Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Fabled Portland Flea

Miss Kitty and I first heard whispers about it a couple of years ago at the Antique Festival in Midland, Michigan.  “Are you going down to Portland this year?”  “Yeah, ya gotta go to Portland.  Indiana’s kind of on-the-way.  Then, depending on the weather, I might head back to Florida…”  Flea market shoppers (I won’t call them ‘Junkers’…I prefer ‘Treasure Hunters’) will sometimes be secretive about the places they find great bargains, akin to the fisherman with a favored fishing hole.

I struck up a conversation with a vendor later in the day.  I loved his stuff and couldn’t afford any of it.  But he was one of those people who is in the re-sale business partially because they love talking to a friendly face.  I timidly asked, “I’ve heard a rumor that there’s a FANTASTIC flea market down in Portland, Indiana.” 

He responded, “That’s not a rumor.”  He explained that it was smack-dab in the middle of a Tractor and Gas Engine Festival (no word on whether there was a falling-out with ‘those diesel engine bastards!!’), a show held a couple of times during the summer, “but you have to go to the August show.  THAT’s the big one.”

It took us a while to get around to it, but this year the stars aligned and we overpaid for an eighty-dollar motel room to be twenty miles away.  I reserved late, my own fault, but there doesn’t seem to be TONS of lodging in the area.  It might pay to book early.  There is a good-sized motel right next door to the fairgrounds that sits derelict.

I will take most of the blame for missed opportunities, but, that said, there is little work done to draw a crowd to this show.  Signage was negligible.  It was almost as if someone said, “If I have to explain it, you don’t need to know.”  The information we got from the motel was about a street full of vendors “just past the Arby’s on 27.”  Again, no literature.  The desk clerk told us all she knew, stating that she hadn’t lived in Portland for twenty years, but “If you live in Portland, you didn’t want to be there THIS weekend.”

It was a wide open, open-air grouping of garage sales mixed in with the pros I recognize from Ann Arbor and Wyandotte Art Fairs, as well as the firmly-priced ‘marts’ of cheaply made, new imported goods.  Oh, and a lot of Trump stuff.  One booth was nothing but.  The hats were ubiquitous on the heads of shoppers, but hundreds more awaited purchase on tables all the way down the street.  It is an extremely conservative area.

We picked up a few bargains, a Packers jersey sporting Rodgers at $10 being the highlight.  Overall, it was disappointing. The trend in selling to the end user continues unabated, though the folks selling out of the garage are not cleaning and repairing their goods before insisting on a full price they read about in a collectibles guide.  I had a women tell me she was asking twenty-five dollars for her dirt encrusted 354 Tonka because “no one’s ever played with it.”  There was nowhere near the 150-200 vendors that I had heard about, and I had no clue why ANYONE would think this sale was elite level.

It bugged Miss Kitty as well.  The difference between us is that she is able (and willing) to whip out her iPhone and puzzle it out.  There WAS indeed a flea market in the midst of the tractor show, in addition to the ad hoc sales that took place up against the back gate of the fairgrounds.  You know, “…over by the Arby’s.”

Going in on the Saturday of the show, we were able to cruise into the free parking about ninety minutes after the gates opened.  Kath and I have never been gate crashers at the flea market.  Everybody’s looking for different things and, as I stated earlier, I’m a treasure hunter.  You don’t look for a thing.  You just look.  You aren’t after anything in particular.  I am continually shopping for both myself and my small re-sale business.  I don’t buy things based solely on logic.  I will only buy something when my Spidey-Sense is tingling.  If you approach me when I have picked up one of your wares, I will certainly engage you about the item.  Whether I buy it or not, I will thank you for your time.  I don’t know how the introverted vendors do it, but I see them all the time, sitting in the doorway of their mobile home or on the tailgate of their truck, looking like they can’t wait for sundown.

