…Ford Every Stream

I first learned about celebrity when I was a kid in Arizona.  And this wasn’t from the movies or primitive early television broadcasts.  My dad was reading the evening Tucson Daily Citizen when he chuckled and put down the newspaper.  “Here’s someone you should know, Teddy.”

He called my attention to a man who had achieved some notice–at least dad had noticed him.  L.V. Voss, the celebrity in question, had just trotted into town.  I say “trotted” because he arrived from Los Angeles on foot, pulling a rickshaw-like cart containing all his possessions.  He had just completed, he said, a 13-month trek from the Canadian border.

Living on 50 cents a day and calling himself “professor,” Mr. Voss claimed expertise in diet and health and lived a vegetarian life. He bragged of limitless stamina, challenging all comers to any feat of endurance. This was long before health-nuts fell from the trees.

Dad read on: “Mr. Voss has deeply bronzed skin, shoulder-length white hair and wears a little less clothing than a bathing beauty.”  It was rumored that he sunbathed nude. At 71, the learned professor roamed the West searching for his future mate which he described as “a normal woman fit to love, age 21.”  Only when he had found her would he end his wanderings.

Prof. Voss

Prof. Voss achieved his regional fame by staging feats of impressive strength.   He was photographed pulling a delivery truck twenty-five yards, his lean muscles taut with confident determination.

As a coda to the Professor’s story, dad later read that his career had hit a bump when he was demonstrating how he could pull an automobile with his long white hair.  He usually did this with the brake off and the car in neutral.  Unfortunately, some wisenheimer, as dad put it, had left the car in low gear and Professor Voss underwent a painful hair restyling.  Fortunately for the vigorous professor, the press cameras missed the moment, although the incident made the evening paper. Twenty years later, at age 91, the scantily clad gentleman was still searching for his mate.

It was at about the time Professor Voss first came into my view that my brother Mike and I made one of our several hair-brained attempts to make our mark, achieve fame, set a record or something.  I was six years old and Mike was nine when, without knowing it, we joined the vanguard of what was later to become the wall climbing fad.  As it happened, our climbing careers ended as quickly as they began–mine in a painful catastrophe and Mike’s in laughter at my misfortune.

CIMG0009We were living in a one-story ranch style house that my parents had helped design in a modest Tucson neighborhood aspirationally named North Campbell Estates.  The design called for the bricks to be laid in a randomly offset pattern and whitewashed to create a Mexican ranchero effect.  The uneven bricks also created an irresistible challenge for two young boys lacking common sense.  It was a simple idea: scramble around the house by clinging to the uneven wall surface – without touching the ground.  Whoever made it the farthest, won.  No prize was named.  It never was in these competitions.

Mike and I had tried this stunt in daylight with varying degrees of success.  But the final round came one night after we had gone to bed and were supposed to be sleeping.  While Mom and Dad read quietly in the living room, we put on our sneakers and climbed out our bedroom window.  Mike ascended the wall first and clawed his way up the bricks until he was about a foot off the desert sand.  I followed closely behind.  We inched our way along slowly, filled with a crazy sense of achievement.  As the rules dictated, our feet were not touching the ground.
imageAnd then the adventure went sideways for me or, rather, backwards.  My fingers lost their hold.  I didn’t exactly fall because my feet were barely above the ground to begin with.  Rather I sat into a small cactus garden my mother had planted on the side of the house.  More specifically, I landed on the horribly misnamed Teddy Bear cactus, more commonly known as the “jumping cholla.”

From a distance, these fiendish plants look fuzzy, but in fact they are a mass of easily detachable arms that are covered with thousands of finely barbed needles. If you merely brush against them, they latch on to you through clothing and shoes.  It is almost as if they jump on you.  Well, it didn’t have to wait for me to saunter too closely by to make its move.  I sat on it.

How to handle the resulting emergency was complicated by the fact that Mike and I were not supposed to be out of the house at night.  Plus, Dad had expressly forbidden us to climb on the brick structure at any time.  And as always, this misadventure was weighed down by the thick mass of crushing stupidity that surrounded many of my brightest schemes. If experience has taught me one thing, though, it is this: When your ideas blow up, it is a good time to be team spirited about sharing credit for their creation.

maxresdefault-1As I cried in pain, Mike tried to figure out a way to remove the clump of jumping cholla branches that had attached themselves through my pajamas firmly and painfully to my butt. He could do nothing without ensnaring his fingers, so we were forced to seek help from Mom and Dad.  This was humiliating in all kinds of ways.

I spent the next hour and a half bent over my father’s knee.  Using a desk lamp, a large magnifying glass, tweezers and needle nose pliers, Dad plucked hundreds of the tiny barbed needles out one by one. Periodically, Mike would poke his head in the door and laugh uncontrollably.

Cactus spines
Magnified view of jumping cholla spines

“It’s not funny,” I wailed.

“Stop that, Michael.  You’re not helping,” mother said.

In truth, Mom was unsympathetic to my plight because we had disobeyed Dad, but she dutifully helped with the surgery by holding the lamp and magnifying glass trying to suppress a smile. She didn’t have to say, “I told you so.”  I had a buttful of quills memorably making the point.

I was reminded of this incident recently when Anders and I watched “Free Solo.”  It’s a documentary about Alex Honnold who climbed the face of El Capitain in June, 2017, using only his hands and feet and powered solely by his adrenaline addiction.  Watching him scramble up the dangerous rock wall like a creature with suction cups on his toes and fingers gave fresh and vivid meaning to the overused phase “hanging on by your fingertips.”  If you haven’t done what Honnold did, you are not allowed to use that expression anymore.  Because of my Tucson wall experience, I am allowed to say it, but only very quietly in empty rooms.  I should point out, however, that I have earned the lifetime right to say–with expert authority–“pain in the ass.”6000

Chronicling Honnold’s truly death-defying performance, the documentary asks the inevitable question, “Why?”  He answers with the equally inevitable, “Because it was there.”  Of course, that is the same reason engineers give for building a road around a mountain.

monteeIt’s puzzling the things people will do to make their mark, win a competition, get attention or stand out from the crowd.  In the Alps where we have a cabin, each summer l’Ultra Montée is an event that gives intrepid compulsives a chance to win a modicum of acclaim. On the appointed day, athletes run up a very steep trail on the face of the Memises mountains. This is adjacent to the cliff that forced Caesar approaching from the opposite side to halt his march, turn around and find another way forward leaving behind the designation, Mont César.  Rock outcroppings can achieve notoriety just by being there.31946933_1502154233264206_1188745599189516288_n

Having reached the top of the course, the runners do not pause to enjoy the view over Lake Geneva, Les Dents d’Oche or the Jura. Nor do they have a beer and bad hamburger there in the worst restaurant in France – a different sort of distinction .  No, they take the telecabine to the bottom and then run up again.  And again.  It is as if Sisyphus got his bolder to the summit and then chucked it down the hill so he could repeat his feat. The winner of l’Ultra Montée is the one that sprints to the top the most times in 8 hours without cardiac arrest.  Up-chucking is not considered a demerit.  Why do they do it?  Beats me.

On the scale of pointless competitions, I tilt toward eating marathons. Every year at Coney Island there is a contest to see who can eat the most hotdogs in 10 minutes.  This challenge is met with a determination only just short of the quest for a cancer cure.

Organized by Major League Eating (MLE) and sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the Hot Dog Eating Contest is broadcast on CSPAN.  You may not be aware that the founders of IFOCE also produced “The Glutton Bowl” on Fox TV because the show vanished like a puff of flatulence after its one and only airing.  Too bad because the event featured 12-minute competitions such as downing quarter-pound sticks of butter and gobbling cow brain. (The winner of the bovine challenge triumphed by consuming ten and half pounds.  And we think cows are stupid.)

Annual Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest Held On July 4th
It requires training. (video)

But it’s the Hot Dog Eating Contest that remains the jewel in the crown of Major League Eating. The defending men’s champion is Joey Chestnut. “His appetite is legendary and he shows no signs of slowing down.” Joey won the Mustard Belt in 2019 by downing 71 hot dogs but to his fans’ disappointment was not able to match his world record of 74. Joey has been awarded the Mustard Belt 11 times.  Watching the final laps of this competition on Youtube I can hear my mother’s voice saying, “That’s not normal.” 

As fame seekers go, one of my favorites is Annie Edson Taylor, an unsung women’s lib pioneer.  A teacher struggling to get by on her own after her husband died, Annie concocted a stunt to bring herself notoriety and, she hoped, a comfortable retirement.  She decided she would be the first person to plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to talk about it.

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Not a complete fool, Annie used her housecat as a guinea pig and sent it over the falls in a crudely cushioned barrel as a test.  The surprised animal survived, so Annie decided to give it a go herself.

uploads2016921niagarabarrel_9.jpgfit-in__1440x1440On her 63rd birthday in 1901, she climbed into the white oak pickle barrel that she had designed for the journey. Annie had padded the inside with a mattress and added two leather straps to keep herself from bouncing around too much, a design refinement suggested, perhaps, by the cat.  A 200-pound anvil was placed in the bottom of the container as ballast to keep it as upright as possible while it bobbed its way over the falls.

