Sunday, July 24, 2016

For My Can't Miss Sister

Today is my middle of three younger sisters, Kara's, birthday, so many happy returns of the day and if anyone is able to have a happy day, it is she.  As a child who was the firstborn of the second cohort of kids my Mom and Dad had, Kara was about as easy-going as the day is long (July vice January in case you were wondering; and there's a reason, Jill, why I mention January and when we get there on the calendar, I'll return to that thought). 

She and Russ, her husband, have three young men of various ages but of similar disposition, making a home (and/or home base) for one another in the most central part of Central New Jersey and though I don't see them often (they have some of the best luck of anyone you'll ever know), they are a delight. 

Before Kara was Stella (which is what Adam and Kara's sister, Jill, call her), she was Clarabelle (there is NO point in being the oldest child, with all the embarrassing memories of every other sibling, if those memories are not summoned at the most inappropriately appropriate moments such as birthday celebrations) and this story would be even better if I could remember more of it.

I always tell people 'we grew up in New Brunswick', which is true-except for the preposition. We actually grew up near New Brunswick in Franklin Township, on Bloomfield Avenue just off Easton Avenue and about eight minutes, by car (because you went by car or walked everywhere because the bus was sort of a joke, except the passengers were the punchline) from New Brunswick back before J & J reinvented the city in its image and likeness. For most of the late Fifties and all of the Sixties and Seventies, New Brunswick had Rutgers University and Johnson and Johnson. 

Mom did the grocery shopping at the A & P and got prescriptions filled at the Kilmer Pharmacy in the Acme Market plaza (we never got groceries there) but all the kids' clothes came from PJ Arnold's in downtown New Brunswick and for shoes, she took everyone to Gluck Shoes on Hamilton Street (I think), where she could get Stride-Rite shoes (with the all important 'cookies' in the insoles for growing feet) for both Kara and Jill. 

I usually had my brother, Adam, and Mom would have the Dynamic Duo. Lost in the mists of (my) memory is exactly how Kara got tagged with Clarabelle--Jill, nearly two years Kara's junior and from the moment of her birth one of the three most intense people in this hemisphere (she has moved up in the rankings as well as weight class in the ensuing years) was, from her earliest age, given to the dramatic gesture, so much so that Mom called her Sarah (Heartburn) an homage, of sorts, to a famous actress of my grandmother's era, Sarah Bernhardt

Gluck's Shoes, actually all retail clothiers, haberdashers, foundation garment and other retailers were unlike anything we have today, with people who waited on you, bringing you the articles you described and helping you with them. The measurement of a child's foot was too important to be left to a self-service operator-and each young clerk, usually a man, carried a Brannock and swooped in the moment you sat down, measured both feet, scribbled down the numbers and performed some kind of mathematical maneuver, disappearing into the back and returning with boxes of shoes. And that was that. 

This particular shopping trip my sisters were more than a bit restive, though the specific reasons now elude me, and Mom was verbally nudging Kara who would dawdle and daydream over each new pair of shoes. 'Clarabelle,' she'd say, 'let's make up your mind.-we don't have all day.' (even though we did). 

Jill hated being rushed and would fold her arms in front of her and scrunch her face up and furrow her brow to signal her unhappiness at the unfairness of it all, eventually provoking Mom to decide what shoes she was getting. That, in turn, created more drama, until Mom would bring her up short with 'Sarah, keep going and there will be no new shoes.'' The three of them went through this every time they bought anything, anywhere. All of them knew how it would end, but the game had a life of its own and they went along for the ride.

This particular afternoon, the clerk, certainly eager to please, took to calling both Kara and Jill, Clarabelle and Sarah, because, I realized with a start, that's what he thought their names were as Mom never called them anything else. Since both of them were used to Mom's nicknames, they saw nothing amiss and Mom never even noticed. As he was ringing out the purchases, a register with the round buttons where you put in the exact amount and little vertical canoe paddles (that's how they looked to me) popped up in the glass box at the top of the National Cash Register, whose clanging bell made the sale official, he asked me what my name was. 

I was way ahead of him-'Ralphie', I said. And your brother, he inquired. 'Ralphie, too' I offered, perhaps a little too quickly but to this day I think I got away with it. Frankly, Adam, I think that's where the seed was planted that led you to your college alma mater-and you are welcome. 

