Since the written word continues to fail me (and because the wise and talented Mama Kat told me to), I have selected a series of (unremarkable) Instagram photos that represent highlights of the past week. What is remarkable is the fact that it took me five pathetic years to figure out how to add multiple images in a given post.
In the 70s, “they” used to say that kids who were completely forbidden from eating junk food ended up becoming the equivalent of cookie crack heads when left to their own devices later on. I was not forbidden from eating junk food but ended up becoming the equivalent of a cookie crack head anyway. And in today’s day and age I’m sure “they” no longer say that. My point is, growing up Jewish in my town meant growing up with Christmas tree envy. Sure, we had menorahs and mezzuzahs and clear, golden plastic dreidels filled with gelt. But they didn’t cut the deli mustard.
Christmas trees just never struck me as religion-specific. Their German appellation — tannenbaum — is, after all, a common Jewish last name, is it not? To me, they simply symbolized the good side of winter, an impending 10 days off from school, the festive mood of the holidays, and most important, being like everyone else. The smell, the tinsel, the lights, the colorful balls, the popcorn strings, the personal significance of each little ornament … they were the most beautiful home accessory I could imagine. I fantasized for years about what kind of tree I would get in the unlikely event Jews ever started getting Christmas trees. And it was always the tackiest, most over the top tree — white plastic with shiny silver garlands, blue spruce, sparkly orbs, blinking bulbs, battery-operated ornaments out of which came dancing Snoopy … in short, I was a Christmas tree crack head.
So it was kind of a dream come true when I married someone of Italian descent and at long last had justification for securing an actual Christmas tree. (Of course, plagued by Jewish guilt, I remain compelled to refer to them as “Chrismukkah bushes.”) And as it turned out, the tree selection tradition in Keith’s family was just as I always imagined such an activity would be. On the crisp Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, everyone caravans to an idyllic-sounding tree farm in western New Jersey. We partake in mediocre free coffee and cider, plus homemade donuts and cookies, and we walk the land. Afterwards, we return to my MIL and FIL’s house to make turkey sandwiches on white bread. This year, it happened to be 65 degrees, my nephew peed in his pants and my niece was painfully constipated, but that just added to the charm.
There was so much for a Jewish girl to learn! I’d never realized that not all trees were created equal — I’d thought, ignorantly, that the choice was merely real or fake. Blue spruce had a lovely color but painfully prickly needles, for instance, while Balsam fir gave off that iconic piney smell. And who knew?! You actually had to water the trees! Tinsel was a nightmare, as it shed out of control and left its DNA in random places until Memorial Day. Getting a tree topper to stay on? Not so easy. Those balls I had so admired as a girl? They broke if you breathed on them. (Perhaps this is not the case if you buy them somewhere other than Target.) Also new to me? The idea of bases and skirts, available in different sizes to accommodate whatever type of tree you had.
Selecting ornaments, however, was pure joy and came easy to me. I found the strength to resist my own tacky taste (sort of). I pinpointed a plethora of interfaithy options, including my personal favorite, a ceramic disc featuring Santa Claus, a Hassidic rabbi and the text “Oy to the World.” Kiki brought us a Jonathan Adler piece sign. Katy imported a Latvian doggie. We have crystal doves, sparkle snowflakes, silver pine cones and, I am proud to say, a battery-operated dog house out of which comes dancing Snoopy.
But with the joy of the Chrismukkah bush comes the darker, more sinister side as well: the de-ornamentation and the removal of the dying icon. Keith was more than willing to assist in this process, but I felt, as a rite of marital passage, that I had to go through it alone. Last eve, while Keith attended a spin class, I forlornly packed up the aforementioned ornaments and called “The Guy” downstairs in our lobby who had said he would come fetch the tree carcass. When he arrived, he asked me if I wanted to keep the base.
Um … er … are bases disposable?! Do most people keep them?
“The Guy” looked at me like I was insane, which prompted me to explain that I was Jewish and thus dense, which prompted him to look at me like I was insane. It seemed to me that the base might be reusable, so I told him I wanted to keep it. Unfortunately, that meant someone had to actually separate it from the tree. Fortunately, it was pretty obvious that someone wasn’t going to be 5′, 100-lb me.
The Guy spent several minutes trying to dislodge the tree trunk, to no avail. Then I suggested he drag the tree in the base out to the cart and remove the base while the tree was upside down. The Guy agreed this was wise. What he’d neglected to ask – and what I’d neglected to think about – was that the base was still full of needly water. So, as the tree fell into the cart, the hallway got an unplanned bath. I felt terrible and did the first thing I could think of: I got my wet/dry Dust Buster and handed it to The Guy. The Guy looked at the size of the wet spot and then at the size of the vacuum and laughed. That seemed mean, but I tipped him nonetheless.
