Monday, July 11, 2022

武蔵屋呉服店 and Spring Fashion: A Colorful Time of Year

This colorful story and history lesson is from my recent book, "Selected Writings." The article was written in Spring of 2017, which helps explain the "weather talk" at the start of this. Happy to say, I still have two of these special shirts.


Spring arrived early this year in St. Louis. You probably remember that first day of Spring when the temperature hit 86°, following a winter of virtually no snow. I have three unopened bags of ice melter in my garage to prove it.
    My subject today, however, is not weather, climate change or the end of humanity. It’s Fashion. To be more specific, Hawaiian shirts, aka Aloha shirts. This is the time of year when we put the woolens and insulated garments away and bring out the lightweight cottons, rayons and silks, right? And nothing says Spring faster than a colorful Hawaiian shirt.
I’m happy to say that these distinctive garments are still in style, as long as you’re open-minded about style. I used to wear Hawaiian shirts frequently in college and my carefree single years. Then I got married and was gradually weaned away from them.

     It’s difficult to explain the style’s longevity. Some sources trace its origins to the early 1900’s, but there’s general agreement that the shirt began hitting full stride in 1935 out of a shop in Honolulu run by a Japanese gentleman named Miyamoto (that’s his name up there in the title). While looking for information to add credence to these musings, I discovered a most impressive website. It’s The Museum of Hawaiian Shirts ( Really. Their mission statement: “To celebrate the history, art, and design of Aloha shirts.” These obviously are much more than shirts. They are works of art, collectors’ items, clothing of rare vintage and cultural significance. By the way, this isn’t only a “guy” thing. Women wear these shirts as well, the only difference being a lower cut, y-neck style.
    My first exposure to Hawaiian shirts was negative. My dad had a friend named Sid. He smoked cigars, talked like a bookie (which he was), and wore Hawaiian shirts. My mom hated him. As a result, I hated him, even before I had ever met him. When I finally did, he was smoking a cigar, talking like Tony Soprano and wearing a bright blue shirt emblazoned with big-busted women and palm trees. I’ve never been able to shake that image of him. It took years for me to overcome that early influence and develop a fondness for this colorful garb - sans cigar and wise guy talk.
    When I Googled “Hawaiian Shirts,” a world of color and design opened up to me, a virtual “Open Sesame” of style. Also a world of prices. You can order a shirt for as little as $5 (plus shipping) or as much as $179. Here  are a couple that will set you back a few bucks: a Saint Laurent for $850 (but it’s free shipping!) and a Hale vintage from the 50’s for $2400 (plus $8.95 shipping).And if you’ve got really big bucks, consider a rare “Map of Hawaii” Reyn Spooner shirt for only $2500. What is a Reyn Spooner, you ask? It’s a fashion design company that was founded in 1956. I have no idea what makes this one shirt so special.
    If you need a shirt right away, several stores here carry them. The Mother Lode of Aloha Shirts, however, hangs in the re-sale shops. Used clothing, if you will. I visited Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the ScholarShop, though there are others, such as Plato’s Closet and Avalon Exchange. Also garage and yard sales. You get not only low, low prices, but a built-in “spirit” of the previous owner, a sense of transferred  joie de vivre that will certainly enhance your outlook on the world. I get the feeling that these shirts were donated by grieving widows who cleaned out late hubby’s closet ASAP. But that’s just my imagination working overtime.
    I had a blues band (The Taylor Young Blues Band) a few years ago. While visiting New York City, I wandered around Times Square and passed one of those stores that sells everything from shot glasses and hats to cameras and - yes, Hawaiian shirts.  So I bought 6 very sharp and beautifully designed  shirts for the guys in the band. Truth be told,we looked better than we sounded. But hey, it was the blues. “Sweet Home, Chicago,” with the Aloha visual.
    Here’s a closing fashion tip: Add some color to your life. Guy or Gal. Go Hawaiian this Spring and Summer. Put on that shirt, maybe a straw hat, grab a pina colada and shout “Aloha.” You’ll be amazed at how good it makes you feel.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Kid I Tied to a Tree

    My brother Barry would have been 82 years old on June 24, 2022. But he didn't make it this far. Metastatic melanoma. Two years of trial drugs, then he was gone. I wrote this shortly thereafter, when the words came a little more easily. It's in my book, "Selected Writings." I still feel the urge to call my little brother at times. Unexpected times.

