Monday, September 27, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
The road runs from Hannibal, Missouri, to St. Louis. It offers a lot for the eyes. Lush, green hills; stands of oak, elm and cedar; occasional glimpses of the Big Muddy, just as Tom and Huck might have seen it.
I had spent the night in Hannibal at a quaint B&B (aren’t they all “quaint”?), attempting to conjure up the spirit of Sam Clemens. I had questions for him about how to write humor. He never showed.
The second “B” at the B&B was excellent: scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and onions, wheat toast, homemade strawberry preserves, and a thick slice of country ham. As I took a long walk in the woods that border the B&B, seeking a little exercise before driving back home, my thoughts were on eggs. “The” eggs. The ones that were being recalled, millions, maybe billions of them, all originating in Iowa, just a stone’s throw from Indian Joe’s Cave. I was little prepared for the encounter that awaited me on my walk.
I left the main path, worked my way through elder bushes and low-hanging pines. (I’m not sure what an elder bush looks like, but it sounds good.), and stepped into a clearing, still in morning shadows.
And there she stood. Or, rather, huddled. A chicken. Brown and russet, rather thin, scraggly feathers, eyes wide with fear. She didn’t move. I approached her, walking slowly, a smile on my face, thinking loving, positive thoughts
She looked me right in the eye.
“Hello, chicken,” I said. “What are you doing here?” I spoke as though to a child.
I expected silence, maybe a slight squawk. Instead she said, “You’re not with them, are you?”
“Excuse me?” I’m not sure what surprised me more, the sound or the suspicion.
“I asked if you’re with them.” She looked behind me, checking for others.
“Who is ‘them’?”
“The guards. The keepers. The gatherers.”
“I don’t under - “
“Don’t interrupt.” Her voice became more strident. “The crooks, the handlers, the egg Nazis.”
Suddenly it made sense. “You must be from - “
“Iowa. Wright County. The Factory.” She spit out the words, scratched the ground like a bull about to charge.
I sat down next to her. She backed away. “No, I’m not one of them.” I introduced myself. “I’m Gerry. With a ‘G’.”
“Phrances. With a ‘Ph’.”
“Did I make fun of your ‘G’?”
“Well said.” I held out my hand.
She gave me a weak high five. Actually a high four. She hadn’t eaten in days. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a slice of wheat toast, lightly buttered. She grabbed it and quickly tore it apart with her beak. “Thanks,” she said. ‘It’s not cracked corn, but it’ll do.” The toast disappeared in seconds.
“So...Phrances...tell me about it,” I said.
She sat in silence, gathering her thoughts. I waited as the sun edged into the shade.
Finally she began her story:
“It was a nightmare. Impossible demands. Despicable living conditions. A complete lack of sanitary considerations. And don’t get me started on the manure piled in there.” I shuddered at the thought. She continued. “No exercise, no socializing, no background music.” She stopped, stared at the ground. I thought that was the end of her story. There was more.
“I’m a good layer. I know I don’t look like much now. That’s what six days on the run will do to you. But I dropped a lot of eggs, Gerry. Even got a Happy Egger award last month. But you think they care?? Not one wit. You drop three today, they want four tomorrow.”
“My lord,” I said, unable to help myself. I reached over and scratched her head.
“Gerry, you can’t imagine the conditions there. I saw rats. They ran along the walls, scurried amongst the cages. I still have nightmares where I see their beady red eyes and wet twitching noses, probing between the bars. And the rain. There were holes in the roof. Besides the lightning and thunder, water dripped on us. Not on me. I was caged in a dry spot. but so many of the others...” She stopped, engulfed by memories of lost friends, most likely.
“You don’t have to go on,” I said.
“Do you have anything to drink?”
I pulled the half-full Evian bottle from my pocket. “There. As much as you want.” I tilted the bottle so it dropped into her open mouth. She smacked her beak. “You don’t have any coffee by chance, do you?”