The good news, fellow flea market shoppers, is that there is a terrific flea market in the middle of a Tractor Show.  There were bargains to be had and we took a few of them home.  It appears that the craze over early 20th century school desks is over, as the prices for finished product is less than twenty dollars.  I don’t know how long it will take to sell all of these synthetic sunflowers…but I fear I won’t live to see their demise.  Sets of China flood the market.  All those times we told Grandma to use the good stuff and she blew us off and served dinner on the Melmac?  Yeah, WE were right, Granny was wrong.  If you are in an estate situation or cleaning out an old house, do your due diligence (of course!) in terms of research, but put no value on the China sets.  I would be willing to bet that most of the China cabinets that are re-sold these days are now displaying action figures rather than cups and saucers.  The restrooms were clean and not too widely spaced (even for people in their fifties!).  The concessions were excellent (for a flea market) with more than just hot dogs and popcorn.  Local fraternal organizations run the booths and proceeds benefit the community.  Kath and I both thought the food was good.   

The bad news is the community around you may chafe at your arrival.  In the Portland area, there are 8,000 Amish and 4,000 English.  I had no quarrel with the Amish folks, trying to give them as wide a berth as possible when passing on the road, so as not to spook the horses.  I saw more than one skittery nag that must dread this time of year as it was forced to pull a buggy partially on a soft, grassy shoulder because of a shithead in a muscle car.  The folks from town were another matter.  It seems likely they can spot a local at fifty feet and they respond with…eh.  Not mean or confrontational, no one glared at us. I wasn’t worried about someone keying my truck or pushing us around.  There was just a general closing of ranks, where they let you know your place.  One of the restaurants we went to on Friday night decided to close an hour early and simply COULDN’T accommodate us. A young lady raced to the door to tell us this.  When we landed at a truck stop, open 24 hours a day, suddenly that hot grill slowed way down.  In a half-full dining room, we waited forty-five minutes for a cheeseburger and the special of the day.  We still tipped twenty percent and wished everyone we saw a good evening.  I will caution further that the presence of pickaninny sculpture and signage is replete.  No doubt, African-American treasure hunters are as used to this as one can be used to a direct insult, but the general lack of dark-skinned people was notable.  Kitty and I saw five African-Americans in four-plus hours.  Two were vendors.

It is possible to do the whole flea market area in a day if you are in good physical shape.  Kath and I, knowing what we like and what we don’t, cruised through in about 4-1/2 hours.  As always, get a motel that serves breakfast and eat your fill.  Take snacks like granola bars and push lunch off as long as you can, so you can make decisions about dinner depending on how soon you think you can get out of the parking lot.

Miss Kitty and I remain aware that we are visitors in the communities we visit.  We are middle-aged hippies in a world that is uncertain about a lot of things.  We tried to respond to the indifference we met with a guarded kindness.  Portland, Indiana?  I want to love you…but as every singer/songwriter in the 70’s lamented, you just won’t let me into your heart.  

Friday, July 12, 2019

Parenting is a Salary Position

We were in Sanibel Island, Florida, my wife Kathy and I, celebrating our first real vacation in two years.  Staying in a condo 180 feet from the beach, the good life had never seemed so good.   The company we kept, my brother Eric and his wife, Renee, was excellent.  They were recovering from a home sale and relocation.  Kath and I were coming off of a year where our upstairs bathroom had been gutted for months. When your knees are bad and you’re on blood pressure meds…well, you do the math.

For once, we had not planned ourselves into a corner, where we would return from a vacation and go right back to work.  Our flight home arrive was on the evening before Memorial Day.  We had a family gathering scheduled for the Monday afternoon, but not until later in the day.  After decompressing for nine days, we knew we could ease back into the grind with that Monday buffer.  Sleeping in was the only thing on the breakfast menu for Memorial Day.

We were still days away from departing our island paradise when Kath repeated the contents of a text she had received.  “Lucy needs to come home and drop off her car with us and catch a bus to Chicago.”  Lucy is our oldest child, who was just finishing her first year of law school and headed for a paying internship in the Windy City.

“Okay.  When?”  I asked.

“She’s coming in late Sunday, leaving early Monday.”

Well, shit.

I turned to my brother (who has no children) and told him, “This is a perfect illustration of what it is to be a parent.”  I wasn’t angry.  It was a statement of fact.  Babysitters are hourly, parents are salary.  We think we are done at various turning points in their lives but, the truth is, if you embraced being a parent, you will always be a parent.  If not to your own children, then you find others to assist, mentor, lecture or nurture. 