Anyway, without missing a beat the clerk handed mom two Stride-Rite shoe bags and leaned over the counter to give both Clarabelle and Sara each a lollipop. Happy Birthday, kiddo. Don't take any wooden Stride Rites. 
-bill kenny

Saturday, July 23, 2016

(Slightly) Ahead of My Time

I wrote this a really long time ago (I didn't have a computer yet so I had to do it in long-hand and tape the papers on to people's windows). We weren't in the trough between National Political Conventions, as we are right now, and I would have told you at that time I thought I was pretty optimistic about who we are and where we were going, especially when compared to right now, but when I read what I wrote, I'm thinking 'maybe not so much.' Anyway, I think what follows has more to do with the choices we have in November, the equine output on the floor gave it away, more than with a bank. Or not. 

I don't remember what the product is; actually, I do, but when the commercial starts I can never recall the sponsor (it's for an Internet bank)-and a grown-up is sitting at a short table with two little girls of less than (probably) five years of age. He asks the first little girl if she would like a pony, and the child eagerly says 'yes' and the man gives her a small pony replica. Smiles all around

The man asks the other little girl if she, too, would like a pony and she responds in the affirmative, at which point he makes a 'chck-chck' sound and out from behind this large dollhouse ambles a real pony, bridle, and saddle. The child is delighted. The first child not so much and we get some close-ups of her face as we hear the squeals of delight from the other little girl. Eventually, she screws up the courage to tell the grown-up very non-judgmentally for a child who just got double-crossed 'you didn't say I could have a real pony.' To which he quickly rejoins, 'you didn't ask.' 

The announcer proceeds to read advertising copy about sneaky is as sneaky does, trust whatever the bank is to do whatever banks are about, grown-ups eat bugs or some such palaver. What I always come back to is the abject hatred on the first girl's face for all things adult. She isn't close to tears or a tantrum; she's close to homicide. Either she is an incredibly gifted actress at such a young age, or the producers of the commercial didn't let her in on the joke and what we are seeing in the commercial is her actual animus, spontaneous and unrehearsed. 

Sometimes when I follow the news even casually, I expect to see the streets of America littered with plastic pony replicas. We are, I think, as a people the most relentlessly optimistic nation on earth, perhaps unrealistically optimistic. I grew up in a USA that liked Ike, grudgingly extended equal rights to everyone, went in one generation from a chicken in every pot to two cars in every garage with lots of smoking pot and which now finds itself, for lack of a more elegant term, flat-out broke. 

The part that doesn't have me worried is that we can't fix what doesn't work because two hundred and something years of our history tells me we can. What bothers me is will we choose to repair ourselves? We've conspicuously consumed just about everything this planet has to offer and its riches haven't come close to filling that hole in our hearts. And now the one in our wallet is even larger than that one. 

We've conditioned ourselves to find solutions in fifteen, thirty and sixty-second increments and ideas like universal health care, greenhouse gases, economic reinvestment, equal rights for everyone, don't lend themselves to discussions or explanations that can be jammed in between the blue mountains of a beer can commercial and the soft porn of a shaving cream advertisement. It's not even fair to say we lose interest; we never had any

Our whole lives guys in suits with briefcases fixed everything. We never asked how, because we never wanted to know. We built armies, we went to the moon, we sold each other real estate everyone at the closing knew wasn't worth the money being paid for it, but no one got upset or concerned because the Suits were there and they were fabulous. We, too, were fabulous. Heck, everything was fabulous, unless it was brilliant.

And now the suits are shiny with wear, and in some cases, there are holes at the elbows and the sleeves are ragged. And the property we used in our cities and towns to build the grand list to elevate the bond rating for the twenty-year municipal debentures we sold to finance the construction of the new transportation hub of the city that would increase all of our property values, well, bad news on that front, cupcake, as the sub-prime mortgage lenders who shouldn't have advanced us the money they didn't have in the first place are all flopping and twitching on the beach as the tide of prosperity continues to rush out and no one warned us about the undertow.