And off she went.

image-1When Annie was fished out of the river below, the plucky teacher was uninjured except for some bleeding from her head.  She later reflected on her remarkable feat for future generations of daredevils: “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the fall.” The cat’s reflections on its experience are unrecorded.

In a repeat of an old story, Annie’s manager absconded with the famous barrel, her fortune failed to materialize and, although she did achieve some notoriety, Annie died impoverished.

I have to admit that these days my own competitive ambitions have cooled considerably since my youthful daredevil days.  Even if I had a notion to do something physically challenging or with a hint of danger, I am restrained by something a great man once told me and that I pass on to you.

At the end of each session, my twerking coach would always caution: “Be careful.  You could break something important.”

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Shape Shifting

b6af4a687cc48a29cca10899b048f11120f7e175To pass time on an airplane, I sometimes browse the SkyMart magazine to learn about
the amazing products that are missing from my life. As enticing as the ads can seem, it’s usually easy to keep my credit card in my pocket.  We live in an apartment so have no need for the backyard stereo speaker covers that leave your nearsighted friends guessing where the music is coming from.  They will never suspect those fiberglass lumps. As if near-sighted people don’t have enough to guess about.

We actually have a real dog, so I turned the SkyMart page on the faux canine that could be yours for only $38.98.

Screenshot 2020-01-31 at 3.41.46 PMPERFECT PETZZZ BLACK LAB BREATHING PUPPY IN DOG BED

“Lifelike puppy that actually breathes. This adorable pet offers a real pet ownership experience without the hassles and expense. An alternative to the pet ownership – The ultimate pet.”

I don’t know if it is still on offer in the SkyMart, but once upon a time the Chin Gym really stirred my imagination.

chingym1“With Chin Gym – the patented, isometric, mini weightlifting system – you can easily trim, strengthen, tone, and firm the three muscle groups that directly affect your “double chin” area. Simply hold the mouthpiece between your teeth for 15 minutes daily – five weights allow 19 tiny increments for gradual progression over a period of a few months. Once you reach your goal of a more youthful chin, maintain with a twice-a-week workout.”

The Lululemon lab is missing a bet if they haven’t cooked up a special outfit for this exercise program.

Apparently chin toning technology has advanced from the tiny increments, “no pain, no gain” days. In a metro station in Seoul, I came across an ad for a “Face Corset”.  To control that seductive, come hither under-chin wobble that drives men wild, I guessed.  But no.  This amazing product promises more. Judging by the photo on the poster, the “Rose-Lace Lifting Span Mask” can transform the face of the average Korean woman into a blue-eyed Caucasian nun with full moist lips and plucked eyebrows.  There is no promise of what it might do if, like me, you have more chins than the Hong Kong phone directory.

face corset

Curious about how the “Face Corset” works its magic, I went on-line and discovered a wonderous new world of facial firming apparatus. The images that popped up with the usual alarming Google speed show models that look like the love children of Gwyneth Paltrow and Freddie Kruger.

Evidently, lifting span masks are a thing in South Korea as are eyelid surgery, lip plumping and other medical tinkering with nature.  Among certain segments of the population there, a woman’s primary task in life is to find a rich husband.  If this means ending up looking like Sister Mary Joseph, so be it.

Those searching for flab free faces should know that the masks have reached America. And men shouldn’t feel smugly immune to the trend. Women have always had to cope with comments about their appearance. But isn’t it only a matter of time before we are being asked, “Hey, Jello jaws! Skip your chin gym workout, today?”

51FhbAezVTL._SX425_Not to worry.  There are manly versions of the span masks just for us.  So what if when you wear them you feel like you put your jock strap on in a drunken frenzy.
Soon your nether chin will look like you are permanently tilting your head toward the stars. As men pursue firmer futures, can span lifting Wonderbutt briefs be far behind?

I probably should be careful carping about different products because these days many people talk about their “brand” as if they themselves were a product. The old Norse villagers who seared symbols into their animals’ hides with a burning log wouldn’t recognize what they started.  What would they make of the herd of Kardashian brands?

This branding business can be confusing.  Our dog Elliot represents a breed – Norwich Terrier – but does that mean he is a brand?  Is that what he is doing when we take walks in the neighborhood: branding the trees?

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On brand for Kim Kardashian.

I have trouble thinking of myself as a brand.  I don’t like being in the same category as Tide Pods and Preparation H—or the Kardashians, for that matter.  I’m old fashioned and liked it better when people had reputations, and we talked about honor, fidelity, honesty, courage, truth and character. In those days, forever was a long time and a damaged reputation endured.

But, apparently, now when you’re a brand, you don’t have to worry about your character. That’s the whole point.  You get to walk things back, erase the tape, “clarify” to mean the opposite of what you just said. You can put yourself in innovative packaging with bold new colors.  Just a wave of the Men in Black wand and, “voila!,” you are someone different– definitely recyclable. I wonder if St. Peter accepts re-brands at the pearly gates.  “Is that you?”

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From Paris bus shelter – Can’t say they didn’t warn you about the ingredients
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Cigarette ad – S. Korea.  This is a lovely wish, and I think we can agree that the world would be a better place.

I am fascinated by the ads, brands and signs that I come across in my travels.  Like ancient cave paintings, they reflect the mysterious folk ways of strange tribes.

56e922873dbd2d1e3dc6a9f0e2c9728a--retro-advertising-retro-adsBy far the most culturally baffling are the advertising campaigns that anthropomorphize objects and animals.  And I’m not just referring to loquacious ducks and geckos.  I mean products and beasts that are sexualized.  If you’re old enough, you might remember a cigarette pack with shapely legs that lured you toward addiction and cancer with triple time steps. We thought it was cute.

In France, Orangina, a popular soft drink, uses animals in its advertisements that are meant to be sexy, I suppose, but the images would keep Freud awake at night.

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It’s true that the bear with the discreet fig leaf in their ads is ripped and has a long tongue, but the lady quadrupeds with big boobs are down-right creepy. Nothing like sitting in the lap of a scantily clad giraffe with silicone implants to get a young man in the mood for an insipid orange beverage.

Other people’s fantasies are often mystifying.  For example, these days, dressing up like a plush animal character is a thing, and not just for four-year-olds playing Minny Mouse on Halloween or Judi Dench looking for an embarrassing screen role. I’m talking about “furries.” You may not be aware of this phenomena unless your neighbor showed up at your Labor Day barbeque resembling a six-foot chipmonk—with curled tail and all.  “Hi, Bob.  Is that one of those new Weber grills?”

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A fury coming out to his parents.

The furry phenomena is popular with children, teens and adults from all walks of life.  At first blush, fans who don furry costumes may seem to share the DNA of more upscale people who like to drape headless dead minks about their persons.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye.  Genuine furries are not advertising their wealth or status like the mink people.  And they are doing more than merely displaying their fandom for a favorite character.  Their “fursona” signifies certain values (usually peaceful and benign, I read), as well as an identification with people that have similar inclinations. It gives them a feeling of belonging. I understand this feeling because I was once a proud member of a Boy Scout pack called the “coyotes”.  It must be said, however, that we shared little with those creatures except, after a camping trip, their aroma.

qwcrkz0x15w11In a few cases, people take Comicon cosplay into the bedroom.  A word to the wise:  if dressing in a fluffy white get-up with floppy ears turns you on, you should not wait in the bathroom in your special outfit until after your partner has disrobed to say something. Better to mention your fun idea before you hop into the bedroom dressed like Bugs Bunny.

“Well, that’s just weird,” said the guy with the painted torso, decorated face and large wedge of cheese on his head yelling “Smash ‘em” at the big game.

4bd5f7d7c98f0be3e65d1d9b3539d59bI once was casting a show that I directed in L.A. about W.C Fields.  The men that responded to my ad in the Hollywood Reporter were a motely bunch.  One was obviously too young for the part but did an ok impersonation of Field’s voice.  He was able to mimic other movie star’s voices as well — Jimmy Steward, Cagney, the usual.  I asked him how he came by his talent.

“I’ve been doing different voices since I was young.”  In fact, he explained, the one he was using to speak with us was quite different from his real voice.  He used his manufactured voice to talk to everyone these days.  He had me fooled, and I expressed surprise at how natural he sounded.  No one would guess his secret.

“Yea, it can get me in trouble, though,” he offered.  “On my wedding night, I told my new bride that I wanted to be honest and completely myself with her.  So, for the first time, I started talking in my real voice.“ I could see how his sudden flush of romantic candor could cause a problem.