I won’t go into detail about what sort of damage we did on vacation, but it was extensive and self-inflicted.  I have been on vacations with people who fancied themselves partiers.  On Sanibel Island, we spilled more than those braggarts drank.  We got off the plane in Detroit relaxed.  Dog tired, yes, and our livers were screaming the Roberto Duran mantra, “No mas, no mas.”  We grabbed a small dinner and headed back to the house.  Dan, our youngest, came by not long after Lucy arrived and we had some laughs in the mid-evening before he left for his apartment and the rest of us collapsed into familiar mattresses.  We had to meet a bus arriving downtown at 8:45 a.m., so alarms were dutifully set.  Lucy shares my affinity for arriving early for virtually any event, no matter how mundane.  To do otherwise makes us somewhat anxious.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m on blood pressure meds, which means I frequently wake up at night with an urgent need.  After a 4 a.m. roundtrip to the bathroom, I found myself wide awake and suddenly aware that we had no groceries in the house for breakfast.  We had some flakes and some milk, sure, but that simply won’t work for a send-off.  In a house where many of our greatest memories have occurred around the dining room table, breakfast is a religion.  This called for a full spread.  I began making a shopping list in my head.  Knowing there were hours before we had to be at our afternoon gathering, at 5 a.m I went ahead and got up.  At 6 a.m., I recognized I wouldn’t be able to relax until I had bacon and eggs and bread and potatoes for my young Crusader, so I went grocery shopping.  We finished our early morning feast before 8 a.m. and prepared to meet the bus across town.  We arrived with plenty of time to spare.  In an hour’s time, I would be back at home, napping.

There was just one old man waiting for the bus when we arrived.  He appeared to be about seventy and was waiting alone.  He looked at the logoed hoodie and cap I wore and chirped, “You a Cub fan?”  I told him I was a baseball fan.  Turn on a game and I will watch it.  You can get fed up with the big money aspects of the game.  You can be sick to death of the personalities of some of the players, but the game is always beautiful.

“My Dad played for Cincinnati in the thirties,” he told me.  

“They were still the Redlegs then,” I stated, letting him know I knew a little history too.

“That’s right.  He was a catcher.”

My son Dan was a little league catcher.  I gained a whole new appreciation for the position after seeing what he went through.  There’s no wonder they make the best managers.  They see the whole field, they know pitchers and hitters intimately.  The old man said his father hadn’t stuck with it.  There wasn’t much money to be made in baseball then and it was considered kind of a low-class occupation to be a ballplayer.  He continued, “My son, he was a catcher, too.  Drafted by the Mets.  He was at Tidewater when he got the call, his wife was going into labor.  He asked to be allowed to attend the birth of his child.  They told him ‘no’.  He quit baseball that very day.”

He fished in his pocket for a phone.  Figuring the conversation with this stranger was over, I started making my way back to where my wife and daughter were standing.  The old man raised his voice to make sure I heard him.  He was waving his phone at me.  It showed a young man with an even younger boy.  “He was a good Dad,” he asserted and, indeed, there seemed to be real affection in the eyes of the man and the boy.  “We lost him, my son, ten years ago.  Lymphoma.  I begged him to come up here, I said, ‘Son, the people at u of M Hospital are great’ but he insisted he was getting good care.  Maybe he was.  Anyway…”

But there’s really nowhere to go after that, is there?  It is a violation of natural law for a parent to see their child die.   But he continued.  “I speak to my grandson nearly every day.  He’s in the Marines. He tells me, ‘Grampa, you don’t have to worry about me.’  But…well, you know what I’m talking about.”

And I did.  I did know what he was talking about.

The sound of air brakes made us look up as the grey dog came around the corner.  The old man cleared his throat and stuck out his hand.  “It was nice talking with you.  I gotta get moving because I need to sit near the front.  I don’t get around so good.”  His bag was already at the curb and soon he was too.  I turned and Lucy was there.  I had burned up all the time between our arrival and her departure, ostensibly talking baseball with the old man.  I hugged her and told her I loved her and then all too quickly she was on the bus as well.