Except, of course, we were warned, but we thought they were asking if we wanted a pony. And now we get to choose between two seriously scary folks (sorry, all you third, fourth, and twenty-first party candidates; you will not win and we're all gonna lose anyway so why would I waste my vote?) and hope that a system that could produce two human obscenities like this pair will somehow fix what ails us. The flaw, of course, is hope is NOT a plan, and we have no hope of ever having a plan.
-bill kenny

Friday, July 22, 2016

I Feel the Fear Coming On

I think it’s safe to come out now. I believe that was an all-clear siren I heard sound moments ago. Even as you read this (and yes, Melania, I did write it and no, Mr. Manafort, Michelle Obama did not help), thousands of our fellow citizens whose sole character defect is being a Republican are making their way home from Cleveland, Ohio.   

Yes, I'm teasing about the character defect crack. Part of what has disappeared in this country in the course of my lifetime (and I’m NOT suggesting cause and effect) is how no one can take a joke anymore; unless you think those yee-haws in the Quicken Loans Center were guffawing after every chorus of “Hang her” (in reference to Hillary Clinton). Yeah, me neither. Picking an orange Oompah-Loompah with a bad comb-over, now that was pretty funny.  

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. And just think, the Democratic Party kicks off their impersonation of the Divine Comedy next Monday in Philadelphia.  Here in the Northeast, we have weathermen talking about heat and humidity for the next couple or three days in the middle Nineties and now, sort of as that side of cole slaw that no one ordered and even fewer wanted, it’ll be Act II, this time from the City of Brotherly Love.

Krebs oder cholera
The Democratic Party platform is, in its own way, as other-worldly as that of the GOP, albeit you’d have to go some to top a claim that coal is a clean fuel while the ‘scourge of porn’ (I love Bulwer-Lytton detritus especially as a call to arms) is a public health crisis. I suspect that’s even truer if you hold your breath in anthracite coal country.

Depending on who you read and watch, it’s the other folks who will be the end of us all. I’m not sure if we’ll see swarms of Democratic delegates have 2 Minutes of Hate aimed at Donald Trump in much the way as the Republicans seemed to key in on Hillary Clinton, but that brings me back to that sense of humor issue yet again.

My dad told me many things growing up, most of which I didn’t hear even as he said them but one point he made that I did actually listen to was you need a sense of intelligence to have a sense of humor. We have become a nation suffering an acute smile shortage and who have very much lost the ability to laugh at ourselves (it’s okay; other nations’ population are doing that on a daily basis). And not so coincidentally, we’ve become dumber than a sack of hair which could still be overlooked if not flat-out forgiven if we weren’t so damn proud of how ignorant we are.

Not sure how far along that in vitro intelligence transfusion technology is but we could sure use all the help we can get on that front. But closer to home and more cosmetic than cosmic, we could remember that from a distance, a grimace looks very much like a smile. We’ve had our share of pained expressions over the last few days with the prospect of even more to come; my worry lines have worry lines.  

Think of it as baby steps. Start with a frown then turn it around. Work your way to a tight-lipped no-teeth-showing smile and eventually you’ll be yukking it up with the rest of us hyenas out here on the asylum lawn. We may need to renew our friendship with Bill W to survive our own election cycle. One day at a time.
-bill kenny  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

12:00!! 12:00!! 12:00!! 12:00!!

More and more we live in a wordless world. By that, I don't mean a silent one but rather, a world in which you can scrape by with pictures and symbols. I love looking at the tags in shirts--it's like a graduation from Semaphore University. There's no bleach, hang dry only, wash in cold water, dolphin-free, dry-clean only etcetera. 

I thought it reassuring that no matter where in the world you travel those symbols are the same until I realized it has a lot to do with the manufacturing process and that almost all the clothes we buy, no matter where in the world we live, are made in the same third-world sweat shops. That's more likely the reason why the care symbology at the collar is the same. Oh. 

I'm not going to hold a Geography Bee with Carmen Lauer and Matt San Diego on where our clothes are made, because I have no trouble finding my way around as nearly everyone, be it at home or at work, tells me where to go. And that's an unfair advantage even for television stars to overcome. 

What I am intrigued by is how our technology, not knowing where in the world we will use it, has created its own language to which we have universally adopted. Do you remember when you used to yell for 'Help!'. Our current machines' clocks do the same thing, sort of, except they flash 12:00--we all know that means there's trouble at the mill and are now conditioned, when we see it, to look around for a cause. Who of us hasn't been greeted by something that looks like this as we slide behind the wheel? I have been known to put black electrical tape over the ones whose lights never go out.