                "Hey, B. How about lunch?" 


 An oncologist, a neurologist, and a cardiologist walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll it be?”
     They say in unison, “A miracle.”
     The bartender looks under the bar, on the back bar, says, “Sorry, we’re all out of miracles.” Then he adds, “How about a round of hope...on the house?”
     “Too late for that,” says one of the three and they leave.
     Actually the three specialists meet in room 7104 at Barnes Jewish Hospital. They are there for a good reason: my brother, Barry, who lies silent on the bed.
     The oncologist says, “I think he needs A.”
     The neurologist says, “I’d like to pursue B.”
     The cardiologist says, “I suggest C.”
     The patient says nothing. It’s Barry’s life they’re discussing, but it’s all he can do to maintain his breathing, keep his heart pumping and his mind from floating into that nether world where the line between reality and illusion has been erased.
     Eventually the scene plays out. The three caballeros agree on next steps, Barry is wheeled into three different rooms over the next five days, with brief stops in ICU and cardiology before the sensors are disconnected, the monitors switched off, the drip stops dripping, and he takes a chauffeured ride in his own personal ambulance 23 miles west to his villa in Chesterfield, to await the arrival of hospice, a special bed, raised toilet seat, little bottles of vanilla Ensure, pads and swaths and other appointments associated with “End of Life” care.
     You know as well as I that it’s really a “Death Watch” but everyone wants to avoid the dreaded “D” word. “End of Life” sounds like a play that is over, and everyone goes out to get a bite to eat.
     For five days, we - the family and those closest to him - wait. None of us are really interested in the St. Louis Blues or Mizzou Tigers games but they dominate the large-screen TV in the living room. No one is really hungry but we eat whatever is set out on the table. This is the kind of scene that calls for a grandfather’s clock ticking loudly down the hall, chiming away the hours, a cold wind and swirling snow outside the windows, candles flickering in the drafty room. That’s one version, had it been described by Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens.
     Then there’s the Norman Rockwell version of “The Wait”: Gentle days and feathery clouds, a lowering sun, the family gathered as for a Thanksgiving dinner or birthday portrait, from the bed a faint smile, a few final meaningful words, the gentle sendoff. That is the ending we had expected.
     That’s not how it happened. Eventually it became a silent ship, slipping away from the dock, headed through the dense fog to a rendezvous at an unknown destination.
     When Barry exhaled for the last time, about 12:20 on the afternoon of Monday, December 8, I expected the world to perhaps pause a little, a slight hesitation or flicker, just for a nanosecond in recognition of the passing of this most extraordinary man. But traffic continued to speed by on Olive Boulevard, Venti Lattes were brewed and served without cease, the gray clouds maintained their slow crawl across the heavens, and CNN didn’t break into its never-ending tales of protest and politics.
     Where is it written that the older brother give a eulogy for the younger brother? If it is indeed written, it must be in the chapter titled “Planning Your Life and Other Misconceptions.” Because just when you think you have it figured out, along comes a surprise. His eulogy was difficult to write, even tougher to say aloud to the more than 200 witnesses at the temple on Wednesday. But, later on, I was lifted by the stories I heard about his acts of kindness and charity, his role as mentor, organizer of lunches and dinners with old friends, and his exemplary decisions throughout the highs and lows of his life.
     Barry and I were different.
     His passion was sports. Mine, music.
     He was a short, chunky kid. I was tall, thin.
     He had fun at Washington U. I studied. (Got mediocre grades. I should have done it his way.)
     He was a CPA. His career was numbers. Mine, words.
     But in so many ways, important ways, we were alike. A product of loving parents Milt and Diana, a recognition of the importance of family, love and support for our kids. And we cared deeply about each other, stayed in touch over the decades through lunches and jazz concerts.
     How quickly the older generation is replaced by the younger generation, as they themselves soon become replaced by the next. With each passing, we lose part of ourselves. On that Monday, part of my foundation broke away. I now feel off balance, slightly askew. I know what’s missing but have trouble finding solid footing. For now.
     A good friend of mine sent these beautiful words:
“Every loss is just that, something not to be recovered, but remembered well in the swirl of memories that make up our lives.”
     When Barry was three years old and I was eight, we lived on Midvale, across from Flynn Park. He used to follow me everywhere. I would leave with a couple of buddies to go across the street to play in the park, and he would tag behind, his knickers down to his ankles, his nose running, his shirt out. My little brother. On this particular day, I didn’t want him following us. So I got a long piece of rope from our garage and tied him firmly to a tree in our front yard. We left. Barry yelled and cried, but couldn’t get loose.
     Now I realize that whenever I look back, my little brother will not be there. Not a footstep, not an echo, not a shadow. But I know his spirit - a warm, shining presence - will always be with me. And with his family and many friends. Perhaps that is a form of eternal life. I hope so.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