I got to wondering, “If I were a furry, what would I be?”  It’s not an easy a question to answer. I’m hesitant because my winter coat has a collar made of fake polyester fur that looks just like genuine polyester fur.  It’s itchy and that is the problem.  And I’ve watched our dog scratch his own fur which he does nimbly with his rear paw.  I’ve concluded that fur is basically itchy and being a furry is not for me.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t identify with some animals at times.  Recently I’ve been quite taken with the Lesser Bush Baby.  I don’t know much about it except that this tiny monkey is damn cute, the model for Baby Yoda, I think.  I don’t care, I like it.  If you’ve seen the video on line of a Bush Baby being massaged with a toothbrush you will know why. The animal’s joy, ease and pleasure at having its belly rubbed are palpable.  I can identify.

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Click for video Bush Baby

So even though I don’t have the right outfit, I can still express my Bush Baby fursona.  When I daily break my vow not to follow the political news from the US and find myself once again disoriented and disheartened, I go on line in search of my little furry friend.  I watch him stretch out and get his belly rubbed with a toothbrush. And for a few minutes this serene little creature and I are one.  I relax and for a moment, at least, all is right with the world.

 

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Are you talking to me?

 

Harvey girls
3 of the Harvey girls: Virginia, Ruthie, Erin.

My mother was the oldest of six girls in her family, the real Harvey girls.  On holidays, mother and four of her sisters would gather at one or the other’s house.  The sixth daughter, my Aunt Ursula, was a nun in a religious order and usually wasn’t in St. Louis for the holidays. When she did come, she was accompanied by a guard nun.  Her companion would sit quietly in another room like the coats on a bed during a party.

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Ursula

After dinner, with the dishes washed and put away, mother and her siblings would arrange the dining room chairs into a circle.   They would then arrange themselves on the chairs and for the rest of the evening shout at each other all at once. A distinctive family trait was talking and arguing at high volume, with or without a listener.

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Anne Baxter and Yul Brenner in “The Ten Commandments”

“Sunday, we saw that movie…the one with…with.” “The one with the mustache?” “No, no. The other one…that’s married to the actress with the flowy hair…” “That’s not her real hair.”  “I don’t like detective movies.” “Paul Newmar.  That’s the one.” “What’s her name?” “She did that Cecil B. DeMiley film with Moses.” “Such a voice…I love his singing.”

I never could follow their conversations, but they seemed to know where it was all going. Perhaps it didn’t matter and was merely a form of parallel play.

7Often the conversations were really arguments where sibling rivalry flared ferociously. Subjects ranged from whether a chiropractor was a real doctor to whether a baby had to be fat to be healthy. A recurring debate topic was the correct pronunciation of President Roosevelt’s name: “Rooo-se-felt” or “Rose-a-velt,”. This was a serious issue because the Harvey girls were fervent Roosevelt Democrats.  After all, he had rescued their family from the grinding poverty of the depression.

The sisters wouldn’t think to consult facts or authoritative sources for a resolution to their disagreements. The pursuit of truth was beside the point. Laying claim to who knew the most was the object of the exercise. (None of the Harvey girls had formal schooling beyond high school except for Aunt Ursula.)

A thesis might be predicated on, “I heard that so and so…” and rebutted with “Well, I read somewhere that…”  If someone felt she was losing ground, a note of scholarly authority could be added by declaring, “Well, I read a book that said…” All arguments could be stifled or ended with an exasperated, “Oh, you make my tired ache.” I always wondered whether there was a word missing after “tired”.

I liked all of my aunts but especially Aunt Ruthie because she always seemed delighted to see me.  In the argot of the day, she was an “old maid.”  There were several theories about why she never married.  “She has those thick ankles.”  “She should try to be more pleasant.” “She should join a bowling team.”  33e255497881efe6fe0fb4fad05ae847

Mother’s diagnosis lacked nuance: “Ruthie is a hateful woman.”

Aunt Ruthie was famous in the family for saying things that were better left unsaid, and she dispensed her views freely in the world. Family gatherings often ended with her storming out of the house leaving one or more of her siblings in tears.

Each weekday morning, Aunt Ruthie took the bus downtown to where she worked as a clerk at Ely Walker, a dry goods company based in St. Louis.  One particular day, she was seated behind the bus driver and was getting increasingly annoyed at how rude he was to passengers getting on and off.  She could stand it no longer.

“If you saw how square your head looks from the back, you wouldn’t be so obnoxious,” she observed. The driver’s response is lost to history.

25827028157_0fcc406e62_bAunt Ruthie liked to talk to her television as did all her sisters.  She first had a black and white TV with a small round screen and then one of the early Motorola color sets with dodgy settings.  She didn’t bother trying to adjust it to get a decent color balance.  Depending on when you stopped by, you might find her watching “Lucy” in mostly pale red and blue or “The Original Ted Mack Amateur Hour” with brown and yellow shadows.

2097c61caf0bd469d0505bc8634e8acaAunt Ruthie liked Ted Mack and got a kick out of the dulcimer players, Swiss bell ringers and mother-and-son Irish step dancers she would see on his show.  “Isn’t that something,” she would exclaim.  Among the baton twirlers and accordion players, 16 year old Louis Farrakhan (under his birth name Louis Eugene Walcott) was presented in 1949 playing a violin.

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Frankie Lymon and Ed Sullivan

Aunt Ruthie always seemed particularly pleased to see “colored kids” (which she considered a respectful racial designation) display their talent.  She became a big fan of Frankie Lymon when he sang “Goody, Goody” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and was shocked when he was found dead on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom of a heroin overdose at age 25. “Such talent.”

The TV provided Aunt Ruthie with constant fodder for her impassioned commentary. Much of her ire was directed at politicians and news readers. John Cameron Swayze had become one of TV’s first anchormen when nightly he would read items from the news wires on his 15-minute “Camel News Caravan,” and she didn’t like him.

800px-Puerto_del_Rosario_Tefia_-_FV-207_-_La_Alcogida_-_dromedary_06_ies

The “Camel” part of the show’s title did not refer to a Middle Eastern dromedary, but to
Camel Cigarettes.  I have always wondered why anything associated with a camel would make you want to put a cigarette into your mouth and light up, or “have a Camel” as the advertising urged.  This was before Joe Camel arrived on the scene, but Joe didn’t improve the brand’s allure as far as I was concerned.

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Swayze hosted a one hour special from White House that was shown on all 3 networks the night before Eisenhower was re-elected.

Aunt Ruthie detested John Cameron Swayze, ever since he showed up on her television propped against a mantel in the White House in support of Eisenhower the night before he was re-elected. “You wouldn’t be so officious if you saw how green your face looks on my television,” she told Swayze.  She voted for Adlai Stevenson.

Sometimes Aunt Ruthie’s arguments with her TV friends lasted a few minutes, but when she had reached the end of her patience, there was one non-sequitur that signaled that she was ending the discussion and turning off the television.  “Oh, your ass!” (By the way, this is a satisfying rejoinder to all sorts of political talking points, works well in conversation as well as digital and print media and reflects today’s zeitgeist.)

I’ve been talking to the television recently.  Not that I was completely silent before, but my increased chattiness with the screen is concerning. I fear it may be genetic. I try to cut myself some slack since everyone knows that nailing pundits and laying politicians flat are necessary media escape valves.

And, of course, murder mysteries require you to shout warnings at soon-to-be victims. Personally, I think there would be far fewer murders on TV shows if the characters themselves watched more television.  For one thing, they would recognize the music that presages mayhem.  And perhaps they would even learn a few basic lessons:

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Lesson 1: There is always someone in the bushes.

Lesson 2: The answer to the question, “What was that?” is never good.

Lesson 3: If the car seems unusually still as you approach and there is no background music, the car is going to explode.

7f04396764c8d9bab5580365e3fb47c9From time to time, Anders and I watch “Midsomer Murders” which is a perfect show for kibitzing.   It’s a British kind of “Murder She Wrote” without Angela Landsbury’s musical-comedy mugging. “Midsomer” has been a favorite in Great Britain and other parts of the world since 1996.

For us the show functions as a quick trip to England sans Eurostar.  We enjoy seeing the English countryside, the charming cottages with low doors and colorful gardens, the grand houses on beautifully tended estates. The quaint English customs and preoccupations are fascinating in their own right.  You have to admire people that can get worked up about the “right to roam” in the countryside.

Change-ringing-members-chamber-Ancient-Society-ofOn the other hand, “Midsomer” plots require forbearance and a full suspension of your absurdity sensor. Oh, sure, a Renaissance Festival will bring out the inner axe murderer in anybody.  But can the prospect of losing a provincial bell ringing contest really drive the vicar into a vicious frenzy? Would he strangle his competitor with a bell rope to gain a competitive advantage?

“There.  Try ringing that.”

“Midsomer Murders” brings out my secret fantasy to be an actor.  I often comment to Anders, “I could play that role.” My American accent wouldn’t be a problem because I am usually referring to the unknown victim that is discovered with his throat slit laying in a pool of blood. To play that part, I would want a clause in my contract that guaranteed that I be discovered in the scene on something soft and didn’t have to lay there too long and get a crick in my neck.  Also, no nudity.

