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JUNE 11, 1933: WEREWOLF? THERE WOLF.

Actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, author and activist Gene Wilder was born on June 11, 1933.  After his first film role playing a hostage in Bonnie and Clyde, he went on to star in such memorable films as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.

 

wilderInvention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.” — Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

 

“The clue obviously lies in the word “cheddar.” Let’s see now. Seven letters. Rearranged, they come to, let me see: “Rachedd.” “Dechdar.” “Drechad.” “Chaderd” – hello, chaderd! Unless I’m very much mistaken, chaderd is the Egyptian word meaning “to eat fat.” Now we’re getting somewhere!” Sigerson Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother

 

“You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. They’re people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know – morons.”The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles

 

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“This is a nice boy. This is a good boy. This is a mother’s angel. And I want the world to know once and for all, and without any shame, that we love him. I’m going to teach you. I’m going to show you how to walk, how to speak, how to move, how to think. Together, you and I are going to make the greatest single contribution to science since the creation of fire.” – Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein

 

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I’m in pain and I’m wet and I’m still hysterical! – Leo Bloom in The Producers

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MAY 12, 1812: POETRY WITHOUT NAUGHTY WORDS

Edward Lear, born in England in 1812, was a true dabbler — artist, illustrator, musician, author, poet. Starting off his career as an illustrator, he was employed to illustrate birds and animals first for the Zoological Society and then for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who had a private menagerie. He also made drawings during his journeys that later illustrated his travel books. and illustrations for the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson. As a musician, Lear played the accordion, flute, guitar, and piano (not simultaneously). He also composed music for a number of Romantic and Victorian poems, most notably those of Tennyson.

Lear is remembered chiefly for his work as a writer of literary nonsense. He might easily have been given the title Father of the Limerick for bringing the much maligned form into popularity (without the raunchiness that later found its way into the form). In 1846, he published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions. In 1871 he published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, which included his most famous nonsense song, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of the Earl of Derby.

Lear’s nonsense books were successful during his lifetime, but he found himself fighting rumors that he was just a pseudonym and that the books were actually written by the Earl of Derby. Conspiracy theorists cited as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that Lear is an anagram of Earl. A few even suggested he was born in Kenya, not England.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Naughty Words Without Poetry

Stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, actor, writer/author George Carlin was born on May 12, 1937 (died 2008). Noted for his black humor as well as his thoughts on politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects, he won five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. Carlin and his classic “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices affirmed the government’s power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.

In his own words:

george

Swimming is not a sport. Swimming is a way to keep from drowning. That’s just common sense!

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.

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The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man…living in the sky, who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer and burn and scream until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you and he needs money.

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MAY 2, 1843: THE TOWN THAT CRIED WOLF

Chances are you’ve never heard of Champoeg — unless maybe you’re from Oregon which is where it is, or was. Champoeg had the historical significance of being the first American government on the West Coast, having been established by representatives of Willamette Valley settlers on May 2, 1843, by a vote of 52-50. These representatives had held a series of meetings starting back in February to entertain measures to deal with the threat of wolves. During these so-called “Wolf Meetings,” the conferees established a series of civil codes (although its doubtful the wolves paid much attention to them).
When the Oregon Territory was created in 1848, Champoeg was cold-shouldered as upstart Oregon City became its capital. This despite the fact that Champoeg had become rather a bustling little metropolis with a steamboat landing, a ferry across the Willamette River, a stagecoach office, a granary and a warehouse. Ten streets ran north to south, crossed by six east-west thoroughfares.
Champoeg chugged along through the years as Oregon grew and gained statehood. Then in 1861, the Willamette River reared its ugly head, rising 55 feet above its normal stage, flooding the town and destroying every structure in it with the exception of two saloons (there’s a lesson here somewhere). Champoeg was never rebuilt after the flood; all that remains is a small monument describing it place in history and a stake marking a street corner (probably the one where a saloon stood).

“Well!”

Although he was first heard on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny debuted his own radio show for NBC on May 2, 1932. After six months he moved to CBS and then in 1933 back to NBC. Although he continued to jump back and forth on networks, his radio program lasted until 1955, some five years after his television program appeared.

Benny was a fixture on radio and TV for three decades, and is still considered one of the best. He was a master of comic timing, creating laughter with pregnant pauses or a single expression, such as his signature “Well!

Appearing with him over the years were Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingston, Phil Harris, Mel Blanc and Sheldon Leonard. Leonard helped Benny produce what was said to be the longest laugh in radio history. Leonard as a holdup man approached Benny and demanded “your money or your life.” Benny remained silent. Finally, Leonard said “Well!?” and Benny answered “I’m thinking it over!”

Coconut Woman, Part 2: Time to Talk of Pirates

Everett and Malachi were both there that evening in March when Harriet entertained the young couple from Ottawa, here for their fifth anniversary. As usual, Everett was explaining to the newcomers his settling-land-rising-water theory.