A Guy Named Chuck

    In 2016 I was still playing Senior Softball at Kirkwood Park. 
    That's when I wrote this. That might have been my last year 
    playing ball, after I broke two ribs and stopped trusting my reflexes. 
    I miss the game, and guys like Chuck.            

Occasionally a name appears in the obituaries that triggers a memory, a face looks out that is faintly recalled, a forgotten connection is restored. The deceased may not have played a significant role in your life, yet he or she shared a part of your past. You may not even recognize the photo next to the name. Frequently the family pulls a picture from an album or a dusty frame that shows him "in better days." Yet there is an echo, like a song or a voice, faintly distinguishable but impossible to ignore.

 Such a name showed up not long ago in the local papers. Charles "Chuck" Murphy. I knew a guy named Chuck Murphy. Played senior softball with him, years ago. But I didn't recognize the small, square photo. A young military man, he wore what looked like a Navy cap, the dress kind with a bill and, on the front, an anchor, the Navy symbol. This was not the Chuck I knew. This guy was a kid, barely old enough to shave, a smile and a look that held all the promise of a bright future. An American flag headlined the short obituary that began "Beloved husband for 70 years to his soulmate..."
 Truth be told, I'm not in the habit of reading the obituaries. I think it's a lousy way to start the day. I don't want any reminders that my name and photo will be in there one day. Hopefully not next Thursday. But sometimes, when I'm standing in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to perk, the water to boil, or the toast to pop up, I'll skim the dearly departed. It's like a treasure hunt where you hope you don't find the treasure.

 I read the complete obit, maybe 180 words, including information about the memorial service coming up on the following Sunday. This was Thanksgiving weekend, certainly a time to give thanks for being alive. What I learned about Chuck in those few words made me realize how little I knew about him.

 The year I met him was 2000. I had discovered the Senior Softball League at Kirkwood Park. You had to be 65 or older to play. I had barely made the cut. So I tentatively stuck my bat into the sport I had been absent from for many years. In fact, I didn't have a bat. Or a glove. Or the right kind of shoes. I had nothing but curiosity and maybe a modicum of ability. I would be one of the young players. I signed up at the Community Center. Games were to begin in two weeks. My next stop was Sports Authority for a fielder's glove, a can of Neatsfoot oil, and black shoes with plastic cleats. The bat came later, when I discovered that most players brought their own bats.

 Of the 30 or 40 guys who showed up two or three days a week for the morning games, one of them struck me as supremely gifted. He hit the ball solidly - to right, left, or up the middle. Anyplace he figured they were playing him too deep or too shallow. He ran the bases with a deceptive speed, often stretching a single into a double, beating out a ground ball on a slow throw from third. But it was his dominance of left field that made the greatest impression on me. He was graceful. In the same way that Joe DiMaggio had been graceful in the Yankees' outfield.  At the crack of the bat, Chuck had a sixth sense where the ball was going. He immediately knew where he had to be, how quickly he needed to move to get there, where to hold his glove to snare the ball. He scooped up line drives, chased down long balls hit between him and the center fielder. No hesitation, no false steps. Just a sureness as beautiful to behold as Joltin' Joe. If you were on the opposing team, the word was "Don't hit it to left."

I knew very little about Chuck beyond his athletic skill. He wanted to win but not at the expense of friendship and fun. One day, someone mentioned to me that Chuck was 81 years old. I was astounded. Eighty-one belonged in the upper tiers of life. On the softball field it achieved even greater importance. Age, they say, is only a number. For Chuck, it was a number to be ignored, not even given consideration. I didn't talk with Chuck much. No conversations, at least nothing any deeper than the play of the moment.  The only words we exchanged were "Nice catch" or "Good try" or "Way to go." Sincere but expected phrases revealing very little of either one of us.