I believe I could also do a credible job playing the weird next-door neighbor who keeps canaries and peers out through the kitchen curtains but never talks.

ameland

It was watching “Midsomer Murders” that we first encountered birdwatchers and twitchers.  These two groups are not to be confused as birdwatchers take great umbrage at being confused with the latter.

As they see it, there is an enormous difference. Birdwatching is a disciplined undertaking and entails making careful notes about the birds one sees and having the greatest respect for them. Devoted birdwatchers take extreme care not to create a disturbance when stalking the poor little feathered creatures.

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Bird of Paradise mating dance (video)..  Worth a look.

Twitchers, on the other hand, are not so disciplined and tend to be overachievers.  They are driven to add rare birds that they have spotted to their “life” list. Consulting a twitchers’ intelligence network, they will travel to the Galapagos at the drop of a hat at the prospect of seeing a Blue Footed Booby. The very mention of some rare bird can cause twitchers to neglect work and family and send them into paroxysms of excitement. They literally twitch, so it’s said.

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Blue Footed Booby

As you might imagine, competing to build the longest list of the rarest birds one claims to have seen can make a person not only twitchy but also dishonest.  Some twitchers have been known to lie about their sightings or make inaccurate reports to the network to send their competitors off on a wild goose chase.  In Midsomer, birdwatching is a serious business, and a dishonest twitcher is liable to come to a bad end involving a marble bird bath.

But, of course, I would be perfect for that role too and can picture myself as the unfortunate twitcher, bludgeoned into the great beyond by an indignant birder. “What was that in the bushes?”

I imagine that someone watching at home would have shouted a horrified warning to my character about the impending blow. Too late.

As the coroner goes about his work, the chief inspector notes the curious fact that while the crazed killer dispatched me in the garden, the police discovered me on the sofa in the air-conditioned drawing room–fully clothed.  The murderer has left my face untouched. The inspector surveys my lifeless form and comments on how surprisingly young and attractive I look for a man my age. Clucking softly at the senseless, tragic loss, he ruefully replacing the sheet on my corpse.

“Such a shame.  He never got to see that Temminck-Tragopan that he’d been dreaming about.”

Temminck's Tragopan
Temminck-Tragopan

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Prestidigitator

maxresdefaultI think it’s unfair to ask children what they want to be when they grow up. Unquestionably I have arrived at “up,” and I still don’t know the answer to that question.  When I was a kid, my ambitions generally floated around being a fireman or a movie star. How to choose? When I was a little wiser, I added philanthropist to my career options list.

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In sixth grade, my job search turned up “nuclear engineer.” I didn’t know what either of those words meant, but this profession invariably got proud, approving murmurs from my aunts. I don’t think they knew what a nuclear engineer did either, but things nuclear were getting a lot of attention in 1955. In school we were taught the life-saving benefits of ducking under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack.

c161ee097f0085f71dff4c8883c4d59eOnce, after seeing an outdoor performance of “Kiss Me Kate” at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, I said I wanted to be a dancer because they got to wear tights in public. This career choice was met with troubled looks.

So I expected applause when I marched in from school one day with a serious answer to that vexing question and announced triumphantly that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: “I’m going to be a magician.”

My mother was unimpressed. “Well, that might be a good avocation.” She was peeling vegetables at the kitchen table.  “But what would you like to do as a vocation.”

But I had just said it.  I couldn’t be more certain: “I want to be a magician.”

“We’ll see.” She brushed some carrot peels into the waste can.

What my mother didn’t seem to grasp was that this wasn’t some hairbrained scheme I had hatched overnight.  I had chosen my profession after extensive research and thoughtful reflection about many possibilities.  Well, to be completely honest, the precise idea of becoming a world famous, fabulously wealthy magician did come about rather suddenly and serendipitously. But it happened while I was doing serious research.

Screenshot 2019-08-07 at 6.27.10 PMIn grade school, the classified ads in the back of Popular Mechanics Magazine served as my search engine for all sorts of life guidance. One day, I had been scanning these black and white columns in search of a way to transform myself from “a bloodless, pitiful skinny shrimp” into a “muscular red-blooded head-to-toe he-man.”Screenshot 2019-08-07 at 6.24.20 PM

This had become a preoccupation of mine since my body began undergoing alarming growth spurts that left me a gangly kid with a capricious voice. One ad caught my eye and urged me to consider the Lionel Strongfort Institute in Munich, Bavaria, Germany (American Zone.)

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What kind of man are you?  Weak, frail, without energy and ambition?

           STRONGFORTISM
The world-renowned modern science has fulfilled its mission in America and Europe for hundreds and thousands of just such men and women, who adopted the principles of this real revelation and who found supreme health, strength and organic stability. 

Organic stability… Strongfortism…Germany? I don’t know.

Turning the page, I noticed for the first time, that Popular Mechanic’s classified ads had a variety of a suggestions of what you could be when you grew up.  The career opportunities made my head spin:

-WANTED MAN with car TO RUN STORE ON WHEELS.
-Step into a well-paid hotel Position.
-From every indication Auto Body and Fender Repair work will continue to be one of   America’s Big Income fields.
-I DOUBLED MY INCOME-Am My Own Boss-in CUSTOM UPHOLSTERY
-Start a $40 a day business in your spare time with BELSAW Sharp Smith

screenshot-2019-08-07-at-6.24.43-pm-e1569080174502.pngI began to scan the listings more carefully because I knew they contained the key to my future.  In my imagination I could see business cards with my name on them, but I didn’t know what my title should be.  Since my search had now become serious, I skimmed over the opportunity to learn more about the Rupture Easer “for men, women and children” and kept my attention on possible career paths:  perhaps making big money raising chinchilla rabbits, or learning the secrets of ventriloquism from the Fred Wilson School of Ventriloquism in Detroit.  The business world was much larger and more complicated than I had imagined. Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks.

Magic Tricks. It’s fun to do magic.”   Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

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I had wasted all that time thinking about nuclear engineers and dentists and bank presidents when I should have been considering something more solid and serious…like show business. Fate was calling. I could make money and have fun at the same time. I knew it was for me because it all seemed so easy.

I sent my dime away to Douglas Magicland in Dallas, and rushed to the mailbox each day thereafter to look for the 500 tricks that were promised in the ad.  What I didn’t understand was that the 500 tricks had to be purchased from the catalog that I received in return for my dime.Unknown copy

It didn’t matter.  The photos alone were worth the ten cents. I was intrigued by the simple illustrations that showed oily haired men with pointy beards and powerful eyebrows wearing enormous turbans. They were shown producing rabbits from hats and floating ladies in the air.  Some sported white tie, tails and top hats. Their female assistants always looked like Las Vegas cocktail waitresses or refugees from a harem, but who cared? They could float in the air.

It was thrilling to realize that I could be that guy in the turban. I could levitate my sister, Kathy.

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In today’s sitcoms, a character that has a magic hobby is usually portrayed as a nerd or misfit.  I can assure you, though, that in my day being a magician was going to make me a respected man of mystery, a star.  At least, I thought so.  It was an identity.  Kids would say, “I hear you’re a magician” in a way they would never say, “I hear you’re a basketball player.”

I poured over the Magicland catalogue.  Each trick had a brief description and was accompanied by an illustration: The Rising Cards, Hindoo Color Tags, Cups and Balls, Block Penetration.  I was especially intrigued by magical apparatus, the bigger the better: multiplying beer bottles, a box that produced doves, The Vanishing Lady.

The stenciled decoration on the equipment suggested something vaguely Asian or Arabic. The names did too: The Chen Lee Water Suspension, Pyramid of Mystery, Foo Man Choo’s Sawing a Maiden in Half. I left for later the question of what prompted Mr. Choo to think it would be amusing to saw a woman in half in the first place.

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I would have to wait for my birthday before I could afford to buy any tricks.  So I began my magical training at the St. Louis County Library-Natural Bridge Branch in our neighborhood.  Rather than rummage around the stacks myself, I presented myself to the head librarian and told her I was interested in books on the subject of magic.  She looked up from the listing of Dewey Decimal numbers she was consulting.

“How to do tricks,” I clarified.

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I was thrilled to find on the shelf she indicated seven books that explained how to do magic tricks.  The library limited borrowing to three books at a time, so I checked out the ones with the most illustrations and photographs.  Later I would graduate to biographies of Blackstone, Thurston and Houdini.  I was hooked.

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The first thing I learned from the books is that a magician never reveals how his tricks are done.  I took that obligation seriously and solemnly promised myself that my lips would be forever sealed (after I learned some secrets), even to friends and family members.  Unless, that is, someone threatened me with pain, and then the secrets would flow like berries through a goose.

