November 22, 1963

My Uncle Johnny is Dad’s brother, sixteen years younger; when Dad was a teenager he realized there was going to be somebody new in the house besides him and his sister, my Aunt Terry. That was okay because Dad didn’t mind having a new baby hanging around, because he said he always wanted a younger brother to play baseball with.
By the time I came around, Uncle Johnny was nine years old, but he was already an uncle to Aunt Terry’s kid Joey, so I was his second nephew. Joey had two months of being the new baby star in the family, but then I came along with my asthma and pneumonia and was suddenly all anybody could ever talk about (so Ma tells me). And with Uncle Johnny still a kid, we were a pretty busy family of guys. Sometimes we’d go sledding in McKinley Park down Deadman’s Hill, which was just about the highest spot in the neighborhood for anybody to go and kill themselves on. In the winter it got icy slick, and from the top of the hill down to the Seventh Avenue gate was a scary, straight shot, and you either hoped to end up in some thick bushes, which would stop you from flying out through the gate and into the traffic, or you would hit the gate itself. One time me and my friends got creamed when we rode a flipped over picnic table with one pair of legs all the way down the hill and into the fence. We should have been killed but we were wrapped in so many layers of sweaters, scarves, hats, and snowsuits that nothing really happened. Egghead bumped his head of course, like he was always hitting it on something, so you couldn’t really tell.
You didn’t have to worry about running over the old men playing bocce on the court when you sped by them because they didn’t play bocce in the winter. I guess the parkie didn’t shovel snow because he was too nuts keeping us from flooding the bathrooms with paper towels stuck in the sinks. And there was one who was real mean, who threw sticks and rocks at us in the summer when we goofed on him. He wasn’t an Italian guy, and lived down the block from us near Eighth Avenue. He had two granddaughters, one I went to school with named Nancy, and one who was Uncle Johnny’s age named Karina.
Karina started out kind of short and lumpy, but by the time she finished high school she was tall and thin. She kind of had a face like a bird. I mean, birds don’t stand around long enough for us to decide whether some of us look like them, but there was something definitely about Karina that reminded me of a bird.
“What are you talking about?” Ma asked me when I told her this. “Just because she has a big nose and little eyes doesn’t mean she looks like a bird,” but she laughed when she said it which is a way for grownups to agree with kids without having to say “you’re right.”
Karina became one of those girls who go to the beauty parlor every Saturday morning with their mothers, wearing sunglasses and a kerchief over their hair like the Hollywood movie stars that you saw in the papers. You weren’t supposed to recognize them or say anything because they thought they looked bad; plus, they were going out in public with their mothers to a place they didn’t really want to be at, so the rest of us used to just stare quietly from whoever’s stoop we were sitting on when they tried to walk by, invisible. Sometimes we would laugh but one time we got a lecture from Mrs. Belvis, Kathy’s mother, while Kathy stood there crossing her eyes behind her mother’s back. We liked Kathy because she never acted like we were bad guys when we bothered her.
Kathy was sort of friends with Karina when Karina started going out with Uncle Johnny, but the girls got closer because Karina needed an ally and Uncle Johnny was good friends with Kathy because they were partners when they made their First Communion. Plus, Kathy was the type who could be friends with a lot of guys without anybody ever wondering whether or not they would start liking each other too much.
So one Saturday morning in the summer, Kathy went up the block with Uncle Johnny to get ices, and they were going to bring us back some—it took like ten minutes for us all to decide what flavors: me and Egghead and Tommy and Laraine and Doris and Lois. When Uncle Johnny came back, though, he was with Karina and her mother and we could tell that he must have met her when she was coming out of the beauty parlor because she looked all new: her blonde hair was all high up on her head and there was only a teeny bit of kerchief left to tie under her chin. Her mother looked all happy, because mothers liked Uncle Johnny anyway because he was an altar boy and never missed Mass.
When he gave us the ices I asked him where Kathy was he said she went to the store for her mother. There were a lot of questions I had, like were he and Kathy just plain friends, or were he and Karina going to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but Egghead’s mother came out and told us to get in the street with the ices because we were dripping all over her steps and that would bring ants. Somebody was always telling us that, like having ants was the worst thing that could ever happen.
Then they left to go down the block and we stood between parked cars eating our ices. I didn’t know why I asked for pistachio because I didn’t really like the nut part, just the green ice, so Lois traded me her lemon.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

