unceremoniously to the hilt. A whimper not a bang. No seismic tipping of any mythical scales, no grand spilling of sands in an hourglass, no alleged "senior moment" of not being able to find my glasses which are perched on my head. No, after all, the incident that made me officially an old man was one of simple nature, climate-induced. It was the heat. And the humidity. Blasted by days of the hot stuff, topped off by today's worst one yet/it can't get any worse, I succumbed to old age. For the last 2+ hours I sat outside wearing an old man's tank top white undershirt.

For good and bad, I am no Stanley Kowalski. On me, the scanty piece of cotton is no muscle man shirt, and certainly not the dubiously tagged "wife beater." I guess, while I'm succumbing, I might as well go the whole hog and virginally write the phrase I despise: It is what it is--an old man's white tank top undershirt, or, to really sound ancient, undergarment. I can't tell you the last time by shoulders were bared to the world, last millennium would be my guess. And yes, there are gnarly chest hairs stretching up for a peak at the new world from my cleavage. A sore sight for any eyes indeed.

Back in my carefree youth we--fine--I used to laugh at the neighbor old guy who would sit in a lawn chair on his front stoop on hot nights like this in his old man undergarment. Tonight I am his spawn. A more modest spawn, though. I sat on my back porch, figuring that if I mounted the front stoop in such attire the neighborhood watch committee would make a collective call to the SWAT team. But I was visible, if not ostensatiously so. Visible enough, though, it seems: The neighborbood boy who likes to ride his bike up my next door neighbor's driveway and cut across my backyard to ride back down my driveway, often stopping to chat, aborted his pleasure cruise tonight, I believe. I heard behind me the bike's hissing coming up the driveway, but just about where he would have come into eye contact with my blinding upper body flesh and only slightly more blinding undergarment, the hissing stopped, I heard a turning sound, then the hissing going away. No hellos were exchanged. Rest easy, son, the world is more full of startling sights than you can comprehend. You'll survive.

Now I could flaunt my Gemini status and attempt to mitigate the crushing news of my descent into the netherworld of old age by stating that as I sat there so exposed on so many levels I was reading Thomas Pynchon--hey, the old man's old, but he's still way hip. But really, who's kidding who? So, now that I've crossed the threshold (fleshold?) and have lived to tell the sordidly depressing tale, I guess I should consider myself liberated and embrace this new (old) development. Screw trimming nose and ear hair. Forget sequestering farts in crowded public spaces. Start damning kids these days. Right? Sure, I can't see myself driving to the 7/Eleven and walking into the place and ordering a senior discounted Slurpee in this attire for at least another five-eight years, but hellfire, since I've broken the seal, I might as well as hell start indulging myself in some of the prerogatives of the old man. I'm mature after all. Mature enough to finally consider the literal cool over the figurative cool. And baby, whether I'm rocking it or not, this here old man tank top white undergarment has me feeling the coolest I've been in days. I'm kind of liking this newfound old age wisdom.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Is The Thesaurus A Dinosaur?

My intention is not to ridicule other people's stupidity. Taken out of my own knowledge-sphere, I have said and done many stupid things myself. Anyone who witnessed my lone attempt at fishing can attest to that fact and is free to write up all the gory details (the only thing I hooked was the wooden dock I stood upon, which wouldn't be all that embarrassing, except for the few seconds when I excitedly thought I had hooked a trophy fish), in celebration of our own common stupidities. So, just a couple of near priceless moments from the last two days in the bookstore world: A customer came in today looking for "Homer's Odyssey. I'm not sure who the author is." Fine, you could say the world at large has been debating just who the author of "Homer's Odyssey" is for a few thousand years. And you could also say maybe the customer wasn't sure which translation (admittedly a rather significant issue) was needed. Still, for us bookstore nerds, it was quite amusing.