I consumed the books, memorizing their strictures and suggestions.  Practice in front of a mirror.  Never perform a trick until you have mastered it perfectly.  Never do the same trick twice in front of the same audience.  In fact, you shouldn’t call tricks, “tricks.” “Effect” was preferred.  “For my next effect, I will need a volunteer from the audience.”  And no matter what you saw in photos, do not lift a rabbit by its ears.

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Magicians in training were encouraged to develop interesting patter as part of their presentation.  Once again, the Chinese—or at least the 1950’s racist stereotype– figured in prominently.  “One day Chung Ling Soo went to an ancient temple in Peking…”

And jokes were important.  For this I turned to Robert Orben’s humor pamphlets. Depending on who you talked to, Orben either wrote the material that many radio DJ’s used or he listened to the radio a lot and stole the material DJ’s wrote. Whatever the case, he later did write for Gerald Ford, so there’s that. I wasn’t interested in arcane academic arguments about Orben’s creative process, anyway. I was simply happy that such a resource existed if I was going to have to be magical and funny.

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Some of the knee-slapping jokes that became staples in my act were:

  • A Chinese magician taught me this trick.  His name was Ping-Pong.  Boy, did he have a racket.
  • I’m sorry I was late for the show tonight, but I ran over a milk bottle.  It wasn’t my fault.  The kid had it under his jacket.
  • The last time I performed this trick, the audience yelled, “Fine.  Fine.”  And I had to pay it too.
  • You know, I don’t have to do this for a living…I could starve.
  • My parents are in the iron and steel business…my mother irons and my father steals.

It was reassuring to know that if I ever tired of doing magic I had a bright future in comedy.

No matter how much I talked it up, my mother was not encouraging.  “How are you going to earn a living doing that?”  By doing shows, of course.  Kids’ birthday parties… school Christmas parties…and…and…night clubs.  “A ten year old in a night club?  I don’t think so.”

Okay, so I had to work on the business angle more. And that’s where Ernie Heldman came into the picture.  I wouldn’t say he was actually a star, but he did have a show on local television called “The Parade of Magic” sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and Old Vienna Korn Kurls. Heldman was known around the St. Louis area the way the weather man was.  And taken about as seriously.

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“Good afternoon, boys and girls.  Welcome to the Parade of Magic.  How’s tricks? And welcome to a fine group in our studio audience, Cub Pack 235.  Tell me, now, who sponsors Cub Pack 235?”

“Saint…Pa-trick’s…School…P-T-Aieee.”

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On station KSD-TV, every Saturday afternoon at 5:15, Ernie Heldman paraded his magic for 15 minutes.  Sometimes he dressed in black tie and tails.  On other shows he wore a white dinner jacket, just like in the magic catalogue. His assistant and wife Arlene’s outfits made her look like she was about to take your drink order at the slots. “Good luck, hon.”

That’s what I would do.  I would get my own television show.  First, I had to find a sponsor.  Since Pepsi-Cola sponsored  Ernie Heldman, I figured the soft drink category was taken.  After scanning the St. Louis Post Dispatch and flipping through the Yellow Pages, I settled on Pevely Dairy.

I would write them a letter inquiring if they wanted to sponsor my show.

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My mother had recently bought an Underwood portable typewriter.  I figured that typing a letter would make it more business-like and also disguise my youth and my poor penmanship.  I called the dairy and asked for the name and address of the person in charge of advertising.

Dear Mrs. Beck,
I represent a talented young magician named Ted Lorenz.  His amazing tricks and humorous patter have already charmed many audiences of children and adults. I think he is perfect to have his own television show sponsored by Pevely Dairy.
Please let me know if you are interested.

Sincerely,
Mr. Michael Weidner

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was anticipating John Barron and Donald Trump by fifty years.

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I kept the letter short because typing it involved a Herculean effort of hunt and peck.  In the days before Wite-Out, mistakes had to be corrected manually with an eraser while being careful not to leave a smudge. I had to start over several times and there were numerous erasures. It took an entire Saturday afternoon to complete.

A week after I posted the letter, an envelope arrived in the mail.  Madelaine Beck’s name was typed below the Pevely Dairy logo.  My heart pounded as I opened it.  This was my ticket to fame and fortune.

Dear Mr. Weidner:
Thank you for your letter.  Mr. Lorenz sounds like an entertaining magician. Unfortunately, Pevely Dairy is not considering advertising on television at this time.
However, I am organizing the annual Christmas party for our employees’ families.  I would like Mr. Lorenz to perform at the party. We do not have a budget for entertainment.
Please let me know if Mr. Lorenz would be available to entertain at this important event.

Sincerely,
Madelaine Beck, Secretary to the Director of Advertising

No budget?  Mrs. Beck wanted my services for free. I was crushed.  I didn’t dare tell my mother about the incident because this was written proof of how difficult it was going to be to earn a living doing magic.

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While I waited for my birthday to arrive, I learned tricks with coins, cards, rope and glasses of water from my library books. Not one to waste time, I also worked on my magician’s facial expressions based on what I had seen in the catalogues and books.

I gathered that when you zapped the magic power into the dancing hanky with your hand, for example, you should have a facial expression that indicated that magic was also streaming from your eyes.  The eyebrows were the main actors in projecting this mysterious power and arching one of them was essential.

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Perhaps, like me, when you were young, you went through a “discovering my facial muscles” phase.  I did most of my work outs in Geography class. While Sister Ethel Rita traced the path of the Mississippi River on a large roll-down map, I isolated the muscles that could flair my nostils, wiggle my ears and—most importantly—arch my eyebrows individually.  Jim Teasdale in 5thgrade could arch his eyebrows, wiggle his ears, dilate his nostrils and wiggle his chin in a rapid rotation.  But Jim was Olympic calibre.

My birthday approached.  I implored my parents to give me money as a gift and nothing practical like a dress shirt. Each of my aunts sent me two dollars enfolded in birthday cards. My total take came to $17.

On the last Saturday in April, Mom and Dad accompanied me on a journey that I knew was going to change my life. All of the images that I had seen since I received the first magic catalogue danced in my imagination. For months I dreamed excited technicolored dreams of myself in a turban, waving a magic wand and amazing audiences of all ages. And now, at last, I was going to be entering that magical realm.

Mother had remained cool to the whole expedition.  It didn’t diminish  her skepticism any when she learned that the small magic shop was located in a garage behind a house on North Grand Avenue. But I knew that a fantastical experience awaited us. We pulled up in front and walked down the two narrow strips of concrete that served as a driveway, opened the door on the side of the wooden building and entered.

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The garage was newly painted.  Spot lights in the ceiling bathed the room in shadow and mystery. The aroma of lacquer, glue and freshly cut wood perfumed the air.  Shelves lined the back and side walls. On each, exotic equipment stood in pools of light:  brightly painted tubes with neon colored silk scarves bursting from their tops; large bouquets of unnatural looking feather flowers; a plush rabbit puppet peeking over the brim of a silk top hat; fans of oversized playing cards; walking canes and chrome bird cages. In other words: heaven.

The proprietor, Don Lawton, stood behind the long glass counter that held even more tricks and a display rack of “Genii, The Conjurors’ Magazine”.  A courteous man with a soft voice, Don greeted us with a warm smile. Seeing the “Flip-over Box” and the “Egyptian Mummy Mystery” from the catalogue in real life was like running into Tony Curtis or Annette Funicello at Walgreens.  I was tongue tied.  I stood back shyly, so my mother took charge.

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“We’re here to buy magic tricks.”  She didn’t sound like she expected to be mystified.

“Are you interested in anything in particular?”

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For the next half hour, Don patiently demonstrated the Topsy Turvy Bottles, Mutilated Parasol, Rice Bowls–every trick I pointed to. Each was presented with professional polish and patter. Seemingly baffled by the tricks, Dad puffed on his pipe and chuckled in delight at the show; but Mother occasionally shot Dad an incredulous look.

When Don finished a trick, I would express my wonder and inquire about another that I saw displayed. Seeing where this was going, he finally asked, “What is your budget?”  I hadn’t thought about my birthday money as constituting a budget, but I quickly learned that $17 has limited magical power.

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Don began demonstrating tricks that I could afford. To my disappointment, the large apparatus stayed on the shelves as he presented the Vanishing Quarter and Color Changing Silk. Regardless, it was all marvelous to me, even though the Sword thru Neck that I had been dreaming about would have to wait for another day.

I floated out of Don Lawton’s Magic Shop that afternoon with a shopping bag containing The Linking Rings, Color Changing Deck, Chen Lee Water Suspension, and Vanishing Milk Pitcher. 

I would return whenever I managed to put together some spending money. Each time the courtly man with long elegant fingers behind the counter greeted me warmly and, after inquiring about my budget, patiently suggested and demonstrated tricks.  He treated me with respect and seriousness which confirmed in my mind that I had entered the brotherhood. I was no longer a bloodless, pitiful, skinny shrimp.  I was a magician.