At the end of the summer, we were all sitting around wondering what our next nuns were going to be like. I got through second grade with Sister Anne Elizabeth, a year I would like to forget, and now had the fear of spending third grade with Sister Gonzaga. The thing is, the older kids on the block could warn us about the nuns we were going to get, and let’s just say that Gonzaga was called Sister Godzilla behind her back. So I knew what my nun was going to be like. She was probably the meanest of the three mean nuns at school—Sister St. Dominic was the other one, and I already had Anne Elizabeth and now I had to have Gonzaga. I spent most of the summer trying not to think about her, but her face would pop into my mind anyway, usually when I was enjoying myself or thinking about something funny. And with nothing to say about it, I would get St. Dominic in the eighth grade, because she taught math and spelling. All the homerooms in the eighth grade marched around the hallways and inside different rooms for different subjects all day when the bell rang every hour, which meant that each day had a collection of nuns of all flavors and sizes—step right up, take your pick!– that only showed that God had some kind of weird plan for my life.
But here it was only a few weeks before third grade started, and my stomach was more of a mess every day. I would see Gonzaga way up in the front row of Mass each week, on the Mary side, sitting with the oldest nuns. I even heard once that she was around when they built the school, which was way before they had TV. She was the kind of nun that you heard before you saw. If you were standing in line outside the school waiting to get in after recess, you could hear her on the inside just when her swinging rosary beads hit the door. Then it would fly open and there she’d be in all her glory. We always got real quiet and it’s like, when she opened the big doors, she was looking at each and every one of us personally, right in the eyes.
It was like such a long time since first grade, when I was the favorite of all four nuns: Alberta, Julia, Magdalene, and Johnella. I even made them Valentines that year. Magdalene used to send me on errands to the eighth grade room nuns and one time I got to read aloud from the TV Guide and everybody clapped. So I liked school but by the time of Ann Elizabeth and now Gonzaga, it was like those days were gone forever.
“It stinks you have Gonzaga,” Egghead said. We were sitting with three older girls, Mary, Florence, and Eileen, who were taking turns brushing and playing with each other’s hair like those monkeys do on educational television shows.
“Gonzaga heard my cousin in confession and pulled her out of the booth and smacked her,” Eileen said. She had pointy blue eyeglasses with sparkles, that were always getting lost. We would find them in people’s yards, on the edge of a street drain, or in the pet store on the floor in front of the fish tanks. Her father owned the butcher shop and her mother had a mustache. “No lie.”
“That’s nothing,” Mary said. “My brother got his head rammed into the blackboard. The crack is still there if you wanna know. She keeps that good hygiene poster covering it up.” Mary’s parents were the artistic ones on the block. They had weird paintings and future looking lamps in their house long before anyone else ever thought of them.
“Her brother is a dentist, that’s where she got the poster,” Florence said. “And in her desk drawers are all the things she’s stole from kids over the years… old gum, Cracker Jack toys, cootie catchers, notes… She never throws notes away and so she knows everything about what’s going on.”
“She really hurts when she hits.”
“On account of she keeps chalk in her hand when she smacks you.”
“One time she smacked Lydia Farrentino in the hall outside Room 165 and split her lip with her nails. Plus, she throws erasers.”
Great. I felt like I had to throw up but probably Egghead’s mother would have come out and chased me home, so I kept it in. I figured I would probably have to hold it in for the next nine months because Gonzaga would have me expelled if I threw up in her room.
Then I forgot all about Gonzaga because Uncle Johnny stopped by the stoop with Karina and said they were going steady!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I didn’t forget for too long because soon it was the night of Labor Day and the next day was Gonzaga. I felt like I had a fever and a stomach ache and I wasn’t hungry all day.
“What’s the matter with you?” Ma asked when we were all sitting there at dinner.
“Because he has Gonzaga tomorrow,” Lois said. “He said and Mary and Florence and… and the other one SAID that she was going to smash his head on the blackboard. Right?” she asked me.
I didn’t say anything because I was afraid to open my mouth. Throwing up in school is one thing but throwing up on the table is another.
“Are you afraid of a nun?” Dad asked.
“No.”
“Yes he is because Florence and Eileen and… and the other one SAID.”
“Why would you be afraid of a nun?” Dad asked.
“Are you kidding me?” Ma asked him. “Don’t you remember? When I was a kid they were really mean,” she said, slicing bread with the big knife. “Me and Tessie once had to stand outside in the cold with our books on our heads because we talked in Mass. Our eyes froze shut from tears!”
“Did you tell your Mothers on her?” Lois asked.
“Are you kidding? They woulda smacked us worse.”
“Don’t be afraid of nuns,” Dad said. “They’re just ladies like your Ma.”
“No, NOT like your Ma,” Ma said. “No way.”
The Tessie signal must have gone off somewhere because she appeared in the kitchen a minute later. She always let herself into our house no matter how many times Ma told her to ring the bell, but Tessie always said bells were for strangers.
“You ready for Gonzaga?” she asked. “Oh BOY, are you in for a treat! You better behave.” She took bread from the plate and went to our refrigerator for mayonnaise. “When I had her she said my skirt was too short and she made me sit in class with a newspaper wrapper around my legs. A newspaper!”
“Don’t scare the kid,” Ma said but you could tell she was enjoying all this on account of the fact that she was happy when she talked with Tessie about the olden days.
“You’ll be fine,” Dad said. “Just don’t give her trouble.”
“Yeah… don’t even MOVE. Don’t make a sound unless she calls on you. Never talk… don’t even look out the window,” Tessie said. “One time Claire Pultz got caught looking out the window, and Gonzaga made her stand outside looking IN the window for the rest of the day.”
“Her eyes went bad,” Ma said. “That’s why Claire has such thick glasses. When you see her in the A&P it’s like a blind lady coming toward you, she can’t see, she knocks into you with her cart.”
“For crying out loud!” Dad said.
That’s what I felt like doing: crying out loud, but instead I went into the bathroom and finally threw up. Maybe that would make it better the next day, but not really, so I prayed to the Virgin Mary that night to help me figure something out that would make this whole mess easier. But all the nuns looked like Mary with their dresses and veils… Anyway, I couldn’t think of anything except if somebody kidnapped me. Then they would find me dead in the sewer and boy would they feel bad.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Uncle Johnny and Karina walked me to school the next day, and I had to hear their Gonzaga stories. It wasn’t any use asking them to shut up because I was younger and, besides, everyone loved telling Gonzaga stories. I felt like I wasn’t ever going to see anyone normal again after going into the school and into that classroom.
The nuns were outside forming us into lines, and I went into the Room Six line with all the other kids. There was Gonzaga, waiting. She was sort of about as big as a Volkswagen.
She didn’t have to make sure we fell in place because she knew WE knew where we had to stand. Everyone looked scared, like we were about to get yelled at even though we didn’t know why. I guess we were all thinking who the first one was who was going to make her explode, and I sure didn’t want it to be me.