I felt like a very bad neighbor and, quite frankly, a moron. I had no choice but to wonder if maybe the genetic lack of handiness that afflicts my people is the very reason we do not have Hanukkah trees. There was only one place I could seek solace. I went to the plastic box in which I’d stored all the precious ornaments and pulled out the battery-operated dog house to see Snoopy dance one last time until next year.
The first summer after we left Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the rolling hills of central New Jersey – when I was three – Jan enrolled me in day camp. I assume she explained “day camp” to me beforehand, but I have no recollection of said discussion. What I do recall is this: one warm June morning, I was enjoying a tasty bowl of Apple Jacks on the chartreuse velour couch, watching a show about three boys and three gold-haired girls whose parents were newlyweds, when a short bus pulled up at our door.
“The bus is here, Traci!” Jan announced.
And this relates to me … HOW?
“Time to go to camp!”
Hahahahaha, good one Mommy! Camp! As if!
The bus honked and suddenly the reasons why I was wearing only a yellow ruffled bathing suit, blue Keds and white ankle socks became crystal clear.
Um … uh-oh.
There was no escape. I had no choice but to face the reality that Jan wanted to get rid of me while my infant sister – future eager beaver diaper-clad toddler – got to stay home aaaaaaaaaaaall day.
Frick on a high-waisted, bell-bottomed stick.
And so I spent the day at this place called camp. I drank the camp fruit punch. I ate the cheap, camp duplex cookies. I endured the insomnia at camp naptime. I swam/tried not to drown in the camp pool, which to this day seems about 20 miles deep and really dark. I was civil to the other smurf-sized campers. But I was sure as hell not spending the rest of my life in this shithole.
Thankfully, a few days later, I fell down the stairs in our bi-level apartment. I fell down one stair, to be exact. And I slid gently rather than fell, to be exact. But after this tragic accident, I couldn’t put any weight on my left ankle. I was a three-year-old gimp.
Sayonara, short bus.
I had X-rays. I had pediatricians and orthopedists inspect the injury. I had ice and an ankle wrap of some sort. I had lollipops. I took a few spins in a wheelchair. Nothing was broken or even remotely wrong – most likely because nothing had really happened. But nonetheless, I remained unable to walk.
As thrilled as I was to be done with camp, I quickly grew tired of all the visits to doctors. Why did I have to keep going? I’d obviously never regain the use of my leg… why couldn’t we all just accept that and move on? I could still get clogs from Fayva, right?
Finally, Jan and Lew agreed there was nothing more the mainstream medical establishment could do for their daughter. They had no hope and no remaining options, so they decided to go to the mall. I limped my way out to the Volvo and we got in the car. We were almost there when the car made a sharp left into what looked a lot like another doctor’s office.
“You said NO MORE DOCTORS!” I yelled with rage.
Jan and Lew looked at each other and Lew said, very nicely, “This is a special kind of doctor. All you have to do is talk to him.”
Too dumb to feel duped or realize they obviously thought I was INSANE, I headed into the “special” doctor’s office, caressed the plaid cloth wallpaper, played with a few dolls, chatted him up a bit, and then walked out using both my legs.
The kiddie shrink told my parents I was stubborn, strong-willed and fine.
Unfortunately, with old age comes problems that no shrink can cure in one 50-minute period, and Dr. Plaid Walls was not the last “special” kind of doctor I’ve spent time with. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either – panic attacks and depression are no fun, and neither is going through life angry, afraid or completely devoid of introspection. I am definitely one of those people who thinks we would all benefit from a few minutes on the couch every week.
Over the years I’ve “spent time” with an array of “special” doctors. Some needed serious help themselves. Some were totally creepy. Some were very good but stopped taking my health insurance. And one, I am entirely convinced, was actually a robot. I called him Shrink Tron and our conversations would go something like this.
Finally, a few years ago, I found a “special” doctor I actually liked. I think she’s made a big difference, and even though I’m quite sure she finds me boring, repetitive and annoying at times, she’s always seemed to be fond of me overall. But after today, I’m not so sure.
Normally she greets me at the door to her office and I go right in. Today, even though I was a few minutes late and the session before mine had easily been done for 10 minutes, her office door was closed. I could hear her on the phone, although I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I didn’t know what to do — knock to make my arrival known? Leave? Wait outside? Sit there and inadvertently overhear something confidential? Assume some patient was in crisis and that’s why I’d been booted from my usual time slot? The minutes ticked by.