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Aquaman

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I decided that I needed to exercise more and had read somewhere that water aerobics was good for you. It sounded perfect. I didn’t really know what was involved, but I imagined myself lolling around in the water, perhaps splashing a bit here and there to increase the health benefits only to emerge glistening from the pool invigorated, the picture of cardio-vascular wellness.  Or perhaps it was like floating with other swimmers on top of the water in a geometric pattern as Esther Williams dives into the center.

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The Glorious Esther Williams

The greater Paris area is dotted with over 39 public pools, some of them quite beautiful. The one in suburban Pantoise is especially attractive, but Piscine Keller in the 15tharrondissement is a 10 minute walk from our apartment. I thought I would start there. Sure enough, they offered something called “aquagym.”  The word “gym” set off alarm bells.  It seemed to suggest that there was more to this than lounging on an inner tube, the way Michael Phelps might do as he puffed on a joint.

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Piscine Pantoise

It turns out that Piscine Keller offers not one but six different classes of Aquagym.

  • Aquagym Douceur
  • Aquagym +
  • Aquagym Vita
  • Aquabike
  • Aquarun

The classes were listed in ascending order of difficulty. I immediately disregarded the last two because they sounded too much like exercise, wet or not. Aquagym Douceur had the right ring to it. However, because I thought I was in pretty good shape, I figured that the Aquagymwould be more my speed.

On the other hand, I hadn’t been exercising regularly for quite some time. I never work up a sweat walking our dog Elliot around the neighborhood several times a day because of his stop and sniff agenda, so I wouldn’t consider that a workout. After mulling it over, I decided to be prudent and begin slowly with Aquagym Douceur to get the hang of it and then move up to the Aquagymwhere I really belonged.

When I asked the desk attendant for more information, I got my first surprise. He reminded me that for swimming pools, the French require men to wear close-hugging speedos. (My British friend calls them “budgie smugglers”.) “Bermudas” are prohibited..

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Now, I have always tried to live my life by one simple rule: after age 25, wearing lycra is a privilege not a right.  But the French are not as principled as I, and so at the beach and pool, you see men walking around who are asking far too much of this stretchy fabric.  No one seems to mind.  Nevertheless, if speedos could help improve my cardio-vascular health, so be it.  I imagined a cardiologist writing out a prescription for “One small, tight, embarrassing bathing costume”.  Perhaps I could submit the bill to Sécurité Sociale for reimbursement.

But the desk attendant wasn’t finished.  One is also required to wear a swim cap, humiliatingly referred to as “un bonnet.” “Why would I need one?” I protested. “Since I am already bald, it is as if I wear ‘un bonnet de bain’ all the time. Ha, ha,” I said winningly. Apparently, I am not as delightful in my halting French as I think I am. He directed me to the vending machine that dispensed un bonnet in a plastic egg for 7.50 euros.

How disappointing.  I thought this might be the one time in my life where being bald would be an advantage. “Mais, non!” Bald or not, wearing a bonnet was obligatory.  Now this touched a sensitive spot for me.

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As a young man I never had much hair.  To my great sorrow in the 60’s when long hair was on the way in, mine was on the way out.  Jim Morrison could toss his wavy locks to sexy effect, but I could only look on sadly knowing that there would be no tossing for me.  It was especially distressing because my three sisters and brother all had thick, luxuriant hair, as much as they wanted.

In those days, I patronized an Italian barber in Greenwich Village.  His shop was decorated with framed glamour pictures of men with fashionable hair stylings: page boy dos like Davy Jones of the Monkeys, insouciant Mick Jagger flips, and bowl-on-the-head Beatles cuts. I just knew that if the barber put his mind to it, he could work some tonsorial magic that would change my thinning hair into something groovy.  As he snipped around my ears one afternoon, I discussed the problem with him.  “You know, you could get one of those crew cuts,” he said, “but most of your crew has jumped ship.”  He thought he was hilarious.

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I tried to think of other solutions.  I would let my hair grow long, get it tightly curled like the ribbon on a Christmas gift, fluff it around and freeze it in place with hair spray.  Maybe an Afro wig would do the trick.  Who would ever guess? I even considered a 60’s version of the Rand Paul look with a family of dust bunnies taped to my scalp.  But, sadly, there was no hiding the fact that it was taking longer and longer to wash my face.

Rand Paul

I picked up an aquagym flier from the rack at the front desk. Walking home with it in my back pocket, I felt positively vigorous.

At the beginning of April, I presented myself at the Piscine Keller with my snug fit speedos and un bonnet for my first session of Aquagym Douceur. There are two pools at Keller. One is a large Olympic size covered with a retractable roof.  The other is smaller, a little over a meter deep and heated to a comforting 85 degrees. This was where the aquagym would take place.

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Piscine Keller

I arrived early so that I could scope everything out. I wanted no more surprises. After a shower, I wiggled into my snug fits, put on my bonnet and walked self-consciously out to the smaller pool. I slipped into the warm water.

Not knowing exactly what the protocol was, I decided I should warm up. Olympic swimmers do that. I bounced up and down a bit. I worked my arms like I was doing the breast stroke except I moved forward by walking along the bottom of the pool.

I imagined that anyone watching me would see a fit looking middle-aged man– who didn’t really need a bonnet–swimming like a real pro. In my peripheral vision I could see other people slipping into the pool, but I wasn’t going to be distracted.  As all athletes know, the warm up is important. This wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.

A whistle blew and I looked up to see a tan young man standing on the side of the pool.  He clearly was entitled to wear his blue snug fits.  He called the swimmers to order and asked us to spread out in the pool. I chose a spot in the middle.  From my disco days, I had learned that if you stood in the middle of a crowded dance floor, you could simulate dancing by just jerking your head and shoulders to the music, looking rapturous, and mouthing snatches of lyrics now and then: “ ‘Cause we’re gonna boogie oogie oogie, ‘Till you just can’t boogie no mo—o-o-o-o-o-ore…” The crowd of good dancers would block out any view of your pathetic boogying skills and no one would be the wiser.

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Another sound of the whistle, and the snug fitted instructor began to demonstrate the first exercise.  It was now, for the first time, that I took a good look around at my classmates. To my horror, I discovered that I was the only man in the class.  I was surrounded by little old ladies in flowered swim caps.

My self-consciousness gave way to philosophical thoughts, my go-to defense when I make bad decisions.  After years of therapy and self-improvement, surely I could find a way to hike up my snug fits and live my truth in a geriatric ladies aquagym. I needed to see this as an opportunity to be my best self and demonstrate how athletic I could be.  After all, the lady aqua-gymers were much older than I was.

In French, Mr. Skimpy Speedos was loudly telling us to march slowly in place, lifting our knees as high as possible.  “En Marche! En Marche! Comme des soldats! En Marche!”  Apparently, the little old ladies in front of me had done this routine before.  Heads up, backs straight as ramrods, they marched rhythmically in the water like wet Rockettes.  And I marched right with them.

Lycra Man picked up the pace.  He had us swing our arms as we marched and move our heads left and right as if we were passing in review in front of General De Gaulle. “En Marche! En Marche!” The little old ladies marched more briskly, swinging their arms.

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Ok. So here’s the thing I quickly learned about an aquagym. It turns out that the crucial word is aqua and not gym.  The aqua creates a great deal of resistance to movement of any kind. Even fish must know this.

Ten minutes into the hour-long session, Mr. Demi-drawers had us chin deep in the water, walking like ducks that were flapping their wings.  “C’est ça! Comme un canard!”  I was getting a little winded, but the lady ducks were unfazed. I renewed my determination.  In deference to the age of the other swimmers, surely our leader would soon tell us to take a break, sit on the side of the pool gasping for air, and review our bucket lists.

But there was no let up. “Et pliez, et pliez.”  Mr. Blue Butt surveyed the crowd and shouted insincere encouragement. “Super! Génial!” His voice was really starting to grate. I didn’t like his attitude either. The little old ladies maintained their pace, squatting and standing in the water, moving without apparent effort like ballet dancers at the bar. Worse yet: they seemed to be having fun.

Fifteen minutes gone and I thought I was going to die.  My lungs burned and my legs wobbled under the water.  Thank god for natural buoyancy.  I began to look for a way out, but I was hemmed in by flower hatted mermaids and my ego.  My disco strategy meant that I couldn’t escape quietly or unseen, even if I pulled my bonnet down over my face like a bank robber.  And I just knew that Mr. Smug Shorts would taunt me in French for making a premature exit.  If I slithered out of the pool now,  I would disgrace myself, my family, my country and all of mankind, at least the senior portion of it.

“Et sauter, et sauter.”  Please god, make him stop.  When he bends down to demonstrate a fiendish exercise, may his stretched blue briefs snap off, sail through the air and hit someone in the eye.  I could escape in the confusion.

