Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where a man can shed his anxieties

Listen to my wife, Elena, and you’ll come to think it has a flat-screen TV, the latest digital-surround sound, a satellite dish, reclining leather chair, and a temperature-controlled wine fridge. Plus the requisite fold-out table to put the pizza box. I hear my beloved myself whenever I grab the little key and mutter something indecipherable about yard work. Invariably comes the grin, followed by the comment. “Ohhhh,” my darling chimes in, “you’re going there.”

Some guys buy red sports cars when they hit their mid-life crises. Me? I put up a shed.

If the shed’s construction was my mid-life crisis, I have a funny way of choosing one—it probably took five years off my life. I couldn’t even have predicted the very idea of needing a shed, having spent the first two-thirds of my life in an apartment. There, I needed only a little shovel for when the plows pushed snow up against the parked car on three sides. Lawn gear? Snowblowers? Those contraptions were what those people needed to take care of the grounds. In fact, snowblowers seemed specially designed to pile up snow against parked cars on the fourth side.

During the many years we looked for a house, I understood that those people would someday be rolled efficiently into one person: myself. Still, I never thought I’d need so much equipment to take care of the property that it couldn’t all fit in the garage along with the car. All that changed two winters ago, when the little snowblower gave up the ghost after years of being grossly outmatched. The new, beefier one indeed would also fit snugly in the garage. As soon as I finished sawing the trunk off the car.

“Hey, Andrew,” I said to my son, “let’s put up a shed!” Both of us were game for the idea; there’s something exceptional about a father and son sweating like pigs together in the summer sun. Besides our smell, I mean. For an eight-by-ten-foot shed, we needed to clear a space at least a foot wider all around. Which meant removing several hundred pounds of hill, along with a mélange of stubborn roots from nearby trees. It was slow, tedious work, and eventually reason made an appearance. “Hey, Andrew,” I said. “Let’s finish clearing the site—and let someone else put it up.”

As it turned out, the most labor-intensive part of putting up a shed is everything that comes before the actual shed itself. You won’t understand until a pickup truck comes to deliver a couple of cubic yards of gravel and crushed rock you ordered, and dumps little mountains in your driveway before driving off. Forty wheelbarrow trips later, Andrew and I spread out the stone to form the shed’s foundation. And as we finished, a heavy rain came. The two of us sat for a while on our little wooden bench, drenched, and shivered as the cool rain ran down our backs. If I’d ever regretted taking on this onerous task, I’d have changed my mind as we sat together, relishing our success.

I consider the shed a win-win on several fronts. Because I can get at the mower and other lawn gear more readily, the property theoretically looks better—except for grass-scorching droughts like the one we just suffered. The site prep kept my physical therapist busy for several months. And now we can get in and out of the car while it’s in the garage. Not that I want to drive places anymore, though: I have a shed.

The one we had delivered and installed has a little window with a planter beneath, which made it good for Elena, too. My sweetheart, after all, needed something nice to look at as she peers out the back window…and wonders what I’m doing out there this time.

With such troubling news lately, I know I’d better enjoy the new addition while I can. Any day now, I expect to come home one day and go to the shed to find the lock broken and all the outdoor gear piled up in the pachysandra. I’ll open the door; a shaft of afternoon sun will reveal several puzzled faces. “Cierra la puerta,” I’ll hear a woman whisper. “The baby is sleeping.”

Sunday, July 18, 2010

It’s the slice of life

Yes, doctor, I’ve been told I should see someone about my favorite…obsession. I won’t keep you in the dark: It’s pizza. My wife has mapped out my brain, you see, and pizza forms the biggest part. No, she’s not a scientist, doctor. And you are, yes, of course I’ve noticed your certificates; you positioned the couch so I’d face them. So—cheesy. But that’s what I mean. And it’s gotten worse, as I’ve been pining for a long-lost pizza place.

Let me stop you there, doc…. Where I come from, the word “pizzeria” might be on the sign, but nobody who grew up in Flushing, Queens, a generation ago used that word to describe a business that made and served pizza. It’s a pizza place, Bub. Okay, okay, Doctor Bub. Not a pizza parlor, shop, or restaurant. And certainly not “ristorante” unless you want tomato slices in place of sauce.

Yes, doc, I know I have just an hour, but it’s my dough. So...back to my obsession. I don’t often make it down to Flushing these days. But I’m plotting to go back. To a pizza place I’ve never visited. To have another slice or two of the best pizza I ever ate.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I can explain. My brother Vinnie tells me that Gloria Pizza opened a year before I was born, and it’s among my earliest memories. It was on Main Street in Flushing, a block from where the 7 line ended, and it had a narrow storefront whose customer space wouldn’t fit a fat man—ironic considering how many Gloria must have created. Judging from that belly, doc, I’m sure you have a favorite place of your own! Anyway, its counter was on the right. It ran front to back plus a street-side window that also sold ices. The left wall was all mirrors, and along it ran a shelf for eating what you bought: just pizza and soda in those early days. In between, no matter when you went, it was wall-to-wall people.

Tender and gooey, with sauce that had just a hint of sweetness, the pizza was always fresh out of the oven. In the mid-sixties, a slice cost 20 cents; a cup of soda, a dime. But you could get both for a quarter, something you with your fees could appreciate. It’s a pizza that other people, not just me, talk about on lots of websites, including this one—take it down, Doc. You have room in the margins of that crossword puzzle you’re doing. It even has its own Facebook fan page. Pretty good for a place that closed down in the ‘90s, huh?