Finally, I started writing her a note explaining that one of us must have gotten our dates mixed up, that I was leaving and that I’d be back next week unless I heard otherwise. Whilst I was mid-note, she opened the door and appeared shocked to see me there. She apologized profusely and told me that for some reason, she just didn’t have me in her book for today.
Most likely, that’s true and it was just an accidental scheduling error. But on the other hand, as she and her fellow special doctors are so often known to ask, is there really such a thing as an “accident?” Did she get confused about the dates, or did she subconsciously want to avoid me?
Long, long ago (the 70s), in a galaxy far, far away (New Jersey), Evan was my best friend. Together, we prepared and served gourmet plastic steaks in my Playskool kitchen. We plotted against the Eager Beaver Diaper-Clad Toddler you read about in Mmm…Pie. We picked outfits together – Danskin hopscotch-motif top and pants? Strawberry-adorned sundress and matching bloomers? We acted out suburban dramas with Fisher-Price people. Who would pick up the dry cleaning, Blue Marilyn or her good-for-nothing husband Bald Green Bob? OMFG – was that a WEEBLEwith Purple Susan at The Silver Bucket the other night?! Did her two-inch boyfriend know?! Did she know that Weebles wobbled but didn’t fall down?!
Now, based on some of the aforementioned activities, it might cross your mind that Evan was gay. I can see why you’d think that, but he wasn’t. I’ll tell you what he was, though:entirely imaginary.
That didn’t stop me from becoming completely unable to think or talk about anything else – except maybe candy. And this drove Lew absolutely crazy – in fact, it drove him to homicide. One day, going 55 mph on the Parkway, he threw Evan out of the car, never to be “seen” or heard from again. Which I’m surehad noooo lasting traumatic effect on me.
Gone was the first of my many obsessions: a series of long-term fixations that I could not control. From him I moved on to Ziggellette, a small, soft doll so named because of her resemblance to Ziggy. Hailing from the Fluff ‘n’ Stuff at the Woodbridge Mall, Ziggellette had several mangy strands of mustard-colored yarn hair, a bulbous, three-dimensional nose and the words “LOVE ME” written across her red torso. She told silly jokes, sang sillier songs, and served as my alter-ego, often expressing the things I could not bear to. I took her everywhere.
Then came the fire.
Jan, Grandma Ethel and I were sitting around the kitchen table when we began to smell smoke. In a panic, Jan attempted to rush us out of the house, but I refused to leave the premises without Ziggellette. Racing down the hall to my room, I discovered the unfortunate source of the smoke. It had been my sister’s turn to play “Hide Ziggellette,” and it appeared she’d chosen to put her in a lamp so that her oversized head hung out over the shade and her floppy derriere rested against the lit 100-watt bulb. The bulb had already burned a quarter-sized hole in Ziggellette’s nether regions, but I was sure she could still be saved. I raced back to the kitchen and threw her in the sink, where her bean-filled body let out a sad little sizzle. She was lost. Lew did come home a few days later with Ziggellette II, and I loved her like my own, but it was never quite the same. (Side note — Ziggellette II stayed with me until Philly. There, she was either mauled by an unnamed Wheaten terrier or stolen … I have my suspicions but no DNA evidence. In any case, RIP Ziggellettes I and II.)
So, on to a new obsession: Charlie’s Angels. It isn’t hard to see how I, a short, picked-on and bucktoothed suburban Jew, would develop girl crushes on these ample-bosomed, totally glamorous and kick-ass women. What wonderful role models! What a realistic show! I hoped my boobs — I mean I — grew up to be just like them.
Thankfully, they were safe from my family’s tendency to kill the things I cared about, and this particular obsession ended bloodlessly when the channel 5 syndication line-up changed.
It’s obvious that these obsessions have served as an escape for me, and/or provided me with something to focus on when there was nothing else. They give me something relatively painless in which to lose myself. I’m like a 12-year-old with a crush on that kid from Social Studies.
In some cases, it’s also pretty obvious why I choose – albeit subconsciously – a particular subject. But for the most part, I’ve never understood why this happens to me, or why one thing captivates me and another doesn’t. Why Ziggellette and not Potbelly Koala or LeMutt? Duran Duran and not The Police or U2? Pete Sampras and not Andre Agassi? And why does it suddenly overcome me for no apparent reason?
It has actually been quite some time since my mind went down the old road of obsession. And you might think that, as an engaged middle management woman on the wrong side of 35, I’d be mature enough to avoid that road going forward. You’d be wrong.
A few weeks ago, my future SIL Christine and I engaged in a book trade. I gave her Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and she gave me … wait for it … “Twilight” and its sequel, “New Moon.” I couldn’t have been surer that I had zero interest in the teen angst of a high school junior torn between a vampire and a morphing werewolf in Bumblefuck, Washington. It seems absurd even as I write those terms.