 No, I didn't know Chuck. After reading his obituary, it hit me just how precious an opportunity I had let pass by. In that short column in the paper, I learned that Chuck was a four-sports varsity letter man. That was evident on those summer mornings in the fields of Kirkwood. What wasn't evident was that he had served as a Navy pilot during WWII. That he had won many medals in the Senior Olympics. That he loved jazz. That he travelled extensively.

 Right there were two of my favorite areas of interest: the War and Jazz. I wondered, What did he fly? Where was he based? Did he see combat? How did he end up to be a fly-boy in the Navy? Would he be willing to let me do a video of his stories and life? Questions I would never have an answer for.

 And jazz. What kind of jazz did he like? Who were his favorite artists? Did he like big bands, or small groups? Did he ever see Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong in person? Where did he go to hear jazz? Could we go out together some night to hear jazz? 

I was too late. The sounds had faded.

 I loved the last sentence of his obit, a strange place to find poetry. It said, "He was a man of his generation: honest, kind, generous, ethical and responsible." Those seem to be qualities more rare these days, attributes that should be imbedded in our DNA if we are to succeed as a nation and a race.

 I am now 81 years old. I still play softball. I sometimes stand where Chuck stood. But not with the grace and talent of Chuck. I'm sure no one looks at me with awe. But that's not the point. Here's the point. We know so little of the people we think we know. We don't take the time or trouble to learn more. Only at their passing do we realize what we have truly lost, what rich and interesting lives are no longer available to us to absorb, to fascinate, to make us revel in the full wonder of what life can mean to us. And to others.

 So what do we do?  Maybe all it takes is a word, a question, a shift of focus from yourself to that someone else. Perhaps it's as simple as listening for that small detail in someone's life, like a partially open door that leads you into an incredible room where you finally see what that person is all about, where their life journey has taken them. Quite possibly, you may find one or two items in there that compels you to know more about them. In fact, you might just meet one of the most interesting people you've ever known. You will have enhanced your world. Then you won't have to read about what you missed.

(I took this photo of Chuck in 2001, when I was photographing many of the softball players for an exhibit at the Kirkwood Community Center. It remains one of my favorite portraits.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Discovering Our Past at the George Vashon Museum

    The folder sat in my file cabinet for a very long time. Over 40 years. I knew it contained contracts and a program booklet. Occasionally, when looking for something else, I’d flip it open, look at the contracts, then slip it back into the drawer. I don’t know why I kept its contents, except they reminded me of a time of life when all the possibilities were ahead of me, when my view of the world was somewhat naive, and I was connected to the music and musicians in St. Louis.

    Now I’m in the downsizing phase of life, getting rid of “stuff” that no longer interests me, takes up room, has lost some of its meaning. So I revisited this same file folder recently and thought there’s no reason to keep this. I also thought it’s too good to pitch or relegate to a cardboard box in the basement. Maybe someone else would be interested in this, a collector or historian. 

    Through the power of Google, I found someone who was interested. Which took me to the 2200 block of St. Louis Avenue, a part of the city I had not visited in several years. It’s just a few blocks west of Crown Candy Kitchen. I discovered the George B. Vashon Museum, which is dedicated to the preservation of the history of African American culture in St. Louis. 

    The contents in my file were relevant to the Black community in the late 1950’s. That was before the term “black” or “African American” became the accepted phrase. Three musicians’ union contracts, a program for a Regal Sports event for which I had written the script, and several newspaper articles from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Argus held a part of my past I remember fondly. At Washington U, from 1953 to 1957, I was in a fraternity and responsible for hiring bands to play at our events, such as winter and spring “gala’s” and small combos for frat house parties. 

    At that time, St. Louis had two musicians’ unions - one for white, one for black. I went to the black union because, frankly, they had the best musicians, the kind of music we wanted, and was easy to work with. The union representative was Hughey Webb, who had signed these contracts. I enjoyed stopping by their headquarters to talk with him about the music scene in St. Louis, the gigs he was booking, some new players to keep an eye on. Through him, I hired the big band of George Hudson, an influential band leader, teacher, and disciple of Basie and the big bands of that era. Never once did I think how strange it was to have a separate union, Local 197, that represented Black players. Looking back, I realize I ignored the obvious racial situation in St. Louis. That’s just the way things are, or so I believed. And I never thought about the reasoning my fraternity house was off-campus, along with four other Jewish fraternities. “That’s just the way things are.” 


