I’m on vacation (again!). This is a posting of one of my favorite blogs.
My maternal grandfather was a thief. And he was proud of it. He boasted, to anyone would listen, of all that he had pilfered from the navy during World War II.
After his death, we found a large sextant still in its original packaging, a silver sugar and creamer set from the Officer’s Club, a pair of binoculars, and a life raft from a ship that he wasn’t even on. He had no compunction of stealing the paper from his neighbor and it was not unusual for my grandmother to have to supply a new one to the angry fellow next door.
Although he married my grandmother, a well-to-do only child, he was extremely tightfisted and shopped at the local Salvation Army, stuffing all he could into a brown bag for 25 cents. I remember as a child, him offering to spring for my own 25 cent shopping bag, and how excited I was to pick out whatever I wanted.
He had closets of old clothes, none of which really fit but he knew exactly what was there. He didn’t mind stealing, but he was extremely angry if he thought anyone was stealing from him. We were always were grilled as we left the house after a visit, sometimes even emptying out our pockets to prove we were “clean.”
“the Old Man”
Anyone who knew him called him “the Old Man,” and he had a reputation of being belligerent, cunning and lithe. At eighty-five years of age, we witnessed him riding across the yard on a unicycle. When he was a mere eighty, he set himself up a small sled he had made from a bucket on a skateboard and took it down their steep driveway. To this day, my husband tells the story of “the Old Man” jumping up on a counter to change a ceiling light bulb with more dexterity than a twelve-year old. He had the nimble physique of a monkey and I can only imagine what he was like as a young man.
He held grudges, even with children, as though there was a secret covenant to try to trick him or put one over on him. He once accused my, then, fourteen year-old son of stealing a moth-eaten fedora from him and until the day he died he referred to Marcus as sneaky. If he took a dislike to you, he had neither the manners nor the inclination to hide his feelings.
He treated his only daughter terribly and told her to her face that he wished she had been born a boy. He took to calling her “Myque” (Mike), a nickname that stuck, and it wasn’t until I was a teen, I realized my mother’s name was really Claudia.
He was a devout atheist and a staunch democrat and considered anyone who dared to disagree with him an idiot. He also had an eye for a pretty girl and there was more than once that I heard my grandmother complaining of his many girlfriends that would phone the house. And he always took the call.
Frank and beans, anyone?
The first time my husband met “the Old Man” was during a holiday dinner at my mothers. My grandfather showed up in the middle of winter in loose nylon running shorts from the seventies (the really short kind), penny loafers, and a tattered sleeveless gray wool vest. He pulled a bar stool up to the table and sat higher than the rest of us, leaning over to eat. He chose not to wear underwear that day and shared his own pride and joy with anyone who had the courage to look.
He startled everyone by announcing in a loud angry voice “Who the hell took my goddamned fork?” He repeated it again until someone offered to get him a new one. Needless to say, my husband was speechless and I had to assure him that the family secret was that I was adopted.
He was a very odd man and I didn’t like him very much – he scared me. He died when he was eight-nine, his skin stretched so thin you could see the numerous tumors that filled his stomach. My grandfather dictated that he wanted to be cremated and requested no funeral or memorial service. So there was no closure in any way, for anyone. He just disappeared.
At one point in my life, I hadn’t thought much about midget strippers. I was young and naïve and under the impression that all strippers were the good-looking athletic type. But (you can see where this is going) we all know that assuming anything can be the kiss of death and I was wrong – sorely wrong – anyone can take their clothes off for money.
This next blog is not for the faint-at-heart or the politically correct, but I can assure you that you will learn a little something about yourself. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be a better person for it.
The year was 1993. A town in Waco had become popular, Prince was known as that “bat-crap crazy” artist, and Michael Jordan retired for the first time. And me, I had managed to get through my fifth college and come out, for the first time, with a diploma.
It was a time to celebrate and I decided to host a party for myself, acknowledging the fact that I had finally finished something I started. Sure it was fifteen years later than when I first walked the campus of Central Michigan University, but I am a slow learner and, frankly, I had issues that I now understand are my mother’s fault.