Nobody said a word. When it came time for Room Six to file in, Gonzaga clicked her clicker and we followed her, quiet, not looking left or right. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In the classroom, we each went to our desk when she called out our name and seat. I was row five, seat five. Lucky me, there was nobody in my row yet and so I walked slowly, counting the desks so I wouldn’t sit in seat four or six by mistake.
“Move it along,” she said from the front. When I was in my desk, I breathed quietly and watched the other kids fill in the seats around me. Some of them looked like they wanted to cry. I probably did too but I kept trying to think of what Dad said.
“Don’t be afraid of nuns.” But I still was.
Noreen Kane sat down in front of me. Great. She was trouble from day one so I just knew that whenever she got called out, I was going to be in trouble too because she had this way of causing problems for everybody who sat near her in school.
When we were all quiet, sitting there like statues, Gonzaga took the roll call, probably to make sure none of us had tried to escape.
“Crescitelli… another one of those…”
“Present, Sister… what did you say?”
She looked at me from her desk way in the front.
“I beg your pardon… did you ask me a question?”
“Yes Sister.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“YES, Sister.”
Now I was scared. I was turning out to be the first one!
“What question did you ask me?”
Oh MAN.
“I asked what you said after you said my name.”
“THAT was how you ask me a question?”
“Yes Sister.”
There was a long time where she just looked at me without saying anything. Nobody moved. From the corner of my eye I saw a mother with two little kids walking in the park across the street and I felt like I was in a prison.
“Come up here,” she finally said. “Now.”
I got up and felt like I had to go to the bathroom right that minute. When I got near her desk she got up and took my arm and turned me around so I was facing all those kids. I could feel her nails.
“I’m going to set an example, class,” she said. “Mr. Crescitelli here apparently doesn’t know how to properly ask a question, because apparently HE thinks he—“
She had to stop because there was a knock at the door.
“Don’t dare move,” she said to me as she went over and opened it. I figured, what have I got to lose, so I sneaked my head to the right and saw a nun standing out in the hall with like forty kids behind her looking scared. Gonzaga closed the door behind her after warning the class not to talk, but Noreen Kane whispered to me and asked what I saw outside. I was too afraid to answer.
After a while Gonzaga came in, closed the door, and told me to take my seat, quietly. When I was settled, she made an announcement.
“Gather your books and file out into the hall and go to Room 11 with Sister Daria.”
That’s all she said, but it turned out that her and Daria had to exchange kids for some reason. Like it was in a dream, we got our stuff and went out into the hall where that pretty young nun was standing with all those terrified looking kids I had seen when Gonzaga opened the door. As we went past them, feeling like we were going to Heaven upstairs in Room 11, Noreen whispered to those kids, “you guys are gonna get creamed.” We didn’t even know what Daria was like, except that she was one of those young “new” nuns, so she had to be better than Gonzaga.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
And she sure was. Third grade with Daria was a circus compared to what it could have been like with Gonzaga. There was even a new girl in the class that I liked, Sharon, and we used to walk through the park on our way home from school even though she had to go down a different block.
And it was perfect, until one day in Advent Daria had to go to the city for something. They never explained what, only that they had to be away for the day. She was probably in the convent with the mumps, but we weren’t supposed to know because nuns were perfect and never got sick.
The Room 11 kids had to go down to double up with the kids in Room Six, which made it pretty crowded. I was worried she would remember me from the first day of school, but Gonzaga had her hands full looking around making sure nobody was breathing. I had to sit next to some kid who smelled. Her class was already terrified enough, so it was mainly us she had to watch. I guess she figured it was going to be a lost cause with all of us jammed in there, so she told us Room 11 kids to do an exercise where we had to write down in our notebooks all the words with vowels that we saw in our readers.
Well, after a few minutes it was like every word had a vowel in it, and I got scared that maybe I heard the instructions wrong. That’s all I needed that day… it was bad enough that I was sweating because I was hoping Gonzaga wouldn’t remember me from the first day, but now I felt like I stuck out even more like a sore thumb, like she could read my mind.
I got so confused that I stopped writing down each and every word. It was getting boring anyway, so I started scribbling circles in my notebook to pass the time. And then I looked up and Gonzaga was standing by our desk.
“What are you doing?”
“Well Sister you said to write down the words with—“
That was all I got to say. She hauled me AND my notebook to the front of the room.
“I’m going to set an example, class,” she said. “Mr. Crescitelli here apparently doesn’t know how to follow instructions, and THIS is the result.”
She waved my notebook around for everyone to see. Boy, did I want to cry! And then she did something worse. She saw the back of my notebook where I had written I love Sharon… a girl I liked.
“Sharon WHO?”
“Sharon Maynard, Sister,” I sobbed. My nose was running too.
And Sharon was sitting just a few rows down, my Room 11 love probably feeling like an idiot because of me.
Gonzaga slammed the notebook against my rear end and gave me a lecture about writing on notebook covers, and I had to make sure I brought her a note from Ma saying WHY I had done it. “Written on THIS piece of paper,” Gonzaga said when she gave me an official piece of blue nun writing paper. “NOT on another sheet, do you understand me?”
I knew why I did it. I saw one of Uncle Johnny’s schoolbooks with his name and Karina’s written in funny bubble letters, and I wanted to do the same thing. So now I had to drag the whole family into it. But why was it such a big deal to Gonzaga? It’s not like it was a sin to write I love Sharon on a notebook… or was it?
Sharon didn’t walk with me that day, mainly on account of because I hurried ahead of her.
“I can’t believe that nun,” was what Ma said when I told her the whole story. “What’s she thinking you’re doing? Making out in the class?”
“What’s making out?” I asked.
“For crying out loud,” Dad said. “She hasn’t changed in twenty-five years.”
Ma called Tessie to tell her the latest Gonzaga story, and then Tessie came over to help Ma write the note.
“Do you put the date in the left corner or the right?” Ma asked.
“I think the right because it’s a note and not a typed business letter,” Tessie said, chewing on a pencil.
“I wish I could remember,” Ma said. Suddenly it was like the two of them were in school again, and they were afraid!
“Let’s try that then,” Ma said. “Then I guess I’ll write Dear Sister… or should I write Dear Sister Gonzaga?”
“MA! Just write it!”
“Don’t be so fresh! You and your love letters got me into this! If I screw up she’s gonna be over the house smacking me around before I know it!” She and Tessie thought that was so funny, but I didn’t.
Ma started writing.
“How do you spell Gonzaga?” she asked Tessie. “It’s been so long. Three A’s or one O and two A’s?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, why don’t you just call the school? Call the principal!”
“MA!!!”
“Just spell it g-e-s-t-a-p-o,” Tessie said, and the two of them almost fell off the kitchen chairs.
So Ma practiced on the back of the phone book until she thought Gonzaga looked better than Ganzaga, but when she wrote on the official blue nun writing paper she spelled in Goonzaga!