There was plenty of time when Kath and I got home to do anything I wanted.  But I didn’t nap.  I didn’t even doze.  Suddenly, it seemed like a pleasure to be awake and alive, watching from a distance as my child made steps towards her major league dreams.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Talking Funny

My old writing partner, Mike Davis, said you can’t talk about comedy and still be funny.  He’s probably correct, though I’m going to do it anyway.  This would not surprise him.

I was addicted to the written word from my earliest memory, but my journey as a comedy writer began in middle school.  In eighth grade, stuck performing in a short play that was a Cinderella rip-off about the four food groups, I asked my Home Economics teacher if I could “punch up the dialogue a little.”  I don’t know where I came up with the audacity to ask this woman if I could re-write her script.  I also don’t know why she let me.  When we finally performed this re-worked gem titled “Vegetabella” for parents on an in-service night, the crowd roared at what we had added to the show.  We were ASKED…not told, but ASKED…if we would perform it the next day for the entire student body.  We quickly agreed.  

It was in high school that I met Mike, my co-author for four comic plays, though those days were more than ten years into the future in 1979.  Our friendship began in the backstage area, waiting for our cue to enter the tense drama we were performing in.  While our audience sat in suspense, Mike and I tried to make the other laugh at jokes most folks would find inappropriate.  The rest of the people would find our jokes merely puerile and immature.  Hey, you gotta start somewhere.

I remember attending a party with Mike where he pulled a magazine insert out of his pocket and announced to the whole room that he was going to fill out a profile for a ‘computer dating service’.  As he answered the list of questions with deliberately screwball responses, the crowd around him grew, as did the volume of the laughs.  His ad-libbed lines were well rehearsed.  I was green with envy and marveled as he worked the room.

People ask me how Mike and I got good enough to be published as playwrights.  My response is always, “By writing badly for a number of years.”  And we did.  There were flights of fancy that went off in all directions.  We weren’t good right away, but we had finished a screenplay by the time we were seventeen.  Our formula was simple, you had to make the other guy laugh because that in itself wasn’t easy.  It was never easy.  That’s how we knew we were learning.  It was close to impossible to make Mike laugh, but I never quit trying.  When you got a good belly laugh out of him, it was like heroin.  I would say or do virtually anything to make him laugh.

Flash forward a few years, to 1986.  We are out of college and keeping the old gang together by hosting weekly poker games in my parents’ basement.  I’m a big baseball fan from way back if you weren’t aware.  I read in the sports page that catcher Steve Yeager had been added to the Seattle Mariners roster.  I remember thinking that he should have been retired.  He was an injury magnet, once breaking his leg in a home plate collision in the first inning of a minor league match-up and staying in the game.  He had pieces of protective equipment named after him.  The ‘Stevie’ protected a catcher’s throat, a devise created after he had his esophagus pierced by a shard from a broken bat.  In addition to all of the other scratches, strains and fractures, let’s just say he was no stranger to the disabled list.  His cousin Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.  Steve broke everything else.

I decided to start a gambling pool with my betting brethren.  Because it seemed like a foregone conclusion, we put down hard cash on a chart, each of us picking the date when we thought Steve Yeager would go on the disabled list.  We skimmed money out of the initial poker antes and bought prizes for the winning guess.  We didn’t have to wait long, it was mid-May if memory serves.  He was limited to 50 game appearances for the year, his final days in the major leagues.   

Late in the season, I traveled with my friends to Michigan & Trumbull for a Tiger game against the Mariners.  I had the chart in tow and weaved my way down to the visitor’s dugout from the shitty seats we had in the outfield.  I caught Steve returning from the bullpen where he had been warming up the day’s starting pitcher.  I got his attention pretty easily, as he had been below the radar for a few years.  When he came over to the railing, I showed him the chart and explained the wager.  Then I asked him to sign a couple of baseball cards for the winner.  He absorbed what he had just seen and heard and then…though I’d given him no reason to…he chuckled and signed a couple of baseball cards.  The man was the MVP of the 1981 World Series and I felt entitled to make fun of him.  I’m lucky he didn’t feel entitled to adjusting my dental work.