The party was to be held in the 600 square foot shoe box my children and I called “hell-hole home”. Anyone who cared to affirm that I had actually graduated came, and I found myself surrounded (probably for the first time) with the warmth and love that came with such an accomplishment. As I remember, it was a lovely party and the joy that we shared transcended the heartache of the world.
But it all went terribly awry when, during a chorus of Kumbaya, Kelly looked out the window and gasped.
“There’s a midget carrying balloons headed towards the apartment!” She crushed her cigarette out in her beer can and added, “And he’s dressed like . . . an Arabian Sheik.”
A little something special, just for me
We all rushed to the window and, sure enough, a very small man with very large balloons was skipping towards us. As he came closer we could hear him calling out, “Leath! Oh Leath! Where are you? Dandy ith looking for you!”
I assumed, since my name is not Leath, he was looking for someone else. But he wasn’t. He just had a lisp. “Dandy” arrived, teeth as large as the big bad wolf, with his boom box and balloons and bowed deeply. “At your thervice, my lady,” he announced. “Dandy is all yourths for the nexths thirty minuths!”
As he dug through his bag, I searched the partygoer’s faces wondering who could have done this to me. There was a stunned silence as I met each person’s eyes and I found only confusion and disbelief. No one had that “ha ha” look – they were as surprised as I was. Only when my daughter, Gracie, who was just five, burst into tears did anyone even move.
By then he had slipped a cassette into the box, removed his shirt and pants, and was dancing seductively, wait . . . seductively is not the word I want. Let me rephrase that. He was moving towards me in a strange way and holding out, what appeared to be, a bunch of grapes. As he swiveled his hips to “Ice Ice Baby”, he held the fruit out to me, winked and whispered, “Feed me baby.”
For the first time in my life, I couldn’t move or speak. Bizarre is one word I can think of to describe the situation that I found myself in. Humiliated, embarrassed, and shocked are a few more. But it was also funny. Funny in that really sick way that we all enjoy every now and then, especially at someone else’s expense.
After that, things went to hell in a hand basket. Both my sisters, who are self-professed instigators, started screaming, “Take it off. Take it all off!” That’s all it took before the others joined in and the party very quickly went from a love fest to me feeling like Piggy, in the Lord of the Flies. I may have looked like I was enjoying the gyrating midget as I fed him grapes, but it was all I could do to hold it together and not throw myself off the second story balcony.
Dancing with the Stars
Dandy pumped and danced as the crowd cheered and egged him on. He sang loudly as he moved around the dance floor, his huge fake teeth causing him to shower anyone in his way with spittle. I drew the line at having him sit on my lap and tickle his belly, but I couldn’t resist throwing a few grapes in his general direction and watching him dive to try to catch them in his mouth. At one point, he spun like a break dancer on the floor, his sheik’s headress flying out behind him, and we had to physically contain my sister, Becky, from joining in on the action. She apparently has some fetishes I am unaware of.
Finally, my little Dandy collapsed on the floor, panting like a worn out puppy. The music stopped and the manic giddiness disappeared and it became weird again. We helped him pack up the remainder of his grapes and handed him his sheik’s clothes, thanking him for stopping by. He told me to keep the balloons and shook my hand before turning to walk out of our lives forever. I thought Becky would actually break down as she followed him out telling him that “if he was ever in the neighborhood . . .”
With friends like that . . .
For some reason, my friends think it’s funny to do stuff like that to me. It has been suggested that they are actually being hostile when they send a Dandy or, on another occasion, a Naughty Nerd, but I choose to believe it comes from a good place and not an ugly place some crazy shrink has dreamed up.
I have my friend, Denise (who couldn’t make it to the party), to thank for Dandy. I can say with all seriousness, he is one midget stripper that I will never forget. And that, my friends, is just the kind of gift that keeps on giving.
The following is a true story. And the kind of incident that occurs frequently enough so as to prompt my sister, Becky, to say, “Why do those kinds of things always happen to you?” I’m not sure, but as a writer, I’ve been blessed with a fate that has been sprinkled with unusual and tempered with bizarre. I’m also lucky to be alive (as I’ve been told).