But even though my favorite pizza place is long gone, I suppose I’ve been looking for that taste ever since. When the kids were small, I remember paying close attention during those pandemoniac birthday parties. Not to our kids but to the stacked boxes of hot, steaming pizza that some local pizza place would deliver. If the pizza showed up and no one made a move to serve it, I was prone to get agitated. Weren’t they…? Didn’t they see…? Shouldn’t someone…? And if any pizza was left once the kids were done, well, those bite-sized half-slices went down pretty quickly. Which was a good idea in case one of the little buggers came back for more.

Before I go on, doc, the seven-letter word you want for 8 Down is “anchovy”—yes, I can even smell pizza questions. And I thought something was fishy in how seldom you were spouting the requisite “uh huhs.” Not that I’ll eat pizza with any old thing on it. In fact, doc, if people ordering for a crowd with me in it plan to get that so-called pizza with broccoli, radicchio, artichoke hearts, pineapples or other such nonsense, they’d better also have plain-cheese slices around, or it won’t be pretty. You might think it’s more efficient to have your salad and pizza at the same time, doc, but I don’t see a single certificate on this wall for good taste.

Okay, doc, I know I’m talking in circles; if I liked Sicilian pizza, I’d talk in rectangles. So back to Gloria Pizza. That little hole-in-the-wall business is long gone, but apparently the pizza itself never quite did. No, I’m not getting all supernatural on you. My best friend, Jack, just told me that members of the same family that ran Gloria for years apparently have been running another pizza place, in a different part of town, since I was a teenager. Jack recently went back to Flushing to learn if it was indeed the same stuff he and I grew up on. He couldn’t just walk in; the line went out the door. But one slice, one soda, and he was back in time. So you think I have to go there, too, doc? Not quite.

Oh, you’ll want to answer that buzzer—they’re right on time. Stop your little clock and maybe you can have a slice.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I can carry a toon, all right

A little cast-iron anvil sits in front of my office computer. I’d bought the three-inch doodad at a gift shop, probably in Williamsburg, and initially thought of it as a metaphor of the work I do—as if my job of stringing thoughts together somehow compared to a blacksmith’s sweaty, grueling job of pounding and twisting red-hot metal.

But over time my true intentions have surfaced, like the slag in a vat of molten metal. (Allow me one bit of mileage out of that metaphor before I cast it aside.) The anvil is there to remind me of my upbringing. I’m actually not talking about my dear parents’ boundless love and devotion. I’m referring to what I learned from countless hours of watching cartoons as a kid. And how I’ve made it through the years despite how often advice from my parents and, say, Warner Brothers conflicted.

When my family visited the Empire State Building, both Mom and Dad warned us kids to stand back from the ledge, not that we could’ve scaled the high fencing. But in my heart, I knew that I could have run off the edge and make my way back safely, without falling, so long as I didn’t look down to see how far it was to the ground—at which point, of course, I’d have fallen. But even if I had, I’d have gotten up a few moments after I hit the ground, made a little dust cloud, and left a spread-eagle Ed impression in the concrete below.

Stay away from fireworks! I can still hear my mom, and I mostly listened. But I knew better: Any explosives that went off, even several sticks of dynamite inches from my face, would only cover my face with ashes and fray the edges of any hat I’m wearing. (It worked for Elmer Fudd, after all.) I’d have no wounds.

I dated my wife, Elena, for about six months before I realized she was the one. Had I consulted my parents, I know they’d have said it was enough time to feel sure. But from those old Krazy Kat cartoons, I know that the whole process could have taken six seconds…if only one of us had thrown a brick at the other’s head.

While I'm sure I got my share of parental advice about bullies, it's from cartoons that I truly know how to defend myself. (It frequently comes in handy at the office.) Whenever someone needs a good hit on the head, for instance, all I need to do is reach behind me to find a big mallet. Granted, there’s a bit of uncertainty here; instead of a mallet, I might produce an anvil. But then again, an anvil is just as likely to drop from the sky—directly onto someone who truly deserves an anvil to the head. The downside? The anvil’s recipient will only walk around a few moments as a head with feet, probably in circles, before straightening back up to normal size.

As a last resort, I can whip out a can of spinach; never mind that I might have no memory of packing one that particular day. I don’t even need a can opener; the generic version opens with a squeeze.

When we were teenagers, my best friend Jack Cotter and I walked around in Flushing Meadow Park every chance we got. Once near the edge of the park, we watched as a nearby bakery flashed messages on a rooftop LCD sign. The entire message:


Since there wasn’t room for all that, the sign displayed the first line, paused, and then displayed the second. But an instant after seeing “WE WISH YOU A SAFE,” Jack and I turned to each other and shouted in unison: “BOOM!” Everybody who grew up with cartoons, after all, knows that safes are just likely as anvils to fall from the heavens. More than 30 years later, it’s still a running joke we share.

Ah, but I'm afraid I've given a wrong impression: I'm really not so violent of nature. In fact, I'm so polite that I'd like to invite you to sit down to a nice cup of tea. Perhaps you'd like some sugar! I've got some here...yes, I just happen to have it behind me. One lump or two?