       To return to the matter at hand: I contacted the head of the Vashon Museum, a remarkable man named Calvin Riley, a retired teacher who had bought a stately mansion at 2223 St. Louis Avenue, on what was once “Millionaire’s Row.” He needed lots of space to house his extensive collection of over four thousand Black historical items. And many more he has collected since the museum opened. Calvin was gracious with his time, his enthusiasm was contagious, and I got a fascinating tour of the museum. I realized St. Louis is fortunate to have Calvin here, with his mission to preserve and present the past. 

    As the author William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So true from the evidence at the Vashon Museum.

    If you want to get an idea of what you’ll find there, I suggest you either visit it in person, or check out the website. Or both. You’ll learn a lot about our city and culture. And maybe even about yourself.

    Thank you, Calvin. I am pleased that Hughey Webb and Regal Sports and the rest of my 50’s music experience in St. Louis belong to the Vashon Museum.

A Look at the Vashon Museum

Thursday, April 28, 2022

PASTA, WINE, AND A LAMBO - A Tribute to a Friend

  • I wrote this in October of 2018, after an evening at Alan Londe's home. I had known Alan since U. City high school days. Last Sunday, April 24, on what would have been Alan's 87th birthday, I attended a Celebration of His Life, roughly one month after he had died. From COVID. Alan was one of a kind, an extremely gifted physician and generous human. He loved being with friends and acquaintances, of which this story is an example.



A friend named Alan recently invited me to his home for an evening of “hanging out with the guys.” These were friends of his whose wives were enjoying a “Girls Night Out.” Sounded like a proper thing to do, even though “girls” seems like a risky term these days.
    “You don’t know these guys,” said Alan, “but you’ll fit right in. We’ll sit around the pool, have some wine, and some pasta dishes I made for dinner.” I accepted. I had nothing else going and I liked the idea of pool, wine and pasta. He asked everyone to bring a bottle of red. Alan's rather particular about having the right wine to go with one of his meals. It's an admirable trait, one that is foreign to me since I'm not into wines. Give me a Tito's vodka or a Knob Creek bourbon and I'm happy.
    That evening I was the last one there, having stopped at Total Wine for a bottle of medium-priced rose’, a good choice for summer drinking, so I’ve been told. Besides, red wine gives me a migraine. From the moment I pulled into his driveway in my 2013 Hyundai Elantra, I knew I had no business being there. It’s that “car thing,” a big deal with guys that closely ties the size of their net worth to their car. Mine is clearly reflected by my shiny red Hyundai.
    I parked behind a 2018 white Mercedes convertible. It’s the model that grabs my attention when it passes me on the road. The Mercedes was behind a sleek new Infiniti SUV. Which was behind a new Lexus sedan and a sporty BMW or an Audi - I confuse the two. Sitting by itself, away from everyone else so it wouldn’t get scratched, was a white Lamborghini. This is a show stopper. These beauties start at $200,000 and rapidly escalate from there.
    I could own at least twenty Elantra’s for the price of one Lamborghini. Why, I wondered, would someone pay that much for a car to drive in a state where the maximum speed limit is 70 mph? The answer, of course, is because they can.
    As we sat around the pool - actually, next to it, on a patio; no one went swimming - a big, entertaining guy named named Bob asked a perfectly sun-tanned guy with a full head of beautifully-styled white hair a question I’ve never heard before. “Steve, how do you like your Lambo?”
    Lambo! At first I wasn’t sure what a Lambo was. I started to laugh but realized it was a serious question. About what, I had no idea. “What’s not to like in a “Lambo?”, I almost said, always tempted to go for the cheap laugh. Steve casually said, “It’s a lot of fun.” Two or three hundred thousand dollars worth of fun on four wheels??? I don’t know what passes for fun in a Lambo but it sure isn’t going to Home Depot for a can of Rust-Oleum.
    And so the night progressed. The group was easy to be with. Lots of laughs, a relaxing banter, jokes both good and bad, golf stories. And I felt included - except for the golf. Never touch the stuff. After a delicious dinner of four different pastas prepared by Alan and a salad and a little more banter and wine, I was the first to say goodnight. I didn’t want them to see that pitiful little car I was driving. It didn’t work. They all decided it was time to leave. So there I was, trapped in the driveway while they climbed into their chariots and began to pull out.

