Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 15, 1798: My Congressman Can Lick Your Congressman Continued

Astute readers will remember that back on January 30, 1798, in the U.S. lyonduelHouse of Representatives, the gentleman from Vermont, Matthew Lyon, and the gentleman from Connecticut, Roger Griswold, had a bit of an altercation which involved the latter insulting the former and the former spitting on the latter. Far from letting bygones be, the two men evidently nursed their respective angers until they were bound to boil over again, which they did on the morning of February 15, 1798.

Pandemonium, it is fair to say, broke out when, without a word of warning, Representative Griswold stormed across the chambers to where Lyon sat preoccupied with correspondence of some sort. Cursing him as a “scoundrel,” Griswold pounded the Vermont Republican’s head and shoulders with a thick, hickory walking stick. A witness described the attack:

“I was suddenly, and unsuspectedly interrupted by the sound of a violent blow. I raised my head, and directly before me stood Mr. Griswold laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon, who seemed to be in the act of rising out of his seat. Lyon made an attempt to catch his cane, but failed — he pressed towards Griswold and endeavored to close with him, but Griswold fell back and continued his blows on the head, shoulder, and arms of Lyon who, protecting his head and face as well as he could, then turned and made for the fireplace and took up the fire tongs. Griswold dropped his stick and seized the tongs with one hand, and the collar of Lyon by the other, in which position they struggled for an instant when Griswold tripped Lyon and threw him on the floor and gave him one or two blows in the face.”

The combatants were separated, and Lyon retreated to the House water table; but Griswold approached him again, and Lyon lunged forward with the fire tongs and initiated a second brawl. As Representative Jonathan Mason commented, the central legislative body of the United States of America had been reduced to “an assembly of Gladiators.” A lesson, perhaps, for today’s legislators, although the House of Representatives has become a place of cooperation and reasoned debate where no harsh words, let alone blows, are ever exchanged.

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 4: The Verdict

Since we knew of no way to weigh the woman, we devised an ingenious plan – well, it seemed ingenious at the time – to learn her true weight. In my business, I know rum. I know it by volume, and I know it by weight. Napoleon’s rum weighs exactly 28 ounces the bottle. So our plan was this: We would put the woman in Napoleon’s barrel of rum, and she would push rum out of it. Then we fill it up again, figuring how many bottles it took. And that would tell us her weight.” Rollo looked smugly at the spectators as if expecting them to applaud.

And the rest of the operation was pretty much as Mrs. Napoleon described it?” asked the judge.

Pretty much,” answered Rollo. “When she ran away I was a bit upset, but Napoleon told me not to worry. So we measured the rum, and it was just what I expected. But Napoleon wouldn’t accept this. ‘It’s not right,’ he shouted, ‘it should be more.’ He began yelling that I was cheating him, and I felt duty bound to hit him. And he hit me back. And I hit him back. Well, you know how it goes, your honor.”

No, I don’t,” said the judge, “but go on.”

Then the policeman showed up and dragged us away and threw us in jail. And we were just drunk. We deserve an apology. We deserve damages!”

Damages!” echoed Napoleon.

Prisoner Napoleon,” said the judge, “Do you agree with this account?”

Yes,” answered Napoleon. “Except for the part where he said Mrs. Napoleon was unattractive. And I’m sorry for my part in this, but I was drunk”

The judge sat silently for a moment, then said: “Given that Mrs. Napoleon was not harmed and that there was no intention to harm her and given that the two defendants have had several days in jail to reflect on their misdeeds, I’m going to release them with a reprimand and an order that they never drink together again. Mrs. Napoleon, I regret your ordeal and suggest you might think of separation as a possible solution to your situation.”

Oh no, sir,” she answered looking at her husband, who began to sweat and shake under her gaze, “Napoleon’s not getting off that easy. No indeed. We’re going to spend many, many long years together.”

Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 14, 278: Roses Are Red, Etc., Etc.