My smartphone does this weird little vamp when it's loading an application (I had to ask someone who knows about phones to describe that process so I could write it down here. I have so little idea of how the device works, when it doesn't work, someone else has to tell me as I cannot figure it out by myself). Maybe yours does the 'gimme a minute jitterbug', too.

It looks like a vertical bow-tie and then it starts to whirl and twirl in a clockwise direction. Someone told me it's NOT a bow-tie at all, it's supposed to be an hour glass. That actually makes more sense to me, since that would have something to do with time, which is what the device is wasting, and not neckwear, of which I have a closetful though I have no idea of its purpose (or didn't) even though most work days I wear one. 

Every time I see the posters for a raffle (no matter the cause), there's always the disclaimer at the bottom, 'duplicate prizes awarded in the event of ties' and I keep thinking, today's the day. Good fortune, here I am! Luck be a Lady tonight. And yet all I ever win is a dry-clean only dolphin two sizes too small, no bleach only.
-bill kenny

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Memory and Not a Place

For many years when we'd visit my family in Central New Jersey, I'd get off the New Jersey Turnpike at Exit 9 and drive through downtown New Brunswick where, for better or worse, I did a lot of my growing up and where I attended Rutgers University so long ago the alphabet only had seventeen letters.

I always looked forward to those side-trips even though when I got there I was sometimes a little disappointed with the reality. I think what each of us thinks when we say "my hometown" is sometimes more a memory we have of a point in time rather than a place we can go to.

When I walked through downtown Norwich last weekend I kept a running inventory of how much life and liveliness is on McKinley Avenue where, at the bend near Grove and Pond, it becomes Franklin Street all the way to Franklin Square.

At a pedestrian pace, you can see more than a dozen small businesses, more micro than even mini, none of which were there when I first walked those sidewalks twenty years ago with customers who'd probably never heard of Norwich back then. Not sure who made who, but there they are. And in a generation, their hometown memory will look nothing like now.  

There are more commercial stirrings as you pass Artspace, with the These Guys Brewing Company and just beyond that, in what was the old 'Bulletin building,' newer neighbors, Epicure Brewing still under construction, as well as Foundry 66 , part of the soon-to-be new home of NCDC.

Reid & Hughes Building (left) circa 1956 (photo by David Bishop)
Where Franklin Square meets Main Street among lots of empty and underused buildings is the one our City Council will shortly be turning its attention to, the Reid & Hughes.

I'd claim it reminds me of a seedy adult movie house on a side street in New Brunswick that was reincarnated as the George Street Playhouse but I never saw it as anything other than a broken and forgotten building when we got here in the fall of '91.

For too many of us Reid & Hughes is a symbol of every Norwich failure. I am not a fan of the building but that's too harsh. I see it as a brick and mortar (and tarpaulin) Banquo's Ghost from a Vibrant Communities Initiative of five years ago that signaled we were going to get our feces amalgamated, but instead it just keeps hitting the ventilator.

And now how Reid & Hughes looks out on Main Street
The city took the building for taxes many years ago because that's what always seems to happen across the country. Municipalities rarely have the expertise or ability to develop or revitalize such a property and are not eager to pay in any way for others to do it.

Which brings us to the here and now. We all agree "something needs to be done" but we cannot or will not agree on what that something is or how to do it. Our inability (refusal?) to make a decision, develop and then execute a plan of action, and accept the consequences dooms us to an unending circle of recrimination and second-guessing.

By summer's end, perhaps, we'll all know more because we can't know less. And then, ready or not, we'll have to find the courage to make a decision and own the consequences. Besser ein schreckliches Ende, als Schrecken ohne Ende.
-bill kenny

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mr. Bill's Day Off

Torn from the pages of the brochure....

"Essex Steam Train & Riverboat’s 2½-hour journey begins at the historic 1892 Essex Station for a 12-mile, narrated round-trip into the heart of the unspoiled Connecticut River Valley – designated “one of the last great places on earth” by the Nature Conservancy.

The steam locomotive pulls vintage coaches at 20 mph through the quintessential New England towns of Deep River and Chester. The picturesque countryside includes pristine meadows, a quaint farm, a millpond with waterfall, and trestles and bridges over rivers and creeks. A natural highlight is the undeveloped Selden Neck State Park, accessible only by boat.