Christine had felt the same way, but assured me I would get hooked like the rest of the world. I remained skeptical.
The next thing I knew, I was up every night until 2 a.m., unable to put down the story, Googling vampire legends, figuring out where Volterra was, and deciding whether or not I was on Team Edward or Team Jacob (tough call — and I also find Carlisle strangely attractive).
Vampy McVamperstein and frick on a bloodsucking, daylight-fearing stick!
Recently, Keith’s mother relayed this tale to me. Some time ago, she planted a paradise-like array of wild flowers in the backyard. This was something she had always wanted to do, but unfortunately, cultivating wild flowers in suburban New Jersey proved very challenging. Eventually, after many moons, her hard work paid off and the wild flowers bloomed in all their glory. Until, that is, she and Keith’s father returned from a weekend away to find that Keith’s twin brother, Craig, had mowed and manicured both yards, inadvertently destroying her floral pride and joy.
Keith’s mother was devastated, but knew that Craig had just been trying to do something nice for them by surprising them with a freshly mowed lawn. She didn’t want to make him feel bad, so she thanked him for mowing the lawn and endured the loss of her wild flowers privately, in the comfort of her own room, never saying a word. (Presumably, she did at some subsequent point. If not … um … oops.)
You know the parallel universe technique oft used on TV (see the unbearably bad Slomin’s Shield commercials currently airing), in which a narrator or protagonist gets to witness the same situation with different outcomes? I pictured the accidental wild flower extinction in my own childhood home, a mere four miles away. Lemme tell ya. It would NOT have gone down the same way.
Travel back with me, if you will, to an average weekday in central New Jersey, circa 1976. Jamie (age 2) and I (age 4) were entertaining ourselves in the living room. I was overcome by a brilliant idea: we’d make a pie. It would be great! Crustless. Beautiful. Delicious. And the best part?! We could make it RIGHT THERE IN THE SHAG CARPET!
Jan would be soooooooooo proud.
When I revealed the plan to Jamie, she was thrilled to be serving as my sous-chef.
I believe her response went something like this [insert gremlin voice]: “Yeh. Heh heh. Yeh.”
The main and only ingredients in the pie were brown sugar and salt. This is because the sensation of opening and closing the little silver spouts on their respective containers filled me with satisfaction. Should you wish to make your own crustless brown sugar and salt pie, the recipe is as follows.
You Will Need: 1 box brown sugar, with silver spout
1 box salt, with silver spout
1 eager beaver diaper-clad toddler
1 shag carpet
Preparation: Add brown sugar and salt to taste
Hand boxes to eager beaver diaper-clad toddler; instruct her to put them away
Wait as eager beaver diaper-clad toddler waddles to kitchen, then waddles back
Immediately instruct eager beaver diaper-clad toddler to turn around and fetch brown sugar and salt again
Wait as eager beaver diaper-clad toddler waddles to kitchen and back
Add brown sugar and salt to taste
Repeat until bored
When we were done, we summoned Jan. I could not wait to see the look of pride on her face. She’d see how much I admired and wanted to be just like her — I too was a domestic goddess. I clearly had a passion for creative baking. Maybe Jan would give me my own kiddie apron. OMFG! Maybe it would have Holly Hobbie on it! Or maybe she’d hug me and tell me what a fantastic job I’d done! Maybe she’d even pour us glasses of milk like Mrs. Brady would and we could enjoy the crustless pie together!
Or, maybe she’d take one look at it and burst into tears.
And then scream for about half an hour.
And then talk to herself in a rage for another 10 while she vacuumed the mess formerly known as pie.
And then refuse to talk to me for a day.
I still remember eating our breaded chicken cutlets in sad silence that night.
I think it’s fair to say that when I do or say something mockable, I’m the first person to admit it. In fact, I’m often the first person to point it out. So I find it quite irksome when something I do or say is NOT mockable, yet is perceived as mockable by someone else, who does indeed mock me.
Keith and I spent the weekend in the central New Jersey willlage from which we both hail. We’d been invited by his twin brother, Craig, to go apple picking with Craig’s wife and two little boys, ages 3 and 18 months. Apple picking in the Garden State has long been one of my favorite activities for several reasons.
It’s one of the very few outdoor activities in which I can actually participate without feeling totally humiliated.
I love fall weekend outfits, even though I never seem to have the right one.