How did St. Valentine’s Day become a day associated with hearts and flowers and all things romantic? One account puts a definitely sinister spin on the origin of this holiday. It begins back in the third century with a fellow named Claudius the Cruel. As you might guess, Claudius is not going to be the hero of this tale.

Claudius (II, if you’re counting) was the Emperor of Rome, a barbarian that proved that any young boy can grow up to be emperor if he believes. Valentinus, or Valentine, was not a saint at the time, but he was a holy priest.

Claudius, in addition to his barbarianism and cruelty, was a bit of a be_my_valentine_coloring_pagewarmonger. Continually involved in bloody campaigns to destroy upstart nations throughout the region, Claudius needed to maintain a strong army.  But it was a constant battle to keep his military at full strength what with Christianity gaining a toehold and everyone  into family values. The men for their part were unwilling to be all they could be in the army because of their annoying attachment to wives and families.

Claudius had a fairly simple solution; he banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, part of whose livelihood was the performing of marriages, thought this decree unjust and defied the emperor by continuing to marry young lovers on the sly.  Claudius, as emperors will, got wind of Valentine’s doings and, true to his name, ordered that Valentine be put to death. Valentine was arrested and condemned to be beaten about the head, and then have said head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, 278.

Legend has it that while in jail, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, with whom he had had a brief relationship (that will not be explored here), and signed it “From Your Valentine.”  There may have been other cute little Valentine poems as well,  but they have been lost to history.

For this, Valentine was named a saint and had a holiday created after him, though not a legal one with school closings and such. Conspiracy theorists will naturally jump up and down, saying there were several St. Valentines and the holiday could have been named after any one of them. Or it could have come from the pagan festival Lupercalia, a day of wanton carrying on. They should mind their own business.

valentine1

valentine-2

valentine3

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 3: The Weigh-In

Quiet please,” said the judge, ‘or I’ll empty the class. .er . . Courtroom.” They obediently reverted to subdued snickering. “Well, gentlemen,” said the judge turning to the defendants. “I guess it’s time to hear your version of these strange events. Prisoner Rollo, I sense that you’re somehow instrumental in this curious business. Why don’t you go first?”

Rollo stood. “I was drunk, your honor.”

I was drunk, too,” Napoleon chimed in.

I know that,” said the judge. “Please continue.”

I am the owner of a drinking establishment known as Leeward Lounge. On occasion I purchase rum from Mr. Napoleon, because I know he needs the money and I try to help in my own little way.”

He pours it into bottles with fancy labels,” said Napoleon.

On the day in question,” continued Rollo, “he came into my place at about noon and called for two drinks which I served up. He said: ‘this one’s for you, dear friend.’ To be polite, I sat down and drank with him, and in turn I produced two more drinks. He did the same again, and I did the same again and so on – you know how it goes, your honor.”

No I don’t, but please continue.”

Well, it got to be evening and we were fairly tipsy.”

We were wicked drunk, your honor,” Napoleon interjected.

Napoleon starts getting very serious and starts talking about how he needs money for new equipment and he just doesn’t know what he’ll do. When I show reluctance, he suddenly says, ‘I’ll sell you my wife.’ Well, I was quite surprised. The woman is fairly unattractive, as you here in court can see, but I’ve been without a woman for some time and I was drunk, as you know. So I asked him how much he’d sell her for. He didn’t seem to have thought that part out. I suppose the whole idea had been a spur of the moment thing.”

And I was drunk,” said Napoleon.

He thought for a while then said ‘I’ll sell her for two thousand dollars.’ I told him I thought that was too much and we went back and forth a bit. We somehow reached the point where we agreed the price should be based on her weight, but we were both guessing at it, and we were a good thirty pounds apart. Being drunk, that didn’t discourage us. It just made the whole transaction more interesting, a gamble. We finally settled on the amount of fourteen dollars per pound. Being a devoted husband, Napoleon insisted that the price be higher than the finest cut of beef.”