Thoroughly amusing was yesterday's customer who stumped about five employees at once when he/she, out of the blue and with no context said, "It's like a dinosaur but with a 't.'" Um, "Tyrannosaurus Rex?" "No!" The customer looked frustrated, like the word she/he couldn't think of was right there, but somehow out of reach. We all looked around, kind of clueless, hoping maybe the customer would start acting out the book he/she wanted via Charades or something. I was just about to say, "Pterodactyl?" when one of my co-workers, the wise one, said, "Thesaurus?" "That's it!" The customer lit up. Wise co-worker, feeling pretty proud, and rightly so, led the customer to the shelf of thesauri, which, incidentally, is very close to where we shelve the dinosaur books.

Got me thinking. When was the last time I used a thesaurus? Years, if not decades, I bet. Making full use of my hard-earned poetic license, which doesn't even get me $.10 off a cup of coffeee, I usually just make a word up when I can't think of the one I need. And with built-in thesauri on computers, it's a wonder people still print the books, let alone buy them and use them. So who knows, maybe the thesaurus and the dinosaur have a lot more in common than that "saur."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

There's A More Successful Word For Fail(ure)

I fail to understand the hip popularity of the word "fail" that's been going around for some time now. As in, "I was just trying to be funny with that multi-layered reference to Angry Birds and Harry Potter. Fail." I don't know, maybe my example is an "epic fail" because I have absolutely no hands-on knowledge of either Angry Birds or Harry Potter. I guess my cultural life is one big fail, hunh?

It's not that I hate (or certainly am unfamiliar with) the word fail. But the word has no panache, no poetry in it. And sure, I can understand why that's part of the appeal to adding it at the end of any statement, negating the statement with abruptness. But still. It fails to amuse me. Rather it irks me, either as it tries to add to one's prouncements some cutesy self-deprecation or some ultimate castigating judgment on someone or something. Fail fails, what can I say?

But manque, ah, there's a word to fail by. As in, "She's an obsessive user of hip slang manque." For those of you who fail to comprehend the word (as I, being a vocabu-phile manque, was while reading Dave Van Ronk's wonderful The Mayor of MacDougal Street, in which he uses the word enough for me to run to my dictionary [okay, fine, run to] and learn the word) the definition is having failed, missed, or fallen short, especially because of circumstances or a defect of character; unsuccessful; unfulfilled or frustrated (usually used postpositively): a poet manqué who never produced a single book of verse. Now that definition, in and of itself, is the antithesis of fail. I love the "because of circumstances or a defect of character" because it sums up so well the implications of "fail." I love the parenthetical "usually used postpositively" because it shows manque is/(has been, a lot longer than fail has) used at the end of the statement one is negating. And of course, the definition's example about the poet is apt on so many levels, which if you fail to understand means you're a spitoutyourgum fan manque, among other manque things. And finally, the cut and pasted definition allows me to show you the accent mark on manque that my computer whiz manque status prevents me from doing on my own. The word is pronounced mahng-KEY or mahN-KEY, sort of like a surf dude with his stresses all mixed up pronouncing the word monkey. Obviously the word is French, which just adds that much more elan (i.e., hipster quotient) to using it instead of the truly failed fail.

So there, another great word for you to impress and raise your hipness with--manque. Fail to use it at your own risk of sounding obsolete and like a totally mensch manque.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


It's not too often that a Hall of Famer asks for your autograph. It happened to me once, though. Back in the winter of 1974-75, when I was eleven and cared for nothing but sports, there was a newspaper strike in Cleveland. It must have been my earnest listening to the legendary Pete Franklin on his nightly "Sportsline" show on WWWE 1100 that clued me in about Frank Robinson's appearance at a local jewelry store (J.B. ROBinson's, naturally). Robinson had just been named baseball's first ever black manager. And while I'm certain that I was proud of that fact, I was probably more excited that Robinson (I knew him from those great Baltimore Oriole teams of the early 1970s, but was too young to remember his days with the Cincinnati Reds) would be a player-manager, which seemed really cool and old-fashioned at the time. My mother, gracious as ever, took me down to the mall a couple miles away from our house the Saturday morning of Robinson's appearance. I was worried that the place would be a mob scene and the line too long, so I wasn't completely counting on scoring what would be the best autograph I could get to add to my modest collection. As we walked down the mall, though, and approached the jewelry store, the place was pretty empty. And then I saw him: the handsome slugger now baseball trailblazer, sitting behind a table with a PR flak and nobody else around (I've always thanked the paper strike for the scant crowd). Now I was nervous. If there had been a line I would have been able to learn how to act, how to interact with baseball royalty. My social improvisation skills at the time were seriously lacking. It must have been a sight for Robinson, sitting there all alone, probably wondering what kind of hick town is this where no one comes out to see a legend and trailblazer, seeing tiny, redheaded me shyly approaching his table.