Cider and donuts
The parts of New Jersey in which one picks apples happen to be extremely beautiful and validate my perpetual defenses of my homeland
The parts of New Jersey in which one picks apples absolutely fascinate me in general. I think this is because they lie a mere 20 minutes west of where I grew up – in a generic, middle class suburb – yet truly qualify as “country.” These apple-rific towns have funny names like Peapack and Gladstone (one town) and Pluckemin. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by “Pluckemin?” Furthermore, they’re ground zero for the morbid local lore of the Kienast Quintuplets, the second set of surviving quintuplets in the U.S. They grew up in Liberty Corner, 12 miles away, and their father committed suicide in 1984 after finding himself unable to support his giant, Perganol-made family. (Read more in the New York Times)
Even furthermore, most of the creepy stories I read about in Weird New Jersey take place somewhere in Somerset or Hunterdon Counties.
Cider and donuts
So on Saturday morning, we piled into the mini-van, made a pit stop at Dunkin Donuts, and headed to Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick. Keith and I approached the basket procurement stand. I was looking specifically for Macoun apples, which both Jan and Keith’s mom had requested, and which aren’t that easy to find in the city. Thankfully, a sign explained which types of apples were currently available for picking, and Macoun was among them. I was confused, however, by the fact that each apple type had an “Upper” or “Lower” label next to it. Seeking clarification, I asked the basket hander-outer whether that referred to the part of the tree or the part of the orchard.
Basket Hander-Outer – whose relatives, I guarantee you, live in the Pine Barrens – literally doubled over with laughter.
At first I didn’t even realize she was laughing at me, as I really didn’t think I’d said anything funny.
Then she managed to gasp, in between the sniggering, “Oh my lord. You are so cute. I’m gonna put that in my quote book.”
She called over a male co-worker and repeated what I’d asked, prompting him to fall into hysterics as well.
“What is so funny that you both require medical attention?” I asked, with a hint of tone.
Keith said, very kindly, “You do know that only one kind of apple can grow on a tree, right?”
Of course I know that. Sheesh. But yet …
I attempted to explain what I thought was very intelligent reasoning.
One: I didn’t know whether the trees were labeled – Winesap, Empire, Golden Delicious, Honeycrisp … If not, it seemed totally plausible that certain types of apples grew on certain parts of the trees, and that their location would help pickers identify them. If the elusive Macoun grew only on UPPER branches, let’s say, I’d know that a lower-hanging fruit, as a certain old boss of mine liked to say, was not a Macoun.
Two: Nowadays, thanks to genetic engineering, “they” can morph all kinds of fruit. Is the tangelo not a tangerine crossed with a grapefruit or pomelo? Is there no such thing as a grapple? Have you met my friend the pluot? Ergo, it also seemed plausible that a tree COULD offer more than one type of apple.
Alright. I can see why you’d think this was just my idiot savant talking. But yet …
Three: Even if it was the stupidest question in the history of questions, was it really THAT funny?
Frick on a worm-eaten, rotten-cored stick. Why are you all laughing at me?! I smaht! I really smaht!
I had no choice but to retaliate with the first potentially mockable detail I could conjure. I announced to my fellow apple pickers and Basket Hander-Outer that earlier in the week, when I’d blown a fuse drying my hair, Keith had had no clue what or where the fuse box was. I went to Home Depot to replace the antique fuses and I reinstalled them myself.
Take that, you evil mockers.
The evil mockers still found my question funnier.
“Just give me a basket,” I said before storming off to the UPPER orchard where ALL the good apple types were located.
In the end, it all worked out. We collected an array of flawless Jersey apples, apple butter, corn relish and donuts. We partook of the noonish meal at a fabulous deli called The General Store and finished the afternoon with a trip to Tarzhay which always makes everything better.
Addendum: My dear friend Loren, who is very smart and holds degrees from the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University, reports that she was apple picking in the Berkshires this weekend and learned …. THERE CAN IN FACT BE MORE THAN ONE APPLE TYPE PER TREE, THANKS TO GRAFTING.
“They” say that everyone has a special gift, and I have several: the ability to sleep Indian-style; a Rain Man-like memory; an uncanny awareness of strange genetic diseases; and a freak radar that empowers me to hone in on the most upsetting and disturbing individuals within my five-mile radius. On an alarming number of occasions, those individuals have been my friends and boyfriends. Most of the time, they merely leave me temporarily unable to eat or sleep. Other people seem able to block out or quickly forget about these unfortunates, but I remain haunted by lost, lonely-looking elderly people; spinsters; handicapped, retarded and cancer-stricken children; people eating by themselves in public; people riding the bus by themselves at night; mentally ill people; the homeless; and anyone I deem to be oppressed (Muslim women in burkas, Hassidic women toting eight kids and wearing itchy wigs, women who are 9 months pregnant in the middle of a heatwave).