“MA!!! I’m gonna get creamed!”
“Well, whaddya think of THAT! Goonzaga! Now I gotta start over!” she said and crumpled up the blue paper and tossed it into the garbage pail across the room.
“Two points,” Tessie said.
“But MA! She said I had to use THAT paper and now I’m gonna get KILLED!”
“What difference does it make what paper?”
“She SAID!”
“Is Jimmy going to get killed by Sister?” Lois asked when she came into the kitchen looking for her milk. “Because when I go to school I don’t wannoo be killed.”
“Go inside,” Ma told her.
“But my milk.”
Tessie got Lois her milk and then Ma started a new note on her own paper, which had pictures of flowers and turtles on it that she got for free from the bank once because they were out of those folded up plastic rain hats. I knew I was going to get creamed for this, and it would be all her fault, partly Tessie’s, and even Uncle Johnny’s. What did I do to get into this? Nothing!
Ma wrote that I was copying Uncle Johnny’s idea, and that she hoped Sister Gonzaga would forgive me. Could you believe it? Like I had done something wrong!
“It’s not that you did anything wrong, I just don’t want to get into a fight with her,” Ma said. “She’s not even your nun so let’s just get her off our backs, okay?”
“MA!!!” I said, and I wasn’t happy about it. No matter how I tried from then on, Gonzaga was going to know about me. I could never hide!
“Ask if she remembers us,” Tessie said. “Ask if she remembers the time she made us go down to the office because we were chewing gum and she yelled and we said it was Aspergum for our teeth.”
“That wasn’t us, Tessie, it was Margaret Sheehan and Sheila Gallagher.”
“Still.”
Oh boy! Here I was getting ready to be murdered, and all they could talk about was gum. Now do you believe what I had to go through?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So the next morning I get up with that stomach feeling like I had all summer, and went to school. Ma made me cereal and I think she felt a little sorry for me because she asked if I wanted her to take me in.
“No! Boy, I just I wish we had that blue paper still, that’s all.”
“Have your cereal.”
“I don’t feel hungry.”
“Have some.”
Lois came into the kitchen.
“When Jimmy dies can we get a dog?”
I knew, I just knew she was going to be calling and telling Tessie what Lois said, as soon as I was out the door, because Ma had that look of she couldn’t wait to tell Tessie the latest. I just wanted to go to school and get it over with, whatever it was.
And you know what? Like it was through some nun magic, Daria knew all about what I had to do, and she said I could go and bring the note to Gonzaga after recess. “Maybe she won’t remember, but we’d better not take that chance, shall we?”
I loved her even more after that, and by the time I went home at lunch for my baloney sandwich, I was feeling happier—still scared, but not so much.
“Did the nun try and kill you?” Lois asked. “Did she hit you with a stick or what?”
“Let him eat, young lady!”
“Did she throw a rock in your head?”
On the way back to school I met Uncle Johnny and Karina and he said I looked sick. I told him real fast the whole thing about Gonzaga, but I said that it wasn’t really his fault even though he wrote on his notebook, too, and Karina laughed.
“Which girlfriend, Johnny?” she asked him.
“You were an altar boy, Uncle Johnny, is there a prayer I can say? Could something happen so she forgets?”
“She probably won’t forget but you can ask the Virgin Mary to help you in a good way.”
“Really? Like what? I tried but I couldn’t think of anything. And she didn’t help when I asked her once…”
“Say ‘Mary, make something happen to Sister so she forgets that I’m in trouble with her, but not a bad thing.’ “
“Okay.”
“Say it.”
So I said it until he thought I sounded good, and then I ran to school.
When I got to Room 11, I sat in my seat until Daria said I could go down to Room Six with my note. The whole class knew where I was going, and Diana Massaia raised her hand and asked if she could walk down with me.
“I think he’s quite capable, Diana, but thank you. Class, that was a very good example of generosity and good citizenship.”
And everybody clapped for Diana Massaia.
Me, I went downstairs and stood outside Room Six. My hands were sweaty and felt like electricity was going through them. I was so afraid of getting the note wet that I put it on the floor and dried my hands on my pants. I said Uncle John’s prayer—‘Mary, make something happen to Sister so she forgets that I’m in trouble with her, but not a bad thing.’ Inside, I could hear Gonzaga.
“And that’s why we should pray every day for peace, because one day the Communists could be coming here on the Staten Island Ferry to take over. We could look out that window and see Communists! Do we want Communists to come to Bay Ridge?”
“No sister,” forty kids all said at the same time, because they knew what was good for them.
Finally I got up the nerve and knocked on the door.
“Silence!” I heard her say and then she came and opened the door. For a minute she looked down at me like who was I, and I thought I should run, but then she took my shoulder and marched me over to her desk. You couldn’t hear one sound in that hot room… and I thought I smelled a tuna fish sandwich.
“Well! And what have we got to say for ourselves?”
“I have the note, Sister.”
“Place it on my desk.”
Boy was I sweating. I put the paper with the flowers and turtles on her desk, and when she saw it she started to turn red, just like Dad did when he had to go out before work in the morning and shovel snow.
She brought her hand up slowly, and I got ready to be hit, but then she slammed it down on her desk, hard, and everybody jumped.
“WHERE IS THE BLUE–!”
She had to stop because the loudspeaker came on in the corner of the wall above her desk, and you never knew if it was going to be for a fire drill so we always had to stop what we were doing and listen.
It was Sister John Francis, the principal, and she sounded very, very sad, like she was crying.
“Sisters and students, your attention please. We’ve just heard on the radio that President Kennedy has been shot.”
Gonzaga’s mouth popped open.
“Sisters, please join me and lead your classes in prayer. In the name of the Father…”
After praying Three Hail Marys with us, John Francis clicked off.
Oh boy… the President? Gonzaga was white, not red, and it was like she was frozen at her desk. Nobody did anything right away, but then some of her class started crying and she didn’t stop them. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and it’s like she wasn’t there with us anymore, you know? Like she’d gone someplace else without moving. I could hear noises out in the hall, and out of the corner of my eye I could see mothers running past the windows, like they were coming to get their kids from school right now, even though it wasn’t anywhere near three o’clock. Everything was going so fast and slow at the same time, like I was in a speeding car watching it all on television.
Then Gonzaga started to cry, right there frozen at her desk, and she turned and looked at me.
“His poor children,” she whispered.
I didn’t know what to do, standing there far away from Room 11, so I reached across the back of her chair and patted her on the back of her head. Then she took my hand and held it while she raised her right hand to get everybody’s attention, and we all started saying another Hail Mary. I think the whole school was doing that.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ma and Lois were outside school to meet me at three and we walked home, very quiet. Tessie was waiting in front of her house for us with some of the other ladies, but nobody was saying anything. Everybody looked like they had just been in the worst trouble ever.
“Any broken bones?” Tessie asked me, and that’s when Ma really started crying, and she couldn’t stop. Tessie took us all up the stairs and into our house, and we started that long afternoon and night of watching television, waiting for Dad to come home from the office.