"Can I have your autograph?" was, I think, all the words I could muster, probably not even a hello.

"If I can have yours," I will never forget, was his reply. Geez, it was tough enough having to converse with a baseball great one on one, now I had to display my nascent (and nasty) penmanship skills? The flak pushed an index card and a pen at me, so I dutifully scripted out my name (did I stick with Dan, or go with the formal Daniel? I don't remember. Could I possibly have gone with what everybody called me then--Danny?). When I was finished I looked up and Frank was holding out his index card, with the most beautiful writing this side of my grandmother's: Frank Robinson. We exchanged the cards, I hope and think I was polite enough and conscious enough to say, "Thank you," and that was it. I turned around and walked away, not believing that I had just met and spoken to/been spoken to by Frank Robinson, that I had gotten his autograph, and that I had been asked for mine, by FRANK ROBINSON!

Of course now I realize I could have stood there and chatted with an all-time great for a while, asked him all sorts of questions, ingratiated myself enough to get some tickets, had him sign dozens of index cards I could have sold....Nah. It was a great moment. Part of me wishes I was indeed the only one to show that cold Saturday morning during the newspaper strike, that as he left the mall that day, Frank Robinson had only the memory of me, a shy redheaded boy trying his best to write his name out legibly on an index card. Who knows? All I know is I still have that index card with the impeccable handwriting, stuffed away in some old scrapbook. And it's still the most famous autograph I have, and the classiest writing.

In case I was too shy and awestruck back then, thank you, Mr. Robinson.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Perfect Size

Four and a quarter inches.
Enough to entice and
Get lucky once in a while.
Not so much as to get cocky
And turn the loving game absurd.

It beckons you to score well,
To reach it fully:
Never up, never in.

Ten feet
Ninety feet
One hundred yards
Twenty-six miles, three hundred eighty-five yards
--All masterpieces in their own right--
But nothing compares
To the devilishly round perfection
Of four and a quarter inches.

I speak from experience.
God, not Darwin,
Was involved when
The diameter of the golf hole
Was fixed at four and one quarter inches.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Technical Difficulty

The other day I was in my nearby gas station getting my daily cup of coffee; fuel, you know. No java snob me: I kind of prefer this gas station coffee, cheap, to that of the many coffee places, less cheap and usually served with an attitude. Anyway, as I'm milling about getting my shot of caf and the rest decaf, my lid and paper cozy, I'm in the middle of two Asian guys rapidly speaking their language. Chinese, I think, but what do I know? As usual in such a situation, my narcissistic paranoia kicks in: what are they saying about me? Are they commenting on my choice of shorts? Then, in the middle of their conversation, one of them says, in English, "technical difficulty." They both laugh. As I am not presently spilling coffee over myself or struggling with getting either the lid or cozy on, I am relieved that they apparently are not talking about me. A few seconds later, the same one repeats "technical difficutly" and they both laugh again. That's when I started to think.

Why, in their lively conversation, must they use English--their only use of the language that I ever hear--when speaking the phrase "technical difficulty"? The phrase is not some idiomatic expression unique to English and untranslatable in their own tongue, is it? Surely there must be a pretty literal translation conveying the same thing, right? I mean, if the guy said "snafu" or "on the Fritz," I could understand the deviation into English, but "technical difficulty"? Certainly the phrase "technical difficulty" can be used figuratively, in a humourous sense (like a Viagra-needing guy, much to his chagrin, explaining the situation to his lover, for instance), but still, to two guys speaking their own language exclusively up to this point, why the need for the English "technical difficulty"? Obviously I love the quirks of the English language, but I don't understand this one. Of course I could have asked the guys, what's the deal with the English use of "technical difficulty," but at heart I'm a shy guy, and I've learned that doing your business in and around the coffee bar in the local gas station in the morning is akin to doing your business at a urinal--get the job done with no frivolous chatting with your neighbors.