So I’m on my way to visit my mother and Pete in northern Michigan, my boys buckled in the minivan and deeply engrossed in a highly educational DVD. I was bored. We were in no-man’s land – my cell couldn’t get any reception, the boys weren’t fighting and even the satellite radio keep going in and out.
I became obsessed with mastering the cruise control. Keep in mind that in the ten years we have owned a Honda, I had never used this feature, located right in front of me on the steering wheel. But as you may have guessed, I am also blessed with the ability to multi-task. So, not only was I driving a 3000 lb vehicle at 70 mph with my young children and a dog in the back, I was also trying to figure out the mystery of the confusing cruise control.
It was NOT my fault, I repeat, NOT my fault
Here is my disclaimer: Even if I had seen the bale of straw sitting in the middle of the road at the crest of a small hill, it would have been too late to do anything. I hit the bale bomb with a resounding “thud”, and though it’s half the size of a bale of hay, it still packed quite a punch. The car shuddered, the boys threw off their head sets and began screaming, the dog started barking and thick smoke obscured all the windows except the windshield.
So you completely understand the decision I made, I will outline the facts.
1. I was in shock! This is important to keep in mind.
2. We were in the middle of nowhere.
3. My phone didn’t work.
I couldn’t figure out the smoke thing. My car was still running and I didn’t detect any funny sounds, but the heavy dark smoke had enveloped us. I could hear other cars honking (as if I were unaware!), but I was afraid if I pulled over, I would be stuck. I thought I should try to make the Big Rapids exit, two miles up the road.
Suddenly, as I neared the exit, the smoke instantly disappeared. I looked out my rear view mirror and saw a small fireball rolling back down the highway. It came to rest at the side of the road where it promptly burst into a large fireball.
This is where I had my ah hah moment. I had been dragging the bale of straw under my car and the friction had caused it to ignite (the smoke!) and when it burned down enough, I had shaken it loose. I was instantly relieved that we weren’t dead, but I was still visibly upset and I needed to see what kind of damage I had inflicted on my beloved minivan. I pulled off at the intended exit and headed for the only gas station, a mile down the road.
Rule of thumb – Know your Audience
I got out to inspect my beat-up car and immediately started recounting my situation to the large tattooed fellow on the Harley Davidson, getting gas next to me. Remember, I was still in shock. As I was explaining my story, I noticed a smell, a funny smell, one that I recognized from back in the day – the guy reeked of marijuana!
It was just my luck that the biker dude was stoned to the beejezus! The whole area was filled with the stench of pot but I had already engaged him and I didn’t want to appear rude or insult the dope-fiend, so I finished my story.
“Well, that explains it,” he drawled.
“What?” I asked.
“Why you smell like Cheech and Chong.” He nodded towards the van where my two boys’ faces were pressed against the window.
“Me? What do you mean?” I turned around and smoke was still pouring out from every crevice of my van. Smoldering pieces of straw stuck out from the door jams, the windows and even the gas cap. It then came to my attention that the smell of burning straw smells suspiciously like you-know-what. He wasn’t the pot-head - I was!
“I’m a responsible mother! I only did that once,” I gulped, “back in college.”
“I bet you didn’t inhale, either,” he chuckled.
Just then, a small group of fire trucks and police vehicles, their sirens blaring, passed the station, racing out towards the highway.
“Looks like you have some ‘splaining to do, Lucy.” The biker/comedian pulled his helmet on. “Good luck,” he said sincerely as he roared off.
The Walk of Shame
I slowly walked in to the gas station and announced to the two gals listening to the police radio that I thought I might be the one who started the brush fire out by the highway. They looked at each other as if they had never started a fire and handed me the phone.
Later, as the police were taking my report, the officer mentioned, more than once, just how lucky we were to be alive.
“You know,” he said as he took my registration, “those gas tanks are made outta plastic. If you’da pulled over with the bale still stuck, the car probably woulda exploded. You’re lucky you hit it straight on,” he added, “most folks would have jerked the steering wheel one way or another, coulda hit a car or veered off the road.”