Napoleon grinned and turned red.

continued

Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 13, 1862: Thaw Out the Holly

With the giving and getting of gifts growing to a crescendo in late December, it is to many a glass of cold water in the face when the merriment suddenly gives way to a bleak long winter with scarcely a box or a bow in sight. The people of Norwich, a city on England’s east coast, a couple of centuries ago found a way to keep on giving by elevating February 13, St. Valentine’s Eve to a Christmas-like celebration.

According to an 1862 account, this Victorian tradition was evidently peculiar to Norwich: visitors to the city were often puzzled to find the shop windows crammed with gifts in early February and newspapers full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.

As soon as it got dark on St. Valentine’s Eve, the streets were swarming with folks carrying baskets of treasures to be anonymously dropped on doorsteps throughout the city. They’d deposit a gift, bang on the door, and rush away before anyone inside could reach the door. Indoors there were excited shrieks and shouts, flushed faces, sparkling eyes and laughter, a rush to the door, examination of the parcels.

Practical jokers  were everywhere as well, ringing doorbells and running off, leaving mock parcels that were pulled away by string when someone attempted to pick them up. Large parcels that dwindled to nothing as the recipient fought through layer after layer of wrapping, and even larger parcels containing live boys who would jump out, steal a kiss, and run away.

As with most holidays that involve children out after dark and mischief, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Eve fell out of favor, to be replaced by the Hallmark-inspired and saintless Valentine’s Day.

No Valentine, This One

Hal Foster had been drawing the Tarzan comic strip based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs for several years, but itched to create his own original strip. He began work on a feature called Derek, Son of Thane, set in Arthurian England. Before the strip had its coming out party on February 13, 1937, it had gone through a couple of name changes, first to Prince Arn and eventually to Prince Valiant.

Prince Valiant was five years old when his story began, a continuous story that has been told through 4,000 Sunday episodes. Without a whole lot of deference to historical accuracy, Val’s adventure’s take him throughout Europe, Africa, the Far East and even the Americas in a time frame covering hundreds of years. He does battle with Huns, Vikings, Sorcerers, witches and a slew of monsters from prehistoric to modern, but always big.

Foster drew the strip until 1971 and wrote the continuity until 1980. Since then, other artists have kept it alive. Foster died in 1982, at age 89.

Fore, I mean duck

Golf is thought of as relatively safe sport.  But for the safety of others, there are just some people who should not be allowed on a golf course.  Vice President Spiro Agnew had the dubious distinction of beaning not just one but three spectators on this day in 1971 during the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  On his very first drive, he sliced into the crowd for a two-bagger, bouncing off a man to nail his wife as well.  On his next shot, he hit a woman, sending her to the hospital.  The previous year, Agnew had managed to hit his partner in the back of the head.

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 2: Roll Out the Barrel

They were drinking from this barrel of rum?”

They weren’t, and that was odd. They’d take a drink from a bottle then pour the rest of it into the barrel until it was filled to the brim.”

And how is it that there is a barrel of rum in your kitchen?” the judge asked.

Napoleon makes rum,” Mrs. Napoleon answered, and then, glowering at her husband, added: “Very bad rum.”

Please continue.”

They were drinking and making strange talk. ‘Kind of scrawny,’ says the one. ‘Not so much as you’d think,’ says the other. ‘I’d say not over 120 pounds,’ says the one. ‘You’d be surprised,’ says the other. ‘Ready?’ says the one. ‘Ready,’ says the other. Then they stand up and stagger toward me. ‘How much do you weigh?’ says the one. And when I refused to tell them, they were happy about it. Grinning like drunk crocodiles. And the one takes me by the head and the other by the feet and they lift me off the ground. ‘Stop, let me down,’ I shouted. Napoleon just says, ‘Hush, it’ll be all right.’ ‘Take her shoes off,’ says the other. ‘And her dress.’ ‘We’ll make allowance for the dress,’ says Napoleon. I start screaming, and they dump me into the barrel of rum, right up to my neck.” She shook a fist at the defendants and shouted: “You assassins. I want you hung.”