    Look, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to spend a pile on a vehicle. If I had the money, I’d probably go for something that gets people to stare with envy and, as Mose Allison sings it, “makes little girls talk out of their heads.” The language of cars belongs to guys. I never heard women talk about their “Caddy” or a “Jag” or especially a Lambo. Of course that may change with the changing times. Along with “girls night out.”
One thing I regret - not asking Steve if he’d take me for a ride. Even to Home Depot. It’s probably as close to riding in a Lambo I’ll ever get.

(NOTE: After this article ran in the Fall 2018 issue of County Living Magazine, I received an email from Steve. He offered to take me for a ride. To Costco. Fine by me. I like Costco better than Home Depot anyway.)

(FINAL NOTE: Steve never followed up on this. I never got to ride in his Lambo. Doesn't matter, though. I had spent a delightful evening with my friend Alan, and his - at the time - lady friend, Sandy. They were married a couple of years later. This approximates a happy ending to the story.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Conversation with a Renegade Hen

The Backstory:
During the summer of 2010, a crisis hit egg lovers throughout the country. The epicenter of this hard-boiled tragedy was a group of farms in Wright County, Iowa, all owned by the same company. Many of the eggs from there caused salmonella outbreaks from coast to coast. This was nothing new for the company. It had happened several times before, causing an outbreak of sickness and death. More than 500 million eggs were recalled. Infected hens were thought to be the source. Thousands were targeted and “eliminated.

This is my tale from late that summer.

                    Conversation with a Renegade Hen

The road runs from Hannibal, Missouri, to St. Louis. The passing scenery offers abundant beauty. 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 while there to conjure up the spirit of Sam Clemens. I had questions for him about how to write humor. He never showed. Probably tired of writers asking him that question.
The second “B” at the B&B was excellent: scrambled eggs (farm fresh, I was told) with cheddar cheese and onions, whole wheat toast, homemade strawberry preserves, and a thick slice of country ham. I knew about the diseased eggs and asked if my scrambled specimens were from Iowa. “No, sir,” said the landlady. “Those are from right here in Hannibal. I’ve been eating them all week and feel just fine.” I believed her.
     After breakfast I looked at a map in the living room. Keokuk, on the Iowa border, is just 65 miles from Hannibal. “Pretty close,” I thought. The enemy at the gate, if you will. Seeking a little exercise before driving back home to St. Louis, I took a long walk in the woods that border the B&B. My thoughts were not on Huck and Tom but on eggs. The ones that were being recalled. Tens of millions of them, all originating in Iowa, just a stone 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. Actually, a hen. Brown and russet, rather thin, scraggly feathers, eyes wide with fear. She didn't move. I approached her, moving slowly, a smile on my face, thinking loving, positive thoughts.
     She looked me right in the eye.
     “Hello, my feathered friend,” 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 said. 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 felt a chill. “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 on the ground next to her. She backed away. In my gentlest voice, I said, “No, I'm not one of them.” I introduced myself.         “I’m Gerry. With a ‘G.’”
    “Phrances, she said. "With a ‘Ph’".
    “You’re kidding.”
    “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.
    “You can’t imagine the conditions there. Nobody writes about ‘em. I saw rats. They ran along the walls, scurried between the cages. I still have nightmares where I see their beady red eyes and wet twitching noses, probing between the bars.” She shuddered at the memory. “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 pocked. “There. As much as you want.” I tilted the bottle so the water 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. Strong. To keep us awake, increased production. I’m kind of addicted to it now. I get these headaches…”
    I laughed. “I’ll take you to Starbuck’s.”
    “What’s that?”
    “Never mind. Go on with your story, Phrances. Please.”
    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 weasel. 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 hens 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 of me. The story became clear as she talked. Over a half billion eggs from the Iowa farm recalled. More than a thousand cases of salmonella poisoning across the country. An egg operation involving as many as half a million hens. Each cage holding four or five 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 Mortenson. 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. Hallandale. Shoreline. 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 a Ralph’s or Albertson or Kroger, 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 Alcatraz 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, a hint of dignity. “Yes Gerry with a G, yes, there is. Tell people what went on. Let them know what we hens 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 central Missouri. They live on a farm. Nobody cares how many eggs they lay, as long as the owners have their beer. 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 to me.”
    “Safe travel, Phrances,” I shouted as she disappeared into the undergrowth of elder bush. “I’ll keep my promise.”
    And she was gone.