On most days I would now divert myself into a lengthy discussion of the phrase "on the Fritz," but since no one seems to know how or why the phrase came about (earliest printed use seems to be around 1903) and I just can't bring myself to waxing balderdash about guys named Fritz at the moment, I'll leave it all be. But let me just confess my most embarrassing "technical difficulty" experience.

Back in the spring of 1985 I was student teaching at a large high school outside of Chicago. On my first day I was understandably nervous as hell. The real teacher, a nice guy who looked and acted remarkably like the actor who played Doogie Howser's father, introduced me to the class of about thirty high school juniors. The TV show "Fantasy Island" was still very much in people's consciousness at the time, with Ricardo Montalban's epic portrayal of the white-suited Mr. Roark. I spell my name Rourke, but the pronunciation is the same. As you might recall (I sympathize), Mr. Roark had a midget sidekick named Tatu, who began every show by exclaiming, "Da plane, da plane!" as the small airplane arrived at Fantasy Island bringing that week's guests. You no doubt see where this is headed. Anyway, after introducing the new student teacher, Mr. Rourke, the teacher told me that the class was finishing its viewing of a video of Shakespeare's Macbeth. He asked me to rewind the VCR to the beginning of Act IV. Now VCRs were still kind of in their infancy at the time, but I knew how to rewind and fast forward and press play. No problem there. And although I had studied Macbeth, I didn't know it that well to be able to tell quickly and decisively just where Act IV began on a video of an unfamiliar production. And so the budding teacher, not thirty seconds into his career, stood with his back to the teeming multitudes, absently pressing rewind, play, fast forward, play, rewind, etc., praying for a flash on the screen, "Act IV begins here!," praying for Doogie's father to come over and help me, praying for a fire drill, praying for anything, as the "da plane, da plane!" catcalls started to increase in volume. The TV was set up right near the door: Walk, I told myself. Just walk away. You'll be a legend in their reunion stories for years to come, and I'm sure there are other careers out there for you.

I honestly don't know what happened, other than I didn't walk, class somehow went on, and within a day or two I was teaching the class and suffered no real discipline problems, and never heard about da plane again. Prayers answered. I guess, technically speaking, there was no real technical difficulty that day--the VCR definitely was rewinding, fast forwarding, and playing. The difficulty was all mine, with Shakespeare and confidence. But whenever I hear the phrase "technical difficulty," even when spoken by two Chinese guys amidst the traffic round the coffee machines at the gas station, I always flash back to that moment of crisis: stay and face the difficulty or walk away. Over the years, mired in stacks of papers, I often wished I had walked away. Ah so. But not really.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tom, Tom, Philip, And Now...Syd?

When I was a teenager and caddying, people always said I looked like golfer Tom Watson, pictured above around the time I was his lookalike.

Then, probably my mid-life crisis stage, some people thought I looked like Tom Arnold, whose claim to fame is that he was once married to Roseanne Barr.

The last few years I get the you look like that actor guy, you know...A few people actually know his name, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Well, less than an hour ago some guy I've never seen in my life calls out across the way, "Syd! (I'm kinda thinking/hoping it's Syd and not Sid, for reasons I can't explain) How ya doin'?" The guy then starts walking toward me all smiles. "No Syd here," I put my arms up in friendly denial. "My gosh, you look just like my friend Syd." Lucky guy. Syd, that is.

I wonder if Syd has ever had to live with the burden of resembling, in some people's eyes, Tom Arnold.

Oh well, that's it. Today at noon, I believe, was the half-way point of the year. Since I believe I worked both New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, as well as yesterday and today (and tomorrow, July 4th), I'm calling it quits right here. Happy Fourth and Half-Year, Syd, you handsome devil.