Please, Mrs. Napoleon,” soothed the judge. “I know this is very trying, but if you could continue.”

I’ll try,” sobbed Mrs. Napoleon. “I was right up to my neck in rum. And Rollo says ‘I guess we’re set.’ And Napoleon, the fiend, says ‘oh no, we’ve got to count her head.’ ‘Well, push it in then,’ says Rollo. And Napoleon pushed my head down and rum came into my nose and I knew I’d breathed my last and he kept pushing until my head was completely under and I saw the good Lord beckoning me and I said a last prayer that both of my murderers would rot in Hell and suddenly they pulled me out and I ran screaming into the night all soaked in rum like I was the one who was drunk. I ran to the station and told the policeman what had happened. At first he didn’t believe me, thought I was drunk, but finally he followed me back. And there we found Napoleon and Rollo going at each other like a couple of wild animals, shouting about how many bottles of rum there were and how much that much rum should weigh. The policeman hauled them away and that’s the last I know.” She sat down exhausted but triumphant, and in what should have been a somber moment, the spectators, who had been giggling throughout, broke into loud laughter.

continued

Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 12, 1924: Now You Has Jazz

Advertised as an educational event, the “Experiment in Modern Music” drew a capacity crowd to New York City’s Aeolian Hall on the afternoon of February 12, 1924. Noted critics were in attendance as were such luminaries as John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Organized by the conductor of the Palais Royal Orchestra, Paul Whiteman, the concert was intended to introduce the new form of music called jazz and show audiences that it was a musical form to be reckoned with. True to its billing as educational, most of the concert had consisted of mind-numbing rather than toe-tapping music, two dozen little lessons that began to dissolve into one another as the audience grew antsier and antsier. At last (second to last, actually) a young Broadway composer sat down at the piano to perform a brand new piece written for the occasion.

His composition had been hastily created.  Just over a month earlier, whilegershwin in a Manhattan pool hall, he had read in a newspaper that he was scheduled to perform a jazz concerto at the Whiteman soiree. Painted into the proverbial corner, he set to work. The framework of his concerto came to him on a train journey: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise . . . And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.”

The piece opened with an “outrageous cadenza of the clarinet,” now instantly recognizable, and “Rhapsody in Blue” metamorphosed into a showstopper of American music history. George Gershwin himself would, as a New York Times critic lacking restraint put it, “go far beyond those of his ilk.”

And now you has rock

Forty years later, on February 12, 1964, New York City would again be home to musical history.  This time the venue was Carnegie Hall and the occasion a major skirmish in the British invasion as the Beatles held their first concert in the U.S.  And not everyone thought they would go far beyond those of their ilk:  “Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody.” — Newsweek

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 1: Order in the Court

All of y’rise,” said Victor Clovis who most of the time drove a taxi, shuffling tourists from one island rendezvous to another, but who, on the rare occasions when court was in session, served as whatever court personnel might be needed. Except judge, of course. Those duties fell to the short gentlemen who stood rather pretentiously behind the unpretentious teacher’s desk in one of the three rooms in Ste. Catherine School. Student desks had been pushed to one side of the room to make room for grown-up folding chairs, and court was now in session.

Everyone in the classroom/courtroom did indeed rise as instructed, everyone being Regina Napoleon, her husband Corso, his friend Max Rollo, and a good dozen townspeople who had nothing to do on this hot summer day. Court proceedings were rare on the island, and they were timed to fit into the judge’s semi-annual visits.

Mrs. Napoleon was the plaintiff in this particular case, her husband and his friend Rollo the defendants. She stood before a chair to the judge’s right, facing, at about six feet away on the judge’s left, the two men.

Okay, be seated,” Victor intoned, after the judge had seated himself.

The judge was not long on ceremony. Victor felt a little slighted that he was not given the opportunity to instruct Mrs. Napoleon on the matter of the whole truth and nothing but the truth before the judge started right in with questions.

So you are charging the two defendants with attempted murder, is that correct?”