Friday, April 8, 2022

A Literary Event of Sorts: My New Book

A few select words to introduce you to "Selected Writings"

 The first short story I ever wrote featured a roach trying to climb up steep, white porcelain walls. Except you didn’t know it was a roach because I wrote it from the roach’s point-of-view. He was in a bathroom sink and I was in junior high school at the time, loved science-fiction, found my mind exploring strange and wonderful worlds. I might be another Ray Bradbury, I thought, a Poet of the Possible. I also liked “funny,” as in Max Schulman, S. J. Perelman, Art Buchwald and Mad comic books. This was another genre that appealed to me. Although at the time, I didn’t even know what a “genre” was.

Now, many words, many stories, many years later,
I have a respectable collection  of writings. All kinds. They are in my book which has just been published. “GERRY MANDEL SELECTED WRITINGS.”  I wanted them to be permanently accessible in a real book printed on paper. Much of what I have written are in digital files, which will disappear someday when the electromagnetic storm engulfs Earth and wipes out all files. Or the technology will change, making the stories inaccessible. Plus I just like the idea of being able to hold a book in my hands, feel its weight, its texture, and say, “Yep. This is my book.”

Looking back over this collection, I realize just how many of them almost wrote themselves, how they were just lying in wait to be released from somewhere in my imagination. Occasionally I’ll read one of my old stories and have no memory of having written it. Like being in the zone. It’s a little scary, but also very exciting and revealing about how the creative mind works.

Writing is something most writers are compelled to do. “Not writing” is not an option. I’ve occasionally gone days without writing, and grow increasingly irritable. Something is missing. Until I sit down at my computer - used to be “at my typewriter” - or with a pen and pad, the mood hangs in there. It’s been said that being a writer is a blessing and a curse. True.

A writer/friend who has read my book, asked me if I had a favorite story. I can honestly say I like them all, some a little more than others, but believe I did what I set out to do - tell an interesting story that finds its audience and pleases them. Two are high on my list of favorites. One is an essay about my mother, called “Piano Sonata in Four Movements: L’Adieu.” The other is a humor piece, fictional, called “Renegade Chicken.” Highly recommended.

The book also holds the first five chapters of my novel, “Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin.” Also a novelette which, until now, resided only on Amazon Kindle. It’s “The Negro in the Basement.” I am still moved by the memory of how this came to be, a story of values, attitudes, guilt, and changing times.

“Selected Writings” is not a finale. My writing continues weekly if not daily. A new novel about Chaplin making “The Great Dictator,” how he faced incredible pressure and risk during a tumultuous time in America. Also, the true story of a man who has lived with ALS for nine years. He says he has been “time stamped.” And, of course, my Random Musings column in County Living Magazine. Publisher Todd Abrams has been extremely supportive of my efforts here. Like many writers, I need deadlines. Todd gives me those deadlines, along with the freedom to pick the subjects. Thanks, Todd.

Here comes the commercial.  To order my book, send me an email, to I’ll mail you a copy, signed if you insist.
Or mail a check to 503 Taylor Young Drive, Kirkwood MO 63122.
Cost is $22, plus $4 mailing. A bargain for such literary enjoyment.

Some comments from astute readers:

“Gerry Mandel writes with a wit, charm, and irony that walks with us through the outer layers of our sensibilities before it opens the door to the spirit of the human heart. An authentic voice.”
    - Dennis Fleming, author, “The Girl Who Had No Enemies

   …a compelling collection of prose, dynamic fiction, non-fiction, humorous tales, and diverse topics. Mandel notes the power in words, music, and song to heal, strengthen, and awaken…impressive writing that leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction.”
            - Linda O’Connell, writer, author, teacher

“Gerry Mandel approaches life with close observation, a wry smile and a sense of wonder and discovery. He has that acute sense of knowing how to make a story important.”
            - Dwight Bitikofer,  poet, community newspaper publisher

“If you want a peek inside one of the most critical and humorous minds in this age and time, this is a treasure. Gerry Mandel sees the ordinary stuff we see but then rattles it around in that exquisite brain of his until it comes our as a polished gem of observation and wit. Trust me, you’ll like what you see.”
            - Harry Weber, internationally known sculptor, artist