In the Days of the Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs

DINOSAURS!

I was fixated on them as a kid in the early 1960s, along with just about every other kid in America. Some of my earliest memories involve dinosaurs. My dad would take me to the McKinley Park library branch and I would run over into the adult section because they had really old science books that showed great pictures of dinosaurs, all labeled: ankylosaurus, brontosaurus, diplodocus, stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex… I was fascinated. These giant things once prowled the planet, and the earth actually SHOOK when they walked, the rumble made by their huge, heavy feet stamping on the ground  sounding like approaching thunder… It was incredible to me that there were things THIS BIG that had all eventually disappeared.

The book above was given to me by my Uncle John, who often brought me books. (Senior 63 was something I wrote on the cover myself,  which was the year he graduated from Fort Hamilton High School. I copied everything he did, actually. On a third grade notebook of mine I wrote “I love Sharon” in bubble letters because Uncle John had written similar sentiments on HIS notebooks. A substitute nun saw my paean one day and gave me hell, along with a swat on the bottom. Thank you, Sister Gonzaga, whose name sounded like a dinosaur, so there ya go.) The book had great you-are-there appeal:

“With his teeth and claws, the killer tears the flesh from the Duckbill. He gulps it in huge chunks. At the end of an hour, half the skeleton lies bare. The killer’s stomach is full. Slowly the great dinosaur walks to the jungle. There he stretches out beneath a palm tree. For several days he sleeps soundly. No other dinosaur dares to bother him. Then Tyrannosaurus wakes up, hungry again. He goes forth to make another kill. That is his life- killing, eating, and sleeping.”

Dad signed us up for an art class at Brooklyn College about that time, and in our group was one of those kids whose parents doted on him and fueled his fantasies: they were his supporting cast. I remember being GREEN with envy because they were letting him build a dinosaur diorama in their basement.

I  had a little bag of plastic dinosaurs in pastel colors that I would arrange in the backyard underneath the tomato plants and rosebushes. Right there in Brooklyn, way before Spielberg,  I established the original Jurassic Park.

And then you grow up.

And then it’s June 2014 and you decide it’s high time you visited Dinosaur World over in Orlampa. Yes, Orlampa. There is actually a sign on Interstate 4 which refers to the region between Orlando and Tampa as Orlampa, which sounds more like a disease of the lymph nodes. “Yeah, we’re going to the rehab place and bringing her some kale. They say kale is good for orlampa. You wanna come with us” “No thanks.”

You’ve possibly been to Dinosaur World, but you’ve definitely sped past it while driving through Orlampa. You saw the dinosaurs by the side of the road, and probably said “We should go there.” Very few of you have, judging by the people who were there today,  who were people that I probably have not spent a lot of time with in my life. (Ya get the pictcha? Yes, we see.) Let’s just say there were some Boy Scout leaders with their groups, women with coal miner’s daughter hairdos, and lots of little kids named Amber and Winchester. But you know what? I talk to anyone and interact with everyone, so it was fine. I immerse myself in these situations, sort of like the Dorothy Malone character in those Frankie and Annette beach movies: to observe.

Herewith, a series of photographs destined to thrill, enchant, terrify, and amuse you.


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Something-o’-saureses at the entrance to Dinosaur World. Hadrosaurs? I always liked the little things perched atop their bony skulls. The literature always mentions the “tiny brains” of these creatures, kind of implying that they were too stupid to last more than a few million years.

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Raptors? Possibly. Imagine leaving your tent at four in the morning (a time, between you and me, which is neither here nor there) and seeing a few of these watching while you free yourself, seeking relief? (Ladies, I don’t even want to imagine what you might experience.)

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In a cave you will find this tiny card delineating the History of the World; the fan is situated so that you might find respite from the  sweat that breaks out when you realize we are doomed.

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Imagine finding this in the toilet late at night? I’m just saying. ALWAYS check before sitting down!

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Here are two something-o’-saureses fighting. Remember those dinosaur movies you used to watch on late afternoon TV instead of doing your homework? They always featured two dinosaurs fighting. There would be screams, loud groans, and, eventually, one would tumble into a crack in the earth when the inevitable earthquake occurred complete with lave-spewing volcanoes. This stock footage appeared in just about every dinosaur movie of the 1950s. Remember The Giant Behemoth? At one point a group of Londoners boarded a ferry, a little girl and her doll among them. Bronto appears… ferry is capsized… smash cut to doll floating in Thames, sans owner. I was devastated.