That’s absolutely correct, your most honorific sir, “ answered Mrs. Napoleon.

Even though one of them is your husband?”

He’s the worst of the two, don’t you know. He’s an animal.”

And they attempted this murder by immersion in a barrel of rum?”

If that means they tried to drown me, that they did. That they did.”

Please explain.”

I was whacking some conch with a board – that makes them tender, perfect for conch chowder. I make a nice conch chowder, lots of conch and good vegetables – well they came in with big grins on their ugly faces and the look of evil in their eyes.”

Defendant Napoleon stood and grinned at the judge. “I was drunk, you see.”

Defendant Rollo rose and added: “So was I, that’s the truth.”

We’ll hear your story by and by,” snapped the judge. “Now please sit. Mrs. Napoleon, you were saying the two defendants had the look of evil in their eyes. Do you agree that they were drunk?”

Oh my yes,” answered Mrs. Napoleon. “They were lit up to their very gills. I never like to see the two of them together, especially not when they’re in their cups. And still they were drinking. ‘There’ll be mischief,’ I said to myself.”

continued

Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 1, 1896: Poor People of Paris

Opera patrons packed the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, on the evening of February 1, 1896, for the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s latest, La Boheme. Conducting the evening’s performance was a rising young star, Arturo Toscanini. Critics were divided over the opera, but audiences lapped it up, and it remains the world’s most popular opera. It is a timeless story of love among struggling young artists in Paris during the 1830s.

Our Bohemians– a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher — share a garret in the Latin Quarter as they try to eke out a living. It’s Christmas Eve; it’s cold. Rodolfo, the poet, and Marcello, the painter, are feeding a small fire with one of Rodolfo’s manuscripts. Their two companions arrive with food and fuel, one having had the good fortune to sell a bit of music. As they eat and drink, the landlord comes looking for their overdue rent. They distract him with wine and, pretending to be offended by his stories, throw him out. The rent money is divided for a night out in the Latin Quarter. Rodolfo stays behind as the other three leave, fortuitously, as a pretty neighbor comes looking for a light for her candle: “They call me merely Mimi.” Merely Mimi faints (she’s not well, folks), she and Rodolfo immediately fall in love, and they head off to the Latin Quarter, singing of their love.

In Act 2, our Bohemians are making merry in the Latin Quarter. Marcello’s one-time sweetheart, Musetta, enters on the arm of the old but wealthy Alcindoro. Trying to get Marcello’s attention, she sings an aria about her own charms (Musetta’s Waltz, recorded as Don’t You Know by Della Reese in 1959). She sends Alcindoro off on a bogus errand and promptly leaps into Marcello’s arms. They all scurry off, stiffing the returning Alcindoro for the check.

Act 3 brings a series of flirtations, jealousies, lovers’ quarrels and, for Mimi, a lot of coughing. At this point, we’re pretty sure she’s not going to make it through Act 4.

Which she doesn’t. After a few attempts at being cheerful, the others leave Mimi and Rodolfo who recall their meeting and happy days together until Mimi is overtaken by violent coughing. The others return, Mimi drifts into unconsciousness and dies.

Enrico Caruso owned the role of Rodolfo during his life, as did Luciano Pavarotti. And Maria Callas was all over Mimi.

Perelman Among Swine

S.J. Perelman was an American humorist, author, and screenwriter, perelmanknown primarily for his humorous short stories, first published in The New Yorker and other magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. He co-authored with Ogden Nash the book for the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill) which ran for more than 500 performances beginning in 1943. His movie collaborations include a couple of Marx Brothers outings and the award-winning screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days. He recounted his own trip around the world in a collection of humorous vignettes called Westward Ha!. The surrealistic travails on his Pennsylvania farm, were collected into books such as Acres and Pains. Perelman was born on February 1, 1904 and died in 1979.

You’ll have to leave my meals on a tray outside the door because I’ll be
working pretty late on the secret of making myself invisible, which may take me almost until eleven o’clock.