So, it was a good thing that I didn’t do as common sense would have dictated. By not seeing the straw bale in time and not pulling over immediately, I may have inadvertently done something right. . . by following some crazy, shock induced logic; I may have saved my family from, well, something not good.
“I could have been planning three funerals right now,” my mother commented when we arrived safely in Frankfort. “Four, if you count the dog . . . and this is a busy weekend.”
I do hate to put people out.
“That’s a horrible picture of you.” The woman with the frizzy hair pointed up to the large banner with the caricature of me sitting in my Coffee Blog cup. “It’s really bad.”
“Do you think so?” I replied, taken aback. Not only was her manner brusque, but I actually thought the picture was somewhat flattering and I’ve had worse. (First photo after giving birth – not good)
“Terrible. Not good at all. Your hair looks like a wig and your face looks fat.” She looked around. “Are you giving anything away for free?”
I handed her a pair of cotton gardening gloves with the word “MOM” stenciled on them. “Thanks for stopping by.” I smiled sweetly. “It has been a pleasure.”
She looked disappointedly at the gloves as she dropped them in her bag. “My advice – get a new photographer.”
“A real pleasure,” I repeated as I glanced over at Dawn, who was gently peeling a man’s very hairy hand from her arm. “Dawn,” I called out, “can I talk to you?” She looked at me gratefully as she made her way out of the corner in which she had been backed in to. We needed a code word.
Here’s the dealio . . .
Situation analysis . . . BEA – BookExpo America, the largest publishing conference in the U.S., New York City, May 2009. Windy City Publishers was making its debut and I, along with partners Dawn and Kristyn, was manning our booth on the convention floor. The lines to get in were long and we were crazy busy from the moment the doors opened and a brave librarian threw herself across the entrance threshold, determined to be the first to get Fabio’s autograph. No one had the heart to tell her the Harlequin icon hadn’t been there since 1995.
My friend, Debbie, who helps run the show, was kind enough to garner us a booth in the middle of the action, a stone’s throw from Random House and Simon and Schuster. This gesture was testament to her willingness to let bygones be bygones as earlier this year my husband had gotten into a heated discussion with her. The debate had concerned some ridiculous provision in the contract for the booth space, and we almost didn’t go as he told me, “You can’t sign this, it’s too one-sided.” But the threat of divorce can be a serious one and he quickly changed his tune and made nice with Debbie. “I understand,” she told me apologetically, “he’s a lawyer.”
Don’t judge us by our junk!
Authors, publishers, book sellers, book buyers, librarians and anyone who was willing to pay the piper roamed the two floors of the large convention center. Our goal: to get as many of these fine folk to stop by our small 10 x 10 booth and listen to our pitch. The hook? Junk.
Last January a local warehouse outlet store was going out of business and I struck a deal with the manager to take cases of the cheesy merchandise off her hands for, literally, pennies. The thought at the time was to hand out the Speed Racer tire gauges, rulers that said “girls rule”, gardening gloves (see above), Rubik’s cube erasers and a number of other “gifts” as bait to lure the folks hustling by into the WCP booth.
But Dawn and Kristyn did not share in my excitement. They didn’t find the charm in the golf balls that said “dear dad” or the lighted magnifying glass shaped like a dog. “I’m not sure how to tie that in with publishing.” Kristyn, ever the marketer, told me diplomatically. “They don’t even say Windy City Publishers.”
“It’s just the fact that they’re free,” I said. Thoughts of my cheap relatives passed quickly through my head – had I unknowingly become my father? “Everyone likes something for free.”
My argument did not convince them and we struck a deal. I had one hour after the show opened to make my case. If the gifts did not perform as I expected, the Ice Age II bouncy balls and Harry Potter stickers, along with the other treasures, would be pulled and stored behind closed doors. We could then join the ranks of the sophisticated other vendors who were above such nonsense and hopefully Windy City Publishers would have enough time to earn back the respectability that such a stunt might damage.
The Big Bet
Dawn was so confident they were right, she offered to kiss a certain large part of my anatomy for a year if I was proved wrong, and Kristyn joined in the bet, both women convinced that I had relapsed and the bizarre voices in my head had returned.