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This fishy creature lived a lonnng time ago. Imagine schools of these still living off the Florida coast? It might mean the difference between a day spent in paradise and a day spent in the morgue should you decide to go for a swim after your continental breakfast.

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Here is Kirk, Scandinavianically unaware that a dinosaur has just emerged from a nearby egg disguised as a trash receptacle.

The fine line between life and death has been explored ad infinitum in the films of Bergman. Here, the fine line is a bench.

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This is the huge gift shop at Dinosaur World. After your experience, you can go crazy buying dino-related toys, gifts, tee shirts, etc. I bought a couple of dino-centric things for Blueie (my lovebird) to chew on. When I presented him with his gifts, he promptly squawked, flew around the area, crapped, and screamed in horror- which is basically what I did that day. And would I do it again? You bet!

A Gorgeous Sunday West Orange Trail Group Bike Tour

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There was a chill in the air this morning when I went outside to load my bicycle onto the car’s bike rack, but the sky was a brilliant blue and the weather radar showed an absence of those rough-edged yellow and red and black things which look, lately, like remnants of burnt fried eggs roaming across my iMac’s screen.

West Orange Bikes and Blades  hired me to give a two-hour guided bike tour of the Trail from the Killarney Trailhead five miles east to the Winter Garden Heritage Museum and Ms Bee’s Popcorn and Candy Store, and the weather was perfect. I always jump at the chance to share West Orange County’s history with new people, and these conventioneers were a great group to work with

 

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Here’s the gang, laden with popcorn and candy after their long haul.

Their bikes are parked across Plant Street at the Heritage Museum.

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They got to see the new History Research and Education Center (our new offices) going up on Plant Street…

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… our eastern gateway to the downtown Area…

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…the beautifully preserved Edgewater Hotel…

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…Centennial Fountain…

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… the Garden Theatre, where Carol Lee is starring in Hairspray…

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…Splash Park on Plant Street…

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…City Hall…

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…Brayton, an old community just west of downtown Winter Garden, where a former fertilizer company has been repurposed as Roundtable Productions, a multimedia production company…

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…the former South Lake Apopka Citrus Growers Association offices in Tildenville…

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…the old SLACGA water tower…

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…the Luther Willis Tilden home (c.1910) on Tildenville School Road…

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…Lake Brim behind the Tilden home…

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…mile marker 801 from Richmond, Virginia, which stood along the old Orange Belt / ACL railroad tracks…

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…a home on Oakland’s Tubb Street which began life as boarding house for railroad men when it was built in the late 1880s…

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…Historic Town Hall in Oakland, which started out as a bank in 1912…

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…and one of the views south of Oakland, former grove land stretching towards Lake Apopka’s south shore. It was a great ride and a great experience and, after I sent them off on their bus and back to the Portofino, I went exploring through some of the groves which still stand between Oakland and Tildenville…

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Along the old Tildenville-Oakland Road, you pass through some very old properties…

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…and the old road pops you out through here onto Oakland’s Starr Street.

SO… anybody up for a bike tour? There’s so much to see in West Orange County!

The Art of Shopping Locally

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I’d heard that Se7en Bites Bakery / Cafe / Caterer was opening this week, and I was so glad to have a free Saturday to go down to their shop at 207 North Primrose and surround myself with freshly-baked goods. It’s a charming shop- bright and airy and energetic- its counter loaded with colorful and tempting delicacies.

In the picture are one slice of chocolate chip pumpkin spice cheesecake (Kirk ate the other slice well before its photo opportunity), an orange chocolate chip scone, and a hazelnut coffee cake with brown butter glaze.

They were all excellent, and what struck me is that you can taste and experience INGREDIENTS, not globs of overly-sweetened mushiness. This is true baking! You can really tell that Trina and Kevin, who I met today, love what they’re accomplishing here. “A Sweet and Savory Bakeshop” is an apt tagline for their fledgling enterprise!

They’ll also be featuring a Cookies and Milk Happy Hour from 230-330, and a culinary enticement called “Name Your Cookie of the Day.” 

Their hours are Tuesdays through Fridays from 730-330, and Saturdays from 9 to3.   Yes- there are breakfast items, and beverages, making this a special little place to pause in before getting on the expressway. Find out all about them on Facebook at Se7en Bites, and you can phone them at 407-203-0727.

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At the Finds On Shine Parisian Flea at Maxine’s, I picked up an exquisite hanging ornament by Crawford, an artist whose work I have enjoyed for many years. Today’s purchase features Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. My other pieces by Crawford feature Norma Shearer…

When I managed Urban Think! Bookstore in downtown Orlando Crawford was responsible for running our popular Canvas and Cocktails art nights,and helped give many local artists their initial exposure. And he’s still working hard as ever!

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The Old and New Around Orlando’s Lake Eola

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I haven’t blogged much lately. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in writing; my job at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation involves a lot of writing, and I still take tons of photos as I wander and document West Orange County. Working as much as I do now has me staring fleetingly at my bicycle as I pass it where it stands perched in our living room, and I wonder when I’m going to go on another PhotoBike Tour. I’ve walked, though; downtown Winter Garden is just a few miles east of the area I’ve been documenting lately– Oakland and Tildenville and an area informally known as Brayton, which used to be a railroad stop where Brayton Road meets the railroad tracks. There were fertilizer plants here, and a packing house; if you’ve ridden the West Orange Trail and seen the building with the Seminoles logo on its roof- that’s Brayton; that building was once the Diamond R (Roper family) fertilizer plant. Cater corner to that, across the trail, is where the Bray packing house stood (the 1914 piers are still in the woods), which later became the Hall family fertilizer plant; if you peer closely at the picture below, you’ll see two of the piers. They sleep quietly in what looks very much like a jungle today, though this area was hopping with activity for many decades.