A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.

In pulp fiction it is a rigid convention that the hero’s shoulders and the heroine’s balcon constantly threaten to burst their bonds, a possibility which keeps the audience in a state of tense expectancy. Unfortunately for the fans, however, recent tests reveal that the wisp of chiffon which stands between the publisher and the postal laws has the tensile strength of drop-forged steel.

“Have a bit of the wing, darling?” queried Diana solicitously, indicating the roast Long Island airplane with applesauce. I tried to turn our conversation from the personal note, but Diana would have none of it. Soon we were exchanging gay banter over the mellow Vouvray, laughing as we dipped fastidious fingers into the Crisco parfait for which Diana was famous. Our meal finished, we sauntered into the play-room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her and we slid over the waxed floor in the intricate maze of the jackdaw strut.

As one who achieved the symmetry of a Humphrey Bogart and the grace of a jaguar purely on pastry, I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage and similar chlorophyll.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 26, 1784: Soar Like a Turkey

If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the bald eagle would never have become a national symbol. He would have preferred the rattlesnake which he suggested was an appropriate symbol of “the temper and conduct of America.” He also suggested a scene of confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

In a January 26, 1784, letter to his daughter, Franklin outlines his case against the eagle: “He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem . . .”

If we must have a bird as our symbol, why not the turkey? “For the Truth (says Franklin) the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.”

Soar like a turkey.

Bistro

Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.

“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.

Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”

Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.

Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.

“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”

“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”

“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”

“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”

“Vile.”

And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”

“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”

But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.

“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.

In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.

They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”

“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.

Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.

The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.

Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.

 

This is one of ten stories in the collection Naughty Marietta and Other Stories.  See more here.

Yesterdays robots: 

R2D2 (Star Wars), C-3PO (Star Wars), Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Wall-E, Rosie the Maid (The Jetsons), Number 5 (Short Circuit), Robocop

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 23, 1957: Toss That Pluto Platter

Fred Morrison and his future wife Lucille were fooling around on a California beach back in 1938 when Fred had a light bulb over your head eureka moment. The pair were tossing a cake pan back and forth when a bored bystander offered them a quarter for the cake pan. Fred started doing the math — it was pretty simple math — I sell a five-cent cake pan for a quarter and I get to hang out on the beach.

The Morrisons jumped right into their flying cake pan business, but before long a nasty war got in their way, including a stretch for Fred as a prisoner of war. It was the late 40s before he got back into the flying cake pan business. Cake pan prices had gone up but plastic was in, and so, in 1948, Morrison and a partner introduced a plastic disc they called “flyin saucer”to take advantage of the UFO craze.

Morrison designed a new model in 1955 called the “pluto platter,” and on January 23, 1957, he sold the rights to Wham-O. Later that year Wham-O added the name Frisbee. And eventually, the name pluto platter was put out of its misery.

 

Nothing in Moderation

He got his first job in television by showing up for an audition wearing apercydovetonsils barrel and shorts. From there his career took off during a ten-year period that carried him from obscurity to stardom, the ride getting steadily wilder and crazier. Although someone else held the title Mr. Television, Ernie Kovacs, born on January 23, 1919, certainly left his imprint on the medium.

Often referred to as television’s surrealist, the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Hungarian-American comedian could be counted on for the unusual if not the bizarre in any of his many television outings, including It’s Time for Ernie, his first network series; Ernie in Kovacsland; and The Ernie Kovacs Show, featuring characters such as poet Percy Dovetonsils, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and the Nairobi Trio. He also hosted the Tonight Show twice a week and had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What’s My Line?, where he strove more for humor than insight. (When Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of the automobile company, was the program’s mystery guest, and the panel had established that the mystery guest’s name was synonymous with an automobile brand, Kovacs asked, “Are you – and this is just a wild guess – but are you Abraham Lincoln?”

Kovacs was at the peak of his career when he was killed in a late-night automobile accident on his way home from one of the many parties that had become part of his life in California. The inscription on his tombstone reads “Ernie Kovacs 1919 – 1962 — Nothing In Moderation.”