This “gift” has plagued me as far back as I can remember. The earliest and most definitive example I can give you is the man from the Friendly’s on South Avenue, whose image is causing me to tear up even decades after the last time I saw him. Every single time I dined there – whether it was after school with Jan and Jamie, for dinner (the Early Bird Special) with my grandma on Saturdays, or late at night after a high school cruise through the Watchung Reservation – he was there too, alone. He was roughly middle-aged at the time, with dyed black hair, a dark complexion and a severe limp for which he used a cane.
It was bad enough that Friendly’s seemed to be the mainstay of his diet. It was bad enough he was crippled and bad enough he was always eating his sad little sandwich or hamburger by himself. But the clincher came at dessert time. Without fail, the smallest of the Friendly’s sundaes – the Happy Ending Sundae – would arrive at his table a few minutes after he finished his entrée. For reasons that I still don’t fully understand, this memory of the sundae’s arrival is among my most poignant.
Since then, anytime I’ve witnessed something of this nature – something sad to me but not tragic – I’ve referred to it as a “Happy Ending Sundae Story.” This categorization is often misunderstood, because its inclusion of the word “happy” does in fact imply an element of “happiness.” But make no mistake: there is NO mirth in a Happy Ending Sundae Story.
Jan claimed that she saw the man from Friendly’s driving around town with a wife and children, but I think she just told me that to make me feel better. I do wonder though, from time to time, if he ever went home to this theoretical family and said, “Every time I go to Friendly’s there’s this creepy little girl there, staring at me with a look of pity on her face …”
Another tale from the ice cream freezer … in the next, slightly more upscale town over from where I grew up, there was a brand- spankin’ new ice cream purveyor called Haagen-Dasz. And Haagen-Dasz, being all foreign and shit (or so we thought in 1982), was faaaancy. I mean people, they sold BOYSENBERRY ice cream. This town also had its own resident schizophrenic. I didn’t know he was schizophrenic – I just thought he was odd – but that’s what Lew told me when I’d sadly watch him lumber around the town center. The man was bearded with pocked skin, had a very clumsy gait and always wore too-tight, too-short khakis, black orthopedic shoes, a short-sleeved plaid shirt, and Coke bottle glasses.
One day, my friend Bethany and I were partaking of a frozen afternoon treat when the man got on line behind us. At the time, the custom-ordered ice cream bars, dipped in warm milk or dark chocolate and then coated with your choice of crumbled candy toppings, were all the rage among the tween set. But for an adult?! Unheard of. Yet that’s what he ordered. This in itself wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world – it was the way he ordered it. I can still hear him to this day saying, “Uh … uh … a vanilla bar please.” Needless to say Bethany enjoyed both hers and mine that day.
At the Bagel Chateau in the same town, a soft-spoken college girl with a severe under-bite and noticeably skinny wrists worked at the cash register. Snotty customers were always snapping at her, and she would get flustered, which made me feel sorry for her. Her cash register post also called upon her beverage preparation skills. Every day that summer, Jan requested a fresh-brewed ice tea, so finally, the kindly girl poured said beverage ahead of time and had it waiting for Jan when it was her turn to pay. That, of course, was the day Jan wanted a Diet Coke.
On the train coming back from Washington just last week, my Spidey sense located TWO Happy Ending Sundae stories. One was the geriatric woman sitting next to me. She slept most of the way, but woke up every 20 minutes or so, pulled out a Tupperware container, took two bites of what smelled and looked like blondies and zucchini bread, sipped from a Tupperware/Rubbermaid water bottle, then went back to sleep. Someone had obviously put her on the train and made sure she had sustenance for the whole ride. The other was a man, also with a severe underbite, who couldn’t close his mouth all the way and chewed extra loudly as he ate a giant bag of generic Dorito-esque Party Mix, most of which ended up in his beard. He, obviously, couldn’t afford name-brand Doritos and had probably saved up his whole life for this one train ride.
There was the girl in my class who had no bladder control. I don’t mean she was a 1st-grader still having accidents. I mean she was 10 and had some sort of condition – involving a third kidney, it was rumored – that left her unable to know when she had to go to the bathroom. You can imagine how nice the other kids were about this. To make matters worse, she chose to go by a nickname that just about HAD to be paired with “Wetsy.” The kids truly tortured her, and one day, it got to me. I guess I couldn’t help but feel there was a little bit of her in all of us, and while I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my picked-on self, I could do it for her. So I stepped out of line on the way to the playground and told one of the 4th-grade bad asses to shut up and leave her alone. It was the first and only time I ever had detention. The next day, the girl came up to my desk and asked, “Would you like a green apple jelly bean?” I remember being very touched by this gesture and accepting the bean, but then being afraid to eat it because I thought it might have had pee on it.