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It was beautiful enough this morning to visit downtown Orlando, where Kirk usually goes every weekend for a walk with friends. Occasionally join them, though not always; I like to retain my air of exclusivity, feeling that my rare appearances will only be that much more appreciated. This morning, after a snack at the very delightful Le Gourmet Break on Magnolia Avenue (perfect French pastries), we headed to Lake Eola to have a walk and to tour the remaining house on Washington Street- you’ll recall the recent imbroglio regarding the demolition of homes in the block across the street from the park’s playground. The house at the head of this blog post was saved, and rehabilitated for a few hundred thousand dollars. It will serve as a community center and event rental facility. It was built in 1930 according to the OCPA site, and we’re very glad that it’s been saved. Here are a few shots of the mansion:

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This window located at a landing halfway up the stairs to the second floor brightens up the center of the house.

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Here’s a view of the park from an upstairs porch.

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On a wall inside, a large postcard blow-up depicts the original Lake Eola bandshell.

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Another view of the exterior.

The floors have all been refinished, and everything is fresh and clean and ready to receive guests in its new incarnation. There were lots of visitors, and plenty of city guides to answer questions and hand out literature. What would be a welcome addition, however: some sort of researched handout that details the lives of the families who built and occupied the house over the years. I love finding out about all that!

We followed our tour of the house with a turn around the lake, noting the remarkable rise in the swan population. I tell you, there are more than ever. When we exited the house, they handed us bags of swan food, and it’s like they’d been alerted to the fact: dozens of them were congregating at the water’s edge, waiting for us to sprinkle pellets into the water. They would nudge one another, sometimes lashing out with their beaks, as they vied for diving space. How come swans portrayed in movies and on greeting cards are always so benign? They’re actually snappish, impatient creatures. As I sprinkled my pellets like some latter-day version of St. Francis with his sparrows,I imagined myself starring in a movie called “The Swans,” in which I am pursued across hill and dale by these birds. They don’t move that quickly, and neither do I anymore, so picture endless sequences featuring this tableaux in slow motion, filmed with a lens shrouded in gossamer fabric. (Sort of like Lucy in “Mame.”)

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As you walk around the lake, you might find yourself stepping in time with these guys… that’s daniel at the right,  entrepreneur at Kombucha!

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And, finally, a stop for rye and ciabatta from Denny at the Sweet Traditions Bakery table at the Farmer’s Market.

What I like about the park is that so many different groups of people use it comfortably with one another. It’s a great urban space, made even more accessible by the intelligent use of a house that could just as easily have been demolished.

Winter Park’s Rollins College Greenhouse

Today after breakfast at the new branch of First Watch on Aloma Avenue, we went with our buddies Alan and Mark to visit the greenhouse at Rollins College; it was a nice antidote to all the yelling I’ve been doing this week thanks to the imminent destruction of the pioneer Capen House.

Alan is the greenhouse manager, and this morning he gave us a tour.  According to the Rollins website, The Susan O. and Frederick A. Hauck Botanical Research Center, or what is commonly referred to as “The Greenhouse,” is conveniently located next to the Alfond Boathouse on the shores of beautiful Lake Virginia. The Greenhouse opened on October 20, 1983, to facilitate student and faculty research, provide plant material for study and to permanently house a diverse collection of plant species, some of which are indigenous to Florida. During the Summer of 1998, a student designed and installed a butterfly garden. A book which describes each plant in the butterfly garden in detail is available to the public as a reference during normal hours.

It was very warm inside, what with all this weather we’ve been having, but I managed to photograph some of the inmates before the camera’s lens fogged over.

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This is a chenille plant, though I first knew it as “Love Lies Bleeding” when I planted seeds years ago. “Love Lies Bleeding” sounds like the name of one of those bodice-ripper romance novels featuring Fabio on the cover. 

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I’d ask to live in here if it was air-conditioned, but then I would survive and most of the plants wouldn’t. Besides, there might be bugs. I can imagine waking up at night and, in a panic, breaking through the glass panes because I discovered that I was covered with ants. It’s very nice inside, steamy and tropical and there are hundreds and hundreds of unusual plants growing and blooming. 

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A geranium and a blood lily.

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Pitcher plants. These things are big, over six inches long in some cases, and have been known to entice and digest things like mice. 

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Beautiful orchids, here and below…

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Ropy donkey tail, a sedum.

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A nut from a cacao tree. Inside there is Swiss chocolate!

I also took some video of Alan demonstrating how the Venus Fly Traps work, but they are .avi files and won’t upload on WordPress unless I buy an upgrade. 

And there’s so much to see on the college grounds. Pinehurst Cottage, erected in 1886, is a showplace. It was one of the school’s original two buildings.

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And the chapel…

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It’s a beautiful spot for a school, nestled along Lake Virginia. It deserves a trip back, by bicycle.

Historic Winter Park- A Driving Tour

Here’s a complete scan of the Junior League‘s 1980 project. This is an invaluable booklet documenting the historic architectural legacy of Winter Park, which– in more than a few cases– has been allowed to vanish. (A link to my article of a few days ago regarding the imminent demolition of the Capen house, which is featured on the tour.)

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Bulldozing Winter Park

CAPENThe Capen House, Winter Park, Florida. Photo by George Skene of The Orlando Sentinel.

The world is a volatile place: turn on NPR on the way to work and you might find yourself in a righteous rage by the time you set foot in the office. The human species, in reaction, tries to create places of refuge which will enable us to isolate ourselves from the outside fray, even if for just a few hours.

Winter Park is one of those places. Planned as a leafy retreat from cold, northern winters in the 19th. century, it’s always held a special cachet in the hearts of people who dream about living as ideally as possible. Though we all know that bad things lurk behind the front doors of our homes, and perfection is impossible, we still strive for utopia and we build with that in mind. On so many levels, our homes reflect the people we wish to be.