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As I splashed about, a horrible realization was slowly dawning.  I prefer to think of myself as middle-aged, but that is only true if I live to be 150.  Looking around the pool, I could see that I was, in fact, about the same age as my water companions. The truth, when it hit me, was rude: I am a little old man surrounded by little old ladies who are in better condition than I am.

I decided to tough it out, or “disco” it out as was the case.  Keeping my shoulders at water level, I did a lot of hand, facial and eyebrow aerobics.  So what if below the surface my body quivered like an under baked soufflé? Above the water I was going to look impressively animated, a real aqua gymnast.

After an excruciating hour, Mr. Scanty Shorts blew his whistle and led the unnaturally strong and obnoxiously invigorated little old pool ladies in a round of applause.  I could barely clap my hands together. A burble of pleased chatter flowed through the group.  Without making eye contact, I dog paddled to the end of the pool that had steps. (I feared I couldn’t negotiate the ladder.)  I tried to keep a look on my face that said: “Now that was energetic.  I feel so revitalized.”

Clinging to the chrome hand rail, I climbed the five steps out of the pool, stood up as straight as possible, sucked in my gut, and made a desperate attempt to control my heaving breath. I gathered together as much dignity as one can muster in over taxed speedos and a bonnet and walked to the shower, jauntily mouthing the words for anyone watching: “Get down, boogie oogie oogie…Get down, boogie oogie oogie…”

When Anders got home from work that evening, he asked me how my first aquagym class had gone.  “It was quite an experience,” I offered vaguely and changed the subject.

The next day, I put away my snug fits and bonnet and took Elliot for a walk, the way the good lord intended.

JanieAireyAgeUKSwim2

Of Mice and Men

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We own a small chalet that sits on Mont Chalon in the French Alps overlooking Lake Geneva just above Evian.  About a year ago, we had the kitchen renovated.  In preparation for the demolition and other work, I moved all of the cooking paraphernalia into one of the downstairs bedrooms and cleared out all consumables that weren’t canned or in jars.

The renovation was completed in early June, and I was excited to put everything back into the new cabinets.  When I went downstairs to collect some kitchen gadgets, I noticed a mouse perched on a pot lid.  We were surprised to see each other.  He paused for a second, but with mice, the fight or flight response is finely tuned, and he ran like hell, disappearing among the baking pans.

I was definitely surprised to learn that we had mice—as everyone knows, there is never just one—because in the four years since we bought the chalet, we had not seen any or heard about any from our mountain neighbors.  It’s odd to say we “had” mice since we didn’t actually possess them.  They had set up camp without our knowledge or permission. I suppose the expression “had mice” might mean “we had mice living with us,” although I doubt that is how they would put it.

Since I had taken such care to remove all food from the chalet, I was curious as to what had attracted the little creatures. I began to search through the remaining dishes on the bed where I had placed them. There, underneath a serving tray, I found bits of ground coffee spread out on the bare mattress. The mice had eaten through two aluminum Nespresso capsules and helped themselves to a dry Americano.  The only other clue as to what had attracted them was a bottle of olive oil laying on its side.  They had chewed off the lid to get at the contents.

In all the years that I had lived in New York and Paris, I had never dealt with mice before, although I expected to find them in both places. So, my knowledge of how to get rid of them was limited to Tom and Jerry cartoons.  I have to say that I liked Jerry. He was cute, seemed happy and lived in such a cozy apartment with a comfortable chair just inside the arched opening in the baseboard. Of course, Tom made numerous attempts to get rid of Jerry, but Tom’s schemes weren’t of much help to me.  Dropping an anvil from a cliff or stuffing dynamite into a wedge of Swiss cheese were out of the question.  And even as a kid I knew that sexy lady mouse puppets didn’t exist if you don’t count Minny.

So I asked Google, “How do I get rid of mice?”  This simple question triggered an avalanche of articles on the subject, and I was once again reminded of the quantity of ill-informed, half-baked and down-right peculiar opinions that are to be found on the internet on almost any subject.

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The first article had the title, “Are You Smarter Than the Average Mouse?”  I like to think so and believe that on a good day I could give even Mensa mice a run for their money.  However, I had a hunch that this wasn’t where the article was going, so I braced for the worst and read on.

“Mice are crafty little creatures,” the author informed me. Just my luck to be invaded by clever rodents.  “They will communicate with each other, share tips, tricks, and tactics for stealing bait from the mouth of the trap without ever getting caught.” Leaving aside precisely how the author learned to translate mouse talk, he was clearly involved with mice more than was healthy.  I wondered if Jerry had foiled Tom’s efforts by picking up tips, tricks and tactics from his little mouse friends.

It turns out that modern technology has not ignored “getting rid of mice”.  Take the Victor Electronic Mouse Trap. According to the manufacturer:

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It is a true customer favorite. They are easy to set & you don’t have to touch the dead mouse – plus the electric shock is quick & humane.

HOW IT WORKS: First you open the lid and bait the trap.  The bait station is normally located in the back of the unit, so the mouse is forced to fully enter the trap. Once the mouse steps on the sensor, it triggers a high voltage electric current which electrocutes the mouse in seconds.  It’s over quickly, so the mouse does not suffer. Then you simply turn the unit over, flip the lid open & empty it into the trash.

I never understood why some people think electrocuting any living creature is humane. In any case, this device seemed better suited to Oklahoma than the Haute Savoie.

For the kale and quinoa crowd, there is another “humane” method of mouse removal.  This involves using small wire cages that function as traps which imprison but do not harm the little critters.  The idea is that once the mouse is thus ensnared, you put the cage into your car and take the mouse out for release in the countryside where it can then move into someone else’s house.  Job done.

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The article didn’t say how many times you might have to do this, but mice come in troops like cub scouts.  Plus, they reproduce in about 21 days and can have as many as 14 young at a go. Do the math. While you are out smugly chauffeuring the ones that you have humanely trapped to their new habitat, their little relatives are back at your house breeding like…mice.  You have to have a lot of time on your hands to be this humane.

Of course, the internet has many authoritatively stated opinions about what constitutes the better mouse trap.  I decided that what these experts-for-a-day said didn’t matter anyway.  What counted was what Les Briconautes, the hardware store in nearby Vinzier, had on offer.  So I got in the car and made that beautiful trip, driving between mountains and lakes, amazed that shopping for mouse traps could be so pleasurable.  I was careful about timing because, like many establishments in France, Les Briconautes closes at noon for a 90-minute lunch break.  Personally, I think the French have the right idea about lunch, but you do have to plan your shopping carefully.

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On the way to Vinzier:  La Dent d’Oche

I have always liked the solid reassurance of hardware stores.  They make me feel competent and manly because I get to use words like pneumatic nailer and torque wrench.  They make me want to repair or install something. The one in Vinzier is especially welcoming and affirming.

The mouse trap department offered three models, none of which was the humane version.  This didn’t surprise me.  There are a lot of farms in the mountains around us, mostly with dairy cows sporting large bells, although recently a small herd of alpaca made their appearance. While the farmers in our region follow environmentally sound practice and chemically free, healthy animal husbandry, they are unsentimental about the food chain.

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Fete de Printemp, St. Paul-en-Chablais

Last April at the spring fair in neighboring Saint Paul-en-Chablais, we saw a pen of piglets among other farm animals for sale. Decorating the pen were banners illustrating the various cuts of pork that you could look forward to including sausage.  We thought the placement of these signs was insensitive.

The first mouse trap on display was the old wooden platform type with a spring-loaded arm.  I don’t like these contraptions because I fear that when I place the trap on the floor, the spring will snap shut on my fingers. I couldn’t stand the irony.

Next were black plastic boxes containing poisoned bait, a kind of brand extension of the Roach Motel. The mice are lured in through holes in the side for lunch but never make it to coffee.  However, there was no way to verify if there had been any customers except by shaking the box. I decided against them.

Finally, there were traps that looked like the plastic teeth ten-year-olds can get at novelty stores that chatter around the coffee table when the kids turn them loose to frighten their grandmothers. The principle of the traps is the same as the peripatetic teeth except they have little to say and only chat once. You put the bait on the trigger inside the serrated white dentures, squeeze them open and then put them on the floor and wait for the conversation to begin.  I bought half a dozen.

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As I researched bait, I came across some unexpected information.  For example, mice don’t necessarily crave cheese. I should have known better than to rely on Saturday morning cartoons.  They do eat it, but they prefer nuts and seeds plus fats which I suppose is how the cheese thing got started. And they are indifferent to gluten. When you’re choosing bait for a trap, these little vegans prefer peanut butter. Having once had some stuck to the roof of my mouth it was easy to imagine that peanut butter would make it difficult for the mice to use their cunning tips, tricks and tactics to run away with the bait.

Also listed as good bait is dental floss.  Now that was a big surprise.  It was humiliating to think that the rodents in my house might be flossing more often than I did.  It turns out that they don’t use it to maintain healthy gums around those big front teeth.  They use it for nests.