My sensitivity to the sad-sacked didn’t always result in kindness or appreciation. Around the same time that Peegate went down, a particular group of girls took to ganging up on me for no apparent reason. Let me tell ya – it’s real nice when girls gang up on one another. Real nice. I’m just thankful we didn’t have Facebook back then. They took turns being “the boss” and declaring who in the class should be ostracized. It was always me. (Remember, this was pre-braces, flat-iron and undereye concealer.) One time – ONE LONE TIME – they turned against a girl named Susan instead. Recognizing the pain and horror of Susan’s position, I disobeyed the “no talk” decree and made an extra effort to be nice to her. It was great for about two hours, at which point the gang reinstated Susan and returned to their hatred of me. I assumed that Susan would stick up for me, now that I’d stood up for her. But I remember her running away from me and saying, “I don’t know what to tell you Traci. No one likes you now.”
I’m quite sure that not one of the Happy Ending Sundae Story victims I’ve described here has any recollection of me. But I’ve never been able to forget them. And there are MANY more.
But every now and then, almost always in New York, it goes without saying, I’ll witness someone so odd that the rest of the world notices too, and for whom I just can’t conjure any feelings of empathy. I don’t like when this happens, because it makes me feel like a terrible person, but it’s beyond my control at times. Yesterday on the subway, I sat across from the creepiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. He was in his late 60s or early 70s, thin, muscular, and bald on top. The hair that he did have, on the side of his head and in back, was silver and very long. He had secured it in a ponytail with a leopard-print scrunchie, and his fingernails were freakishly long. The set of his lips made him look like he’d just tasted a really sour lemon. He was sporting the following: a skin-tight, polyester tank top with images of Marilyn Monroe silkscreened all over it. A polyester, skin-tight Speedo-shaped bathing suit or undergarment, black, with a neon polka dot motif. Knee-high running socks with stripes at the top and vintage sneakers. A dozen colored, plastic bracelets and rings. And ginormous Dame Edna glasses like the ones pictured here. He really wasn’t bothering anyone – in fact he was intently reading the New York Times – but the two women on either side of him got up, preferring to stand than be contaminated by his creepiness. I could see that everyone in the car was looking at him. I wished that I could feel bad for him. I certainly wouldn’t want people to run away from me like that. But I just couldn’t.
When I first moved into the city an alarming number of moons ago, it was still fairly easy to find a TCBY. I don’t know exactly when the country demoted it to SECOND best yogurt, but at some point in the mid-90s, the stores seemed to become extinct. For the next 10 years, unless they were at the airport with access to a Columbo machine, Manhattanites seeking low-fat frozen desserts were forced to settle for a local chain called Tasti D-Lite.
Tasti D-Lite was the inspiration for a famous episode of Seinfeld, in which Elaine’s beloved “non-fat yogurt” turns out to be full o’lard. You can read the episode’s script here, should you need a refresher. In reality, Tasti D-Lite is not any kind of yogurt. It is not any kind of ice cream. It is not ice milk. It is not custard. I cannot tell you what it IS. I can only tell you that it feels cold on your tongue and is vaguely creamy. It comes in dozens of flavors, from German Chocolate Cake and White Russian to Latte Fudge and Pecan Praline. Except that all of them taste exactly the same: like air. I gave Tasti D-Lite several opportunities to prove itself. It failed to do so, and I was forced to begin referring to it as Tasteless D-Lite.
Frankly, ingestion of low-fat faux ice cream was a sham for a junkie like me. None of it had the same kind of impact. None of it made me forget about Brownies a la Mode at Haagen Dazs or the soupy Chocolate Marshmallow I enjoyed at Buxton’s in my New Jersey girlhood. No ice cream-like concoction was ever going to take the place of actual ice cream for me.
But I have to tell you. It takes a strong woman to eat real ice cream in broad daylight in a city like New York. Sure, digging in to a pint in the privacy of your own apartment is one thing (and one thing I do often). But it’s just not feminine — it’s not lady-like — to publicly indulge in full-fledged ice cream if you’re not visibly knocked up and/or accompanied by a preppy gentleman with whom you’re on a pukishly cute, wholesome date.
Just this afternoon, a riotously funny co-worker and I took a post-lunch stroll to the Mr. Softee truck at 23rd and 6th. We both ordered milkshakes, and I got a cone for the VP of Marketing, who then chided me for accidentally going with rainbow instead of chocolate sprinkles. I cannot tell you how self-conscious I felt walking that block back to the office, milkshake in one hand, wilting cone in the other. I could practically hear the thoughts of those who saw me: She’s obviously bulimic; Poor thing has been eating heavily since the divorce; Wow, if she keeps that up, they’ll have to bury her in a midget’s piano.