Wait, I know you’re a little horrified by what I just told you.  But I’m not done.

Let’s go to Community Theatre, 1994.  I’m performing as Charles Condomine in “Blithe Spirit”, a Noel Coward comedy that is going to be a bit too long and somewhat dated when performed by tremendous actors.  In part, we lacked those actors.  In particular, I played against a young woman who lacked experience, preparation and timing.  On closing night, she was still lacking in preparation and timing.  In an incredibly repetitious play, she routinely threw out lines that were spoken in a previous scene or act, requiring someone to pick up on what she was talking about and bring us back to the current scene.  It happened every night.  We made it through without confronting her angrily as we did not want to make it a bad experience for this young lady.  She was, despite her utter lack of talent, a very nice person.  She was almost entirely unsuited to acting and, certain we would never work with her again, we let her think she was terrific.

Maybe three months after the show closed, I got a call from one of the board members at the community theatre.  The report I received was about the young woman I spoke of in “Blithe Spirit”, who had gone to her doctor for overdue tests.  When the results came back, the diagnosis was cancer.  It was advanced and there was nothing the doctor could do.  They gave her a month or six weeks to live and she almost made it that far.  She died, leaving her mother stunned.  The daughter, who had been the female lead in a play in the spring, had died before the leaves fell in the autumn.  

The board member knew that my parents videotaped the show.  Was there a possibility that we could furnish this grieving mother with a copy?  I assured the board member that it was not a problem.  I was willing to give her my copy.  I had no attachment to the show.  I would leave a copy in the theatre office the next time I went by.  This was not a problem for two weeks…fourteen days when I forgot all about what I had meant to do.  The board member called back and asked if I remembered my commitment.   Yes, I replied testily.  I remember.  I’ll drop it off.  Two more weeks passed.  What she didn’t know was that in the days between the first phone call and the second, I had quit smoking.  I was a smoker whose mouth had made the commitment to quit before the brain was allowed into the discussion.  The result was weeks of nastiness.  I was sick with my addiction to cigarettes and sick of myself for the weakness.   I was still in this state when I got a third phone call from the board member.

She knew nothing of my situation, of course.  But having called me two times previously, she felt the need to add additional pressure.  She lectured me about this mother’s loss.  Remember when I talked about saying or doing ANYTHING for a laugh?  Yeah.  That becomes second nature.  I looked for the punchline in everything.  When under pressure, I simply tried harder for the joke.  When my lack of nicotine came up against this sweet woman’s begging for a videotape, I screamed at the board member…


Of course, she was still dead.  Like that joke.  Dead on arrival.  I found the videotape of “Blithe Spirit” and left the house.  I bought a pack of cigarettes on the way and left the cassette in the theatre office.  I held that board member in great esteem and considered her a friend.  But I lost her as a friend that day and deservedly so. I could blame it on cigarettes, but that wouldn’t be true.  My real addiction was to the joke.

Hey, I’m not expecting forgiveness.  I’m not even asking for it.  I’m just telling you that your favorite comedian, no matter who it is, has said things in their own circle of friends (likely other comedians) that would make your mother blush.  They might make your father blush.  Hell, I’m blushing right now and I wasn’t even there.  

People that work in comedy are going to push it every chance they get.  They will push the envelope, push the boundaries of good taste, they will practically push an old lady down the stairs to get a laugh.  We live in a time where we have seen it all and heard it all and you often have to shock an audience to get a response.  If that’s what we have to do, we will do it.  Either it will work or it won’t.  Even if it doesn’t work, in private we will laugh about it later.

The problem is that so much humor comes from hostility.  We rarely take the time to ask if a joke came from a good place or not.  The point is moot, as there is no instrument with which to measure it.  But rest assured, if you possess buttons, comedians will continue to push them.  They don’t know any other way.  Perhaps their controversial words will start a national conversation, but more likely outrage will rule the day. Dennis Miller, before he became a Republican talking head, said that we will not be truly free until we can make fun of anybody for any reason.  He might be right.  

Perhaps I could push Dennis Miller down a flight of stairs and test his theory.  Just to be safe, I’ll push an old lady too.  With comedy, you can never be too careful.