Mama eu Quero, Part 5 (Conclusion): Goodbye Cuba

About the only warning the black-haired couple had of the impending disaster was the  dancing of the olives in their martinis, a nervous samba in time to the music coming from the stage.  It was gentle enough at first, but then the table that gave cadence to the martinis above and shelter to the young lady below shook as energetically as a table at a three-ghost séance.  Delia was out of control.  Carmen Miranda finished her song, the audience roared its approval and Delia jumped to her feet, sending the table and its occupants reeling backward into yet another table and another couple like so many genteel but helpless dominoes.

cuba3The room hushed as waiters bobbed here and there to repair the damage.  Two large men left their posts at a doorway and headed toward Delia.  So did Carmen Miranda, who reached her first and stared at her without speaking.  The Brazilian Bombshell was a little older, a little heavier than the Carmen of Delia’s memory, but her brilliant eyes flashed – with anger, Delia thought.  But then she grinned and said:  “Zank you.  You are boodifool.”

She kissed Delia’s forehead, darted back to the stage and resumed singing as though she were trying to divert attention from the embarrassed young woman now being escorted away from the stage.

Even now, forty years later, observed only by Fidel, Delia’s cheeks reddened at the   recollection of her calamitous faux pas, a Cuban crisis every bit as important to Delia as the Bay of Pigs invasion years later.  Jorge had interceded that night and Delia was allowed to return to her table for the rest of the performance.  But she was watched carefully and escorted out as soon as Carmen finished.

Summer ended as abruptly as Carmen’s performance of “Mama Eu Quero” when her father was summoned back to the United States in late July.  And although Delia had known from the beginning that her summer would end too soon, this shortening of it was somehow unjust, and she said so over and over, but to no avail.  For she and Jorge, that last day together equaled any sweet sorrow of parting ever committed by a romantic to paper, film or television screen.  It was filled with lovemaking, tears and promises – promises to write or phone, to return, to visit, to never forget – all that stuff that tries but can’t take the sting out of the word good-by.

In the plane, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, Delia heard the words to a popular song:

. . .though other nights and other days will find us gone our separate ways, we will have these moments to remember.

And she knew, despite trying all she could to believe otherwise, that Jorge and the past two months would be memories and nothing else.

The last few days of July and the first few in August were endless hours of agony.  Her young life had ceased, after sixteen and a half short years, to have meaning.  She mostly listened to music – Latin and melancholy – and stared at the television set, not really watching.  Not until that night when Jimmy Durante had as his special guest, straight from her triumphant Cuban tour, Carmen Miranda.

Delia, cheered for the first time since leaving Cuba, even doffed a hat of fruit as she sat cross-legged in front of the television, watching the interplay between Jimmy and Carmen.  Delia may have been watching with 20 million other Americans, but only she a few short weeks ago had seen Carmen Miranda from underneath a table at the Tropicana, had been smiled at and called boodiful.

After the lights had dimmed at the Club Durant and the star of the show had bade goodnight to Mrs. Calabash, Carmen Miranda returned to her dressing room.  There, shortly after midnight, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.

Ah, look what you’ve done, Fidel.  I hadn’t thought about that summer in a good long time.  For a few months, I thought of nothing else; for a few years, often.  For several Halloweens, I shamelessly dressed my daughter as Carmen.  And for one Halloween, her little brother was you, Fidel.  Delia laughed.  The face on the television screen was now a stranger, but she continued to talk to it.  Several years ago, we all watched that old movie on TV, and they laughed when I cried at the giant bananas.  My husband says I should visit Cuba, but I don’t think that’s allowed. All because of my international incident at the Tropicana, probably.  I hear the Tropicana is still there.  I thought they would have torn it down at once.  Jorge would have.

 Jorge.

Good night, Jorge, wherever you are.

 

“Mama Eu Quero” originally appeared in the literary magazine Dandelion.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.