This lack of social acceptability almost certainly stems from a ridonculous belief held by many a female: that if no one sees you eating fattening food, you can’t actually get fat. Case in point: there’s a restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue called Josie’s. There’s also one in a neighborhood called Murray Hill, and FYI, both are owned by the actor Rob Morrow. Josie’s fare is organic, free-range, grass-fed, locally-grown, hormone-free, antibiotic-free and largely TASTE-free. But it’s allegedly healthy, so the body-dysmorphic love it.
Behold an ACTUAL conversation I heard two girls having one night when I was forced to dine at Josie’s and fantasizing about the frozen pizza I would have when I got home. [Insert Long Island version of the Valley Girl accent.]
Me (but not really): “Uh. Muh. Gud. Do yuh. Morons. Have. Like. Rully. Hot. Food. In. Your. Mouths? Why the FRICK are you talking like that?”
Girl 1: “Uh. Muh. Gud. It is just. Plain. Brown. Rice. Buh. It. Is. AMAZING.”
Girl 2: “Rully? Wow. I shu. Like totally. Get some for Alana. She like. LOVES. Brown. Rice.”
Me (but not really): “Uh. Muh. Gud. Alana wuh. TOTALLY heart you if. You like. Brought. Her. Brown. Rice.”
You see what I’m dealing with. For years, this internal battle between conformity and amour de creme raged on, torturing me. Then, at long last, it seemed there might be an answer: Pinkberry. Billed as a new take on the world-renowned tart-n-creamy frozen yogurt at Bloomingdale’s, it had a great deal of potential. It wasn’t trying to replace ice cream; it was merely another option that required freezer storage. Kiki treated me to my first Pinkberry. And it sucked. It tasted like Lemon Tasteless D-Lite, and it pissed me off. What kind of name was Pinkberry, anyway? Where do pinkberries naturally occur? Screw you, Pinkberry.
So the battle raged on. And then, about two weeks ago, I noticed a shiny new sign above a storefront in Chelsea: Red Mango. I was annoyed at first: again with the stupid made-up fruit name? What was next? Another yogurtorium called TealNectarine? PurpleKumquat?
But then curiosity got the best of me. I ordered a small, original with strawberries, tiny little chocolate chips and … brace yourself … GRAHAM CRACKER CRUMBS. The strawberries were real and fresh, the chocolate not even remotely waxy and the GCCs reminiscent of S’mores. The yogurt itself — a mere 90 calories! — actually tasted like yogurt, but better. In a word: dee-LICIOUS! Thanks, Red Mango! You earn my highest endorsement.
The following tale is really more of an oddity than a trauma, but for consistency’s sake, let’s ignore that fact. When we first moved to New Jersey from the city — circa 1975 — my dad spent many a weekend making rounds at the hospital. This meant that my sister and I spent many a weekend in the company of my mother (you remember Jan) and grandmother (aka “Grandma”).
There were trips to the Woodbridge, Short Hills or Menlo Park Malls, and there were afternoons spent on the playgrounds of Middlesex and Union counties. But by far one of Jan and Grandma’s favorite activities was something I have recently dubbed “the infectious house drive-by.”
We’d climb into the blue Volvo and cruise through upscale neighborhoods of towns we didn’t live in. Jan would drive at about 5 mph down tree-lined blocks, admiring the massive center-hall colonials and sprawling modern ranches that belonged to strangers.
Jan: Would you look at that one? That is JUST breath-taking.
Grandma: [SOMETHING YIDDISH] Is that a BREAKFAST NOOK? [SOMETHING YIDDISH]
Jan: Marla says the guy who lives here is shtupping his nurse. Rich plastic surgeon. The wife’s a real piece of work.
Grandma: A lotta people gotta lotta money.
Me: I like candy.
I understand the desire to view beautiful homes. To this day, I enjoy touring the posh neighborhoods of whatever city I’m visiting. What I did NOT understand, however, was what my mother said every time we left one of these tony neighborhoods: These houses make me SICK. Just SICK. Feh.
It was very confusing, most notably because I had no idea what the word “feh” meant. But moreover, it defied my limited knowledge of epidemiology. I knew that the kids in my nursery school class could contaminate me, but not that HOUSES could. Did Jan mean that if a house had chicken pox, we could all catch it from the car? WTF — was she trying to kill us? And how come I didn’t feel sick, if she did? Oh my god! Could houses DIE?! Wait, if these houses made her sick, why did she voluntarily subject herself to them?
It was too much for a 3-year-old to process. Actually, I’m pretty sure it drove me to invent Evan, the invisible friend who passed away suddenly when my dad threw him out of the car on the Parkway one day.