“Coffee?” She had to be kidding.
“They gave us coffee. Black. Full strength. To keep us awake, increase production. I’m kind of addicted to it now. I get these headaches...”
I laughed. “I’ll take you to Starbuck’s.”
“Never mind. Go on with your story, Phrances.
She took a deep breath and ruffled her frayed feathers. “We had one guard, a sadistic sonofabitch. Skinny, pock marks, tiny black eyes like a rat. He’d walk up and down the aisle, bang on our cages with a baseball bat. Shout ‘Drop ‘em, ladies, drop ‘em’ in a high-pitched voice. He got off on scaring us, hearing all the racket we’d make. You can imagine what thousands of chickens sound like when they’re frightened.”
“Thousands! How big - ?”
“Tens of thousands, mon ami. This camp was huge. Thousands and thousands of us, squashed side by side, as far as the eye could see.”
The day had grown cold inside me. The story became clear as she talked. Over a half billion eggs from two Iowa farms recalled. More than a thousand cases of salmonella poisoning across the entire country. An egg operation involving as many as half a million chickens. Each cage holding 4 or 5 birds in an area no larger than an 8x10 sheet of paper. But the cruelest deception had yet to be spoken.
“You know, the name of this place I was at is the Wright County Egg Company. It’s run by a ruthless profiteer named DeCoster. He’s had run-ins with health officials before, but he keeps on doing business. And here’s the ball buster, Gerry.” She stopped and looked around. I could tell our time together was growing short. “Listen to this. You know how they sold their eggs? Not as Wright County. Oh, no, that’s too corporate. They packaged their eggs under names like Mountain Dairy. Hillandale. Shoreland. Sunshine. And, my personal favorite, Dutch Farms. Seriously, if eggs, or any kind of food, comes from Dutch Farms, you just know it’s gotta be healthy. Right? Talk about massive deception.”
“I never knew,” I said.
“Who knew? You go into Ralph’s or Albertson or Schnucks, you expect an honest egg. If they had been honest, the cartons would’ve been named Alcatraz Eggs, Sing Sing, Attica. Even Abu Ghraib. You like that? ‘Mr. Grocer, could I have a dozen Abu Ghraib eggs?’ Not in your lifetime, that’s for sure.”
“Look, is there anything I can do for you?”
She drew herself up, shook off the dust, trying her best to regain her former beauty. “Yes, Gerry with a G, yes there is. Tell people what went on. Let them know what we chickens have been through, just how evil those people are. Above all else, don’t let us be forgotten.”
I felt a tear form in the corner of my eye, a lump in my throat. I reached out and stroked her lovingly under her beak. “I promise.” I held my hand there. “But what about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I have relatives in Defiance. They live on a farm. Nobody cares how may eggs they lay, as long as the owners have their beer and wine. And they don’t like fried chicken either.” She let out a loud cackle, possibly a laugh, and began to walk towards the woods. “It’s paradise, Gerry. Just remember your promise.”
“Safe travel, Phrances,” I shouted, as she disappeared into the undergrowth of elder bush. “I’ll keep my promise.”
And she was gone.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Here's something from my archives. I saw a newspaper article recently about Cherokee Street in St. Louis. It talked about how the neighborhood has changed, about the new businesses and energy evident in that neighborhood, the influx of Hispanic culture, the result of immigration from Mexico to St. Louis. I was reminded of a memoir I wrote a couple of years ago, about an immigrant in an earlier era, about a shoe store. Here it is.
I stand on the littered sidewalk, staring through the grimy plate glass window into a dark and empty store. This was once my father’s shoe store, a business he ran for more than forty years and was as essential to him as food and air. The store, and the entire street, once resonated with shoppers and colorful window decorations and a transcendent energy, all accompanied by a soundtrack of voices and traffic. Now the store, on this street of deteriorating storefronts and struggling businesses, holds only ghosts and memories. Outside the entrance, over the name Proper Shoe Store, hangs a huge Red Goose Shoes sign. Suspended in immutable splendor, it is a happy reminder of the line of children’s shoes he once carried.