“Now if you was to come back for your tenth anniversary,” said Everett, scratching furiously with a stubby pencil in a tiny spiral notebook, “the water’d be right up to here.” He held his outstretched hand between his nose and upper lip. The young woman from Ottawa looked at him and gulped as though she were already threatened, since a water level just below Everett’s nose would be well above hers.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Everett continued. “And not very much time at that. The forces of nature move ever and evermore onward.”

“Honey, you know that can’t be true,” said Harriet. It wasn’t clear whether honey was Everett or the young woman from Ottawa. “It’s like the ozone layer and global warming and such. Scientists scribble in their little notepads just like Everett here, and they come up with statistics to prove whatever they think needs proving. Now, if I was to get up at say seven in the morning, and it was say forty degrees out, but it got up to eighty by noon, I could scribble in my little notebook and come up with a theory that by five o’clock it’d be a hundred and sixty degrees, now couldn’t I?”

The young woman from Ottawa giggled a little, and her husband smiled. Everett glared, snorted and said: “It ain’t that simple, and you know full well, Harriet.”

“Well, maybe not,” said Harriet. “But Malachi’s ideas are pretty simple, aren’t they Malachi? When you going to start in on them?”

“I don’t know if it’s something I should talk about,” said Malachi, studying the couple from Ottawa.

“Why not?” asked Harriet. “You’re always talking about your pirates.”

“But lately I been wonderin’ if maybe too many people are gettin’ to know about it.”

“I’d say the more people the better,” Harriet teased. “If we’re gonna find that treasure, honey, we got to get serious looking before it’s all under water.” She hee-hawed and slapped the arms of her rocker. The couple from Ottawa joined in but only with polite little laughs that wouldn’t offend the two men and their theories.

“Henri Caesar was a pirate that learned his trade from the infamous Lafitte brothers,” said Malachi suddenly, evidently seeing his window of opportunity swinging shut. “Cruel, cruel he was. Plundered for nearly thirty years before they hanged him. Hundreds of ships. I’ve studied him a lot, and I’m certain that he buried some of his treasure around here, possibly on this very beach. Half mile south of here they found an old grave. Caesar usually killed his victims, all of them, right on the ship, except certain young women he took a fancy to. If they refused his advances, he’d kill them too. But if they accepted, they were spared, at least until he grew tired of them. They found one of them in that grave. At least part of her.”

The young woman from Ottawa, white-faced and wide-eyed, winced and said: “My goodness.”

“And in nearly two hundred years,” Harriet scoffed, “nobody has been able to find that treasure. But Malachi’s going to find it before this place becomes an aquarium.”

Harriet’s debunking of the Malachi treasure myth was interrupted by the appearance of two men whose arrival was so silent and sudden that it caused the young woman from Ottawa to let out a tiny shriek and Harriet herself to jump slightly. They were both rumpled and shaggy, though not dirty. The tall one could have passed for a pirate and probably was in the eyes of the young woman from Ottawa. The shorter, clean-shaven one spoke in a studied, polite, but somewhat gravelly voice. “Good evening, folks. Sorry to disturb you. We’ve tied up at the harbor down the road for the night. Headed to the out islands tomorrow morning. Gentlemen there said you were the closest place that took in folks for the night, and we were wondering if you might have a room available.”

continued

Coconut Woman originally appeared in Tampa Tribune Fiction Quarterly.  It is one of 15 stories featured in Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean.

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MARCH 24, 1990: THE TWO AND ONLY

After a lifelong career on radio with partner Bob Elliott, beginning in 1946 at WHDH in Boston and ending in 1987 on National Pubic Radio, Ray Goulding died on March 24, 1990.

Bob and Ray created and gave voice to such offbeat characters as domestic advisor Mary Margaret McGoon; adenoidal reporter Wally Ballou, Matt Neffer, boy spot-welder; and cowboy singer Tex Blaisdell who did radio rope tricks. The duo also parodied radio and television with spoofs that often outlasted the programs they were based on —  Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons; Jack Headstrong, The All-American American; and the soap operas One Fella’s Family and Mary Backstage, Noble Wife.  They  successfully adapted their comedy to other media, including stage and television.

One enduring routine features Goulding as a rather dense reporter interviewing Elliott as an expert on the Komodo dragon.

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February 22, 1956: Not Your Typical Barbarian

You can pretty much be certain you’ve got a turkey on your hands when you’ve got actors such as Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and John Wayne (!) playing Mongolians, when the entire film is shot in one location in a desert in southern Utah (haven’t we seen that rock before?) and when you have such dialogue as:

“Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures . . . pilgrim.”