It could have been the fact that I stood in the aisles shouting “free stuff” or that I practically stalked the patrons walking by, but within minutes it became obvious that the pink lava pens were a hit. Say it with me, friends . . . we like free junk! I know I’ll take anything (two if it’s small) of whatever you want to give me, even if I have no need for it, no place to store it or don’t even know what it is. I actually bought 1500 of the Rubik’s erasers, knowing that I would have at least one item for birthday gift bags for all the foreseeable future.
But people pushed into our booth, jockeying for position. We overheard librarians claiming that we gave out the best chotchkies and they would pass on our location to their friends. The booth was busting at the seams, folks spilled out into the asles and we couldn’t keep up with the crowds. We did manage to spread the good word of our company and collected hundreds of business cards in addition to talking non-stop for three days. We met some really great people (hi to Ray, Barbara and Peter) and some really interesting people (translation: strange).
I’m not one to rub it in, but WCP was the buzz of BEA, partially because of our swag, partially because of the scantily dressed models we had hanging out (I’m just pulling your leg – Kelly and Leslie aren’t models). I may slightly exaggerate, but we were very popular. The “gifts” proved to be excellent bait, and I’m happy to report I have a year of special lovin’ coming my way from two of my very favorite people (That would be you, Dawn and Kristyn).
Now if anyone is interested in a Rubik’s cube eraser – have I got a deal for you!
A special thanks to our good friend and design expert, Jeff Comeau, (IntuitDesign) for all his hard work, on both his design work and his manual labor at the show. P.S. Jeff, my leg is fine, the bruises have healed nicely!
My mother exaggerates more than anyone else in the whole world. This is not just my opinion – ask anyone who knows her and they will attest to this. It is impossible for her to state just the plain facts and it is one trait, I’m happy to say, that I was fortunate enough not to inherit.
I don’t hold this against her. Years of shock therapy and a minor lobal proctonomy have taught me that this is her way of communicating. I just needed to learn how to divide down to the lowest common denominator. It sounds technical but it simply means that one needs to take what she says and divide by the first number out of her mouth then add one.
Let’s do the Math
Example: If she mentioned that she got over a million calls regarding the neutering of Bob, her cat, then you would take one million and divide it by the first number she mentioned (one million) and add one. Since I am an accountant, I will quickly do the math for you and come up with the correct number of. . . 2. My mother received approximately two calls concerning the removal of Bob’s testicles.
Now, being overly critical of her, I would venture to guess that this was a gross exaggeration and she really received only one. Probably the vet calling to make sure Bob had moved his bowels.
Pete, my step-father, already had a vast understanding of my mother’s affliction long before we did and is proficient in this language. He is also kind enough to translate her verbiage when numbers aren’t involved, but an accurate assessment of a situation is needed. Case in point: when she called me to tell me that their car blew up and Pete and the four dogs barely escaped with their lives, the call went something like this.
Claudia: This was the most horrific thing that has ever happened to us. He’s lucky to be alive – I could be planning five funerals right now. I don’t how Pete sensed that something bad was going to happen, but he did. It was like he had a sixth sense about it. The phone has been ringing off the hook, everyone has called… it almost made the local news. It’s been crazy around.
Me: Can you put Pete on the phone?
Claudia: Let me see if he’s up for taking calls. Pete! (screaming on the other end)
Me: What happened? How are you?
Pete: I’m fine. My toe hurts a bit.
Me: From the truck fire?
Pete: I accidently kicked the leg of the sofa.
Me: No, I mean how are you holding up after the fire, you know, barely escaping with your life and all.
Pete: Oh, that. I saw a bit of smoke coming from under the hood, so I stopped and pulled over. The engine had over-heated and the paper boy gave me and Buddy a lift home.
Me: You’re alright?
Pete: Except for the toe.
Mental illness does run in my family so you can certainly understand how we have learned not to call her out on these stories. I did this once when I was young and foolish, and the treatment and medication required to repair the damage was so extensive that it cost close to a million dollars. I kid you not.