My father evolved from a four-year-old immigrant from Russia into a respected and well-liked businessman who made friends with aldermen and mayors, prize fighters and comedians, rabbis and priests, maitre-d’s and cops. Even now, twenty years after his death, I still am fascinated by the photographs he so proudly displayed: Dad with Jimmy Durante, Rocky Marciano, Joe Garagiola, Shecky Green, Henny Youngman, Rosemary Clooney and even Buster Workman, a notorious racketeer from across the river in East St. Louis.
Yes, Dad knew them all. But he did not know me. And I, sadly, did not know him. Over the years we went to ball games and boxing matches together, family dinners at restaurants and large dances at hotel ballrooms for organizations he and Mom supported. We had lunch together, usually at his suggestion. But our conversations never seemed to go beneath the surface. The job is fine, business is good, the Cardinals are playing great, Aunt Minnie isn’t doing so well. Even when I knew his heart was weakening and a fearful look in his eye had replaced the confident smile I had always associated with him - even then, we couldn’t get past the mundane. I must have been fifty years old before I could say ‘I love you” to my dad. It took him even longer to return the sentiment.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved him. He loved me. But it was unspoken. My entire life was, if anything, too easy. I never wanted for a car, a new suit, a college education, and - of course - shoes. He frequently would bring home shoes for me, even after I was grown and out of the house, shoes I didn’t need or like. They were his way, I think, of saying “I love you.” Shoes were his language.
Dad had a knack of associating people with the size of the their feet. He forgot people’s names occasionally, but never their size.
“You see that guy over there?” he’d say to me. “Size nine Charlie.”
“Who is that, Dad?”
“I don’t remember his name but he wears a 9-C.”
Dad had everyone pegged by their shoe size. The waitress at the diner down the street with the petite 5-B. The cop in the neighborhood with the gigantic 14-EEE. Dad specialized in hard-to-fit feet, and drew customers from the entire St. Louis area. His name was Milt, his nicknames were Smiley and Uncle Miltie and Curly, even though he was bald.
He’d proudly introduce me as his son. I was the piano player. My brother was the baseball player. I gravitated more to mom, who also played piano. We knew each other better. But here’s the strange part: In my dreams today I dream about Dad frequently. Not Mom. In my dreams, Dad is with me, healthy and happy, as he was when I was growing up. Even as I talk with him, I know he is dead. But we are together and that’s all that counts. Sometimes the dream seems to go on for hours, and I fear his departure, but he stays. And I treasure each second, impossible though I know it is. I wake up still locked in the magic of the dream, feeling fulfilled and sad and privileged.
I often wonder why we have such difficulty getting in touch with our fathers. How and where the distance began. He was born on the other side of the world. He entered a strange land, made his way to St. Louis, learned the language, the hustle, the do’s and don’ts of making it in America. He ran his own business for four decades, survived The Depression, recovered from a devastating fire that put him out of business for almost a year, at a time when Mom was pregnant with my brother and Pearl Harbor was just months away. Even then, he never stopped, never looked back. I don’t think I could have achieved what he did. At one of our lunches, instead of telling him I got a raise or was thinking about buying a new Monte Carlo, I wish - God, how I wish - I had told him what an incredibly beautiful job he had done with his life and mine.
So many people migrated to America during the early part of the last century, became men and women of respect and accomplishment. Many of them died without ever talking about how they did it, why they did it, how they felt about it. This is a personal loss of lore and legend we must now seek out in other people’s books and experiences, to see what, if anything, applies to our own lives.
I touch the cold glass. In the darkness I can see Dad pull a shoe box from a shelf, flip open the lid, pull out a size five beige pump and present it to a seated woman who has one shoe off. He looks up at the window, sees me, and smiles. Then he slips the shoe onto the woman’s foot.