The Conqueror, released on February 22, 1956, was the epic story of a 12thconqueror century Mongol warlord who worked his way up the barbarian ladder to become the infamous Genghis Khan. Produced by Howard Hughes, it was meant to be his crowning cinematic masterpiece. The film cost $6 million to film in Cinemascope and Technicolor and is frequently ridiculed in the same breath as Plan 9 from Outer Space, another 50s flop which cost about $2.99 to make. Hughes spent another $12 million to buy back every single print of the film after its disastrous release.

The Conqueror not only destroyed RKO, the studio that made it, but wiped out a good number of the cast and crew. The shooting location turned out to be downwind from Yucca Flats, Nevada, where the government was merrily testing atomic bombs, and the cast and crew received far more than the recommended daily allowance of radioactive fallout. Nearly half of them, including Wayne, were later diagnosed with cancer (although Wayne also smoked six packs a day).

February 22, 1907: Hey Youse

sheldon_leonardThose who remember his screen appearances at all are most likely to recognize him as Nick, the surly bartender who gives George Bailey and Clarence the heave-ho in  It’s a Wonderful Life. As an actor, Sheldon Leonard, born on February 22, 1907, specialized in playing supporting characters, most often gangsters or or other tough guys with names like Pretty Willie, Lippy, Jumbo, Blackie, or, notably, Harry the Horse in the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls. He spoke with a thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth.

His many appearances in movies and television spanned six decades. But it was as a producer and director that Sheldon Leonard really made his mark. He began a new career as a television producer in the early 50s and turned out a succession of hit series — The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (winner of 21 Emmys). He had another success in the mid 60s with I Spy, the first series to cast a black actor (Bill Cosby) as an equal co-star with a white actor in a dramatic role.  Leonard is also informally credited with having invented the spin-off,  the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot for a new series.The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series The Andy Griffith Show. 

Sheldon Leonard died in 1997.

 

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February 3, 1882: You’re a Big One, Aren’t Ya

A rather large sales transaction took place on February 3, 1882: Flamboyant showman and circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum purchased his largest performer, a single-named star who stood ten feet at the shoulders, Jumbo. Jumbo of course was an elephant, a very big elephant. He was born in the Sudan and took a rather circuitous journey north to Germany, France and finally England and the London Zoo, where he resided for 17 years, becoming famous for giving rides to zoo visitors.

Londoners were not happy about the sale. The Zoological Society was up in arms. 100,000 schoolchildren petitioned Queen Victoria to halt the sale. A lawsuit was filed against the zoo. The zoo attempted to renege on the sale, but the court sided with Barnum.

The deal was a bonanza for Barnum. He exhibited Jumbo to huge crowds at Madison Square Garden, recovering the entire cost of his investment in three weeks. With Jumbo as its main attraction, the circus earned $1.75 million for the season.

Jumbo’s circus career would be short-lived, however. In 1885, he was struck by a train and died within minutes.

What’s in a Name

While jumbo as an adjective is used today to describe everything from cds to shrimp, the word did not have that meaning when the London zookeeper association gave it to the big fellow. Its derivation could be Indian from jambu (pronouced jumboo) a tree that grows on a mythical island whose fruits were said to be as big as elephants or Swahili from jambo (hello) or jumbe (chief). It is safe to say it has no relation to jambalaya or gumbo.

He-e-e-y Abbott

Radio’s Kate Smith Hour was a mainstay during the 30s and 40s. On February 3, 1938, the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first radio outing on the program and became regular performers. They first performed their classic “Who’s on First?” the following month.

abbott-costelloThe former vaudevillians quickly became major stars in radio, followed by movies and television. They left the Kate Smith show after two years to star in their own radio program, as well as a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, and their first film, One Night in the Tropics, in which, although cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic comedy routines and cemented their film careers.

buck-privatesUniversal Pictures signed them to a long-term contract. Their second film, Buck Privates, made them box-office stars and in the process saved Universal from bankruptcy. In most of their films, the plot was not much more than a framework that allowed them to reintroduce comedy routines they had first performed on stage. Universal also added glitzy production numbers to capitalize on the popularity of musical films, featuring such performers as the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Raye, Dick Powell and Ted Lewis and his Orchestra. The Andrews Sisters hits “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time” were both introduced in Buck Privates.

During the following years, Abbott and Costello “met” many other movie legends – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Killer (Boris Karloff).  And they traveled throughout the world (and beyond): in a Harem, in the Foreign Legion, Lost in Alaska, Mexican Hayride, Mars, and Africa Screams, which featured both Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck as themselves. They made a total of 36 films.

On television, they frequently hosted the Colgate Comedy Hour and had their own syndicated television program.

In the 1950s Abbott and Costello’s popularity waned, their place atop the comedy heap taken by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Another reason for the decline was overexposure. They were reluctant to introduce new material, and their familiar routines were glutting the movie and television markets, with two films a year, re-releases of most of their older films; their filmed television series and live TV appearances.

They dissolved their partnership in 1957, with Lou making sporadic appearances until his death in 1959.  Bud died in 1974.

 

 

 

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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.