Essex Steam Train offers unique access to several coves and preserves, immersing passengers in an on-board eco-excursion. The train travels near the tidal wetlands of Pratt Cove and Chester Creek – – bountiful, natural habitats for birds. Among those typically spotted are Cormorants, Ducks, Swans, Greenland Geese, Blue Heron, Egrets, and Red-winged Blackbirds. In February and March, the majestic Bald Eagle is the star of the show, when it migrates south to the Connecticut River Valley from Canada and Maine.

At Deep River Landing, passengers are escorted onto the Becky Thatcher riverboat for a 1¼- hour cruise along the Connecticut River. The visual serenity of the river valley is on full display from Becky’s multiple decks. The deep water, coves, inlets, marshes, wildlife, and rocky shoreline are all at once, simply breathtaking!

Just as impressive are the historic sights including Gillette Castle, Goodspeed Opera House, and the Haddam Swing Bridge. Upon Becky’s return to Deep River Landing, the steam train welcomes passengers for the return trip back to Essex Station."

Yep, it was swell and I enjoyed every moment of it.
-bill kenny

Monday, July 18, 2016

Actions Speak Louder than Words

I grabbed ten minutes of some most excellent outdoors weather last week before it got stupidly hot at mid-morning and walked around the block of the building in which I work. Back in the days when I smoked (and boy did I, three and a half packs a day until I stopped, suddenly, on 30 September 1996), it was customary to have a break for a cigarette in mid-morning and then again in the middle of the afternoon. 

In a way, becoming a non-smoker, I screwed myself out of those pauses, though whenever I try to organize a pity-party about that I have to remember 'by quitting cigarettes, I lowered my chances of ever having lung cancer, emphysema or any other respiratory illness by a huge percentage.' Unless, of course, I get hit by a cigarette truck, in which case the whole thing's a wash, I guess. I'm lucky in that the people I work for will allow me to walk away from the desk (and regroup) though sometimes it looks more like disappointment than relief when I come back.

Anyway, I noticed on the corner a pick-up truck in a no-parking zone, the engine running, blocking a fire hydrant. On the door, the lettering indicated the truck was part of the fire department's fleet. There was no one in the truck and there were no emergency lights flashing or sirens howling (or even a small fire burning; I always have marshmallows and a stick. Just in case.). 

I half-smile at the deliciousness of this kind of stuff, be it thoughtlessness or hypocrisy or just simple absence of concern for others because I know if that were my vehicle, the windscreen would be covered with tickets for a variety of violations, all deserved. 

Continuing down the street, maybe four additional car-lengths and at the curb in a real parking space was one of those police ticket patrol cars (you know the kind; they're electric and look like they're on loan from the Lego-land Police Department) that resemble a moon buggy. 

I think in theory, they're a great idea in an urban environment for a city, in much the same way as I like the concept of a Segway for patrols. In real life, the cars look silly and police on Segways crack me up, and when they have the helmets on, as well they should, I almost pee myself laughing (I never claimed to be a nice person). 

I'm always surprised when the ticket person, or meter reader as I call them, is a full-sized human being, though I'm not sure what they should be, and my surprise discomfits me. I couldn't resist-I mentioned the illegally parked fire pick-up truck to Officer Krupke. Perhaps, he offered, without bothering to make eye contact with me, the guy went inside the building a minute ago and will be right back. 

Yeah. Welcome to Benefit of the Doubt, population: you, Officer. I told the police person there wasn't any part of that I was buying and, truth to tell, neither was he. And it was now two minutes since 'the guy' went into 'the building' perhaps like the bear, to see what he could see. Speaking of which, I offered, why not mosey on down to the truck and the fire hydrant and time just how long 'the guy' is absent? 

That suggestion got me eye contact and a heaping side order of a 'what are you, a wise guy?' look that I took to mean now was a good time to tuck and roll in the dismount and disengage portion of today's lesson on Inter-Personal Communications with Public Safety Officials. 

As Bob Dylan once offered, 'wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin', but don't wait too long. And I figured it really wasn't warm enough for my tambourine to spontaneously combust so I called myself the breeze and desired 'back to the office' was as fine a destination as I could think of on too short a notice.
-bill kenny