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So peanut butter it would be.  I figured that since this was their last meal, I might as well give the mice something they really liked.  And this made me think about the whole idea of the final meal that prisoners are given before execution.  How pleasurable can that be?  If the state is going to kill someone, wouldn’t it be better to offhandedly offer the prisoner his favorite beer but lace it with some painless but lethal poison? That way they would not be expecting anything and would shuck off their mortal coil thinking about the last tailgate party they attended.  That has to be better than waiting for a deadly injection with the taste of a Sizzler’s Rib Eye on your lips.

Later that afternoon our Dutch friend Martijn stopped by.  We discussed how predator birds were flying much lower than normal.  Usually we see the hawks and falcons gliding high above searching for food.  Recently, though, we spied them down the mountain below us and even level with our balcony close to the chalet.

Martijn explained that it was the mice.  The previous winter had been warmer than usual, and it is frigid temperatures that normally control the mouse population. Because of the warm weather, hordes of the little creatures were now running amok and the predator birds had easy pickings.

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White tailed sea eagle

It turned out that the whole mountainside was infested, and many chalets and apartments were overrun with mice.  While this was alarming news, it cheered me to learn that other people had a worse problem than we did. The way I was raised, there is something about discovering mice, roaches or ants in your living quarters that reflects poorly on your character.  Since the infestation was a neighborhood wide problem and ours was not as bad as most, I was able to regain a modicum of self-righteousness.

I set the traps.  That night I went to sleep, and I had a dream about over-caffeinated mice with perfectly flossed teeth running all over the place being chased by dangerous dentures.  And I had a nightmare about fat falcons and global warming.

Urban Nomad

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When I first met Samir, he was washing the windows of the small tailor shop on Avenue de Versailles around the corner from our apartment.  He was going about his work happily, but when he noticed me walking by, he put down his squeegee, came over and shook my hand, greeting me with a broad smile.

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He was wearing new jeans, blue deck shoes and a red jacket.  His long dread lock extensions were pulled together in the back in a loose pony tail, and although his attire was “clean and decent” as my mother would say, my New Yorker street instincts shot up a wall of caution. Despite his neat appearance, he looked like a panhandler and was too friendly to strangers. But it’s difficult to refuse an outstretched hand. I returned his “Bon-Jour,” and he returned to his work.  Several weeks went by before I realized that Samir was, in fact, my neighbor.

Autolib is a company that used to rent electric cars in Paris.  Their charging stations are still scattered around the city.  A few of these locations have small, glass-sided Quonset huts that contain terminals where customers registered with their service.

Unlike most Parisian street furniture, these structures are ugly and intrusive.  The glass sides are filthy and the aluminum roofs that arch to the ground are invariably covered in grime and bird droppings.  Samir lives in one of these huts on the next block over from us. It has been his residence for over 4 years.

Samir fascinates me. I try not to intrude on his privacy but can’t help but look into his dwelling when he is not there.  The 6 ft by 8 ft place is always tidy.  On either end there is a small counter and he has various domestic items on top of and next to these structures.  Leaning in the corner is a mop, broom and bucket.  There is also a small plastic bottle of cleaning detergent and a container of air freshener.

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Sometimes on the counter there are magazines propped up against the side.  Recently I saw a glossy magazine in Arabic and a travel magazine in French. Usually, there are several sealed packages of dates stacked neatly and a small basket with unpackaged dates.

Wedged between the glass wall and the counter are large flattened cardboard boxes that he sleeps on at night.  In the winter, Samir assembles a series of small boxes that can hold his weight and then places the larger flat cardboard on top of them so that he is lifted off the ground.  He warms himself with a sleeping bag and two thick blankets and has rigged a small space heater to the electricity in the hut.

If I pass by during the day, he is often sitting on the floor, his back propped against the glass wall, his legs outstretched, reading from the Koran that he holds in his hands. Other times, he is prostrate on a small rug.  Sometimes he chants prayers out loud.

When I moved from St. Louis to New York fifty years ago I remember the shock of seeing someone sleeping in a doorway or panhandling at a subway entrance.  I’m ashamed to think of how quickly I accepted this as normal until the day came when I no longer even noticed these people.  In this respect, Parisians are different. In my neighborhood at least, the neighbors are generally kind to the homeless. Everyone in the quarter is familiar with the regulars, and surprisingly, to this New Yorker at least, they often stop to chat.

Samir is well known in the neighborhood and more than tolerated. At the end of the work day, he often stands in his doorway greeting people as they pass, usually shaking the men’s hands.  It is not unusual to see a well-dressed man on his way home from the office standing and chatting with him. He offers them dates from the basket on the shelf. He will offer you one too, if you happen to walk by.

Samir doesn’t panhandle. I have no idea how he supports himself, but I don’t think you would call him a clochard.  My friend Victoria once offered him food and he said, “No, thank you.” Fifty yards down from his place is the neighborhood supermarket Carrefour, and on occasion I have seen him helping someone home from there with their groceries.  I have also observed him walking behind a woman who is pushing a baby carriage.  He is holding a small child’s hand as he escorts the family to their apartment building.  Perhaps these people pay him for his assistance.

Samir shops for cashews and dates in Carrefour and at times stands at the entrance and hands out dates to the customers as they enter or leave.  Once I witnessed two young boys wave him over to the window as he walked by on the sidewalk outside.  They pressed several trading cards of football players to the glass and he examined them with obvious pleasure.  He exchanged delighted smiles with the boys, waved and was on his way.

On the corner beyond the supermarket is a public toilet, one of many that were installed in Paris to replace the pissoirs.  The concrete shell contains hidden machinery, illuminated status buttons and a door that automatically slides open and shut.  Inside are a small stainless-steel sink and toilet with no obvious way to flush or drain the bowl.  If you use it, you have to trust that the engineers have achieved the basic sanitary requirements of emptying a toilet bowl in some innovative way.  When you exit, the door shuts, and a mysterious cleaning cycle with audible swishing and sloshing sounds takes place until a green light signals that the toilette is again ready for use.

Most mornings Samir walks with a towel draped over his arm down the street to the corner for his morning ablutions.

I don’t know his real name and have never said more than “Bon-jour” to him, but whenever he sees me, he flashes a big smile and walks over to shake hands.  He has crossed streets through traffic to greet me and to offer me falafel or dates if he is returning from the ethnic markets on the other side of the Seine in the 15th arrondissement.

In warm weather, he stands on the Pont Mirabeau tossing pieces of falafel into the air for the sea gulls to catch.  He derives particular delight in throwing the bread as high as possible so the birds snatch it at eye level.  He laughs heartily when they do.

Last summer, I passed his house and noticed that the glass on the front had been shattered and lay in tiny shards on the sidewalk.  The next time I went by, the broken glass had been removed and a large nylon construction cloth had been hung up to cover the opening where the window was missing. I can easily imagine a neighbor helping him to do that.  As winter approached, sundry pieces of cardboard and insulation were added to the makeshift barrier.  The overall effect was shabby but practical.  Nevertheless, the inside was clean and tidy as usual.

Inexplicably as time has passed, Samir seems to have grown smaller and younger.  He moves with a lighter gait although he never was slow or halting.  He has taken to wearing a Red & White Keffiyeh and walking with a tall cane like an Arab shepherd.  His jeans are always clean, and he wears them with three-inch cuffs above his blue dockers. The smiles, “Bon-jour’s,”  “As Salam Alaykom’s” and handshakes continue unabated.

In December I was passing his home and was horrified to see workmen wearing hardhats demolishing it with jackhammers.  Autolib has been out of business for a while, and I could imagine some neighbors in this bourgeois quarter being unhappy with the eyesore the Quonset hut had become.  But still.  As I passed, the workers were removing the last bits of metal and glass and preparing the ground to be paved over.  Several neighbors walked by casting worried glances at the work site.

What had become of Samir?  Anything that I could conjure up about his wear-a-bouts filled me with dread for this smiling, happy man. Had he been taken away to a shelter? Shipped off to a camp somewhere? Deported?  Perhaps he has moved into the small colony of homeless people that has set up camp under the Pont Grenelle.

I am happy to report that Samir has reappeared on the streets. However, now as this urban nomad walks about with his shepherd’s staff, he carries several large nylon shopping bags which contain, I assume, his most important possessions. I wonder what he had been able to take with him before the workers began their demolition. What were his valuables and essentials?

In May, I saw him sitting on his usual bench overlooking the Seine.  He is wearing his Keffiyeh, red jacket and blue shoes. Several bags are at his feet and his staff is leaning on the bench next to him. He is chanting something from the Koran, peaceful as ever.  I want to ask him where he lives now and how he is doing, but my poor French can’t navigate such a conversation with this complete stranger.

I start across the Pont Mirabeau, but stop and turn to regard this extraordinary man, sitting quietly with his head bowed over his holy book.  And I’m glad that his calm, prayerful presence continues to bless the quarter.

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