Winter Park was lucky in that its original settlers and earliest families built homes that truly reflected their idea of living beautifully. They decorated the landscape with representations of architecture from various periods, some practical, some fanciful, but so many of them memorable.

And so many: gone.

RussellAnnie Russell house in Winter Park. Gone.

I realize that, with no historic district in place, a house can still be marked notable… and still liable to being razed.

I realize that people can do what they want with their property, and can build what they want, and can tear down what they don’t like. This is America and, when a house is not on a protected list, it goes extinct.

I understand all that.

What I don’t understand is why people would move to a town because of its historic charm, and then proceed to obliterate one of the things that drew them to that town in the first place. It’s almost sacrilegious.

Sometimes, good things happen. Remember Casa Feliz, the beautiful home in Winter Park that was purchased and then threatened with demolition by its new owner? He was going to build a new house on the lot; apparently, the last I heard, he never did. The community got angry, however, and pitched in to have Casa Feliz moved slightly west, on the golf course… and it’s now a valuable, cherished part of Winter Park. It’s a piece of the past functioning as a vital part of the present-  ergo, the future.

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Oneonta Lodge, Winter Park. Gone.

I work in historic preservation out in west Orange County. My office is in a railroad shed that was built in about 1915, and what we do is collect family history, documents, photographs, and the like. We are well past halfway in our capital campaign to have a NEW preservation facility built; however, the old building will remain part of an expanded Central Florida Railroad Museum.

EdgewaterThe Edgewater Hotel. Three restaurants, shops… and history.

That’s the way they do things in Winter Garden. When the brick buildings that you see were built between 1912 and 1930, they were built mainly to replace rows of wooden businesses that had disappeared during the fires of 1909 and 1912. Winter Garden built their new edifices to last, and they still stand proudly– and are all occupied and put to good use. They stand next to the 1927 Edgewater Hotel, the 1934 Garden Theatre, and so much more.

Winter Garden couldn’t afford to tear everything down and build spanking new modern edifices in the 70s and 80s like so many other towns. The pollution of Lake Apopka, the decimation of the orange industry due to freezes, the shutting down of the railroads, and the construction of highways around the little city all conspired to keep the area overwhelmingly unable to dynamite the old and build the new. Granted, some unforgettable, iconic structures bit the dust, but early efforts by concerned townspeople led to the creation of organizations dedicated to the preservation of a world from the past; a world that continues to spin. People riding through Winter Garden, Oakland and Tildenville on the West Orange Trail are amazed at what the area looks like today.

The past is palp[able in Winter Garden– it’s appreciated, nurtured, catered to, and loved. Since I work out there but live in Winter Park, I get to see the latter city often, and I’m always dismayed at what I see happening in the name of progress where I live. It makes no sense, this bulldozing of what attracted people here. Why kill the reason why you came here?

But, it’s happening. And it will continue to happen. So many people want to live in Winter Park, but they want it to look like Palm Beach. (Notice the tall hedges now obscuring many previously-visible houses?)

Winter Park, with all its resources, should be ashamed of itself. And I wonder if there’s a corner in their history museum that keeps track of what continues to disappear? I’m almost afraid to find out.

Many of the iconic old homes still stand, documented in a booklet I have called “Historic Winter Park– A Driving Tour,” published by the Junior League in 1980. I just hope this little treasure doesn’t end up becoming nothing more than a book of memories.

IKEA MADNESS: Comfort Food and… Comforters

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So, in the mail this past week arrived a brochure from IKEA promising comforters, Weight 3, any size… for $14.99, starting this morning at 10am.

$14.99!

Now, people who know me know that we’re not into possessions; we are the world’s worst consumers. When President Obama has to have an economy conference, we are not included in the equation. We just don’t buy stuff; in fact, we give away stuff, and I won’t be happy until the house is empty of things we never use anymore.

But a $14.99 comforter… everyone needs one of these, so we decided to buy two– only two to a customer, please!– and divide them between the two beds. But wait! Knowing that my sister Lois sniffs out bargains like bloodhounds sniff out dead bodies, I called her and told her about this once-in-a-lifetime offer, and of course she wanted one. “And couldja look for two shams too while you’re at it?” Certainly! So now we were up to THREE comforters, and decided to make it an even four– only two to a customer, please, so why not?

The Orlando IKEA opens at 10, and we decided that we’d better get there in case there was a huge rush. HA! A huge rush for comforters in Florida, the Sunshine State? But, you never know, so we checked the catalog to make sure the store really DID open at 10, and then discovered that they let the breakfast crowd in at 9:30. My God, this could turn out to practically be a holiday of international proportions!!

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I was awakened from a dream I was having (involving two parish priests and an outdoor Mass, with one of them asking if I was going to be attending, and ended with me lying and answering “Yes”) and given coffee, and, before I knew it, was in the car on the interstate heading to the Millennia Mall exit. We giddily planned on being there early, and so we parked and discovered that we were actually first in line when we arrived at 9:10. First! That’s never happened, and you could see the envy in the eyes of the other shoppers who arrived very soon after we did as they lined up Swedishly behind us. We wondered: could these people suddenly streaming out of their cars ALL be wanting $14.99 comforters? They came as if to Lourdes, afoot or with walkers, on crutches, in wheelchairs… and, just in case you’re wondering, the less ambulatory did not automatically move to the head of the line, which was us: this wasn’t Disney, after all– this was, essentially, Sweden, where everyone is equal. Just ask the King and Queen!

At one point I remarked that it seemed like we were all waiting anxiously in line to see the premiere of the newest Joan Crawford movie.

Because we have lived here for decades, we did meet someone we knew– a tall, nice-looking guy named Patrick who is always so bashfully polite and friendly that we let him stand with us. Guess what he was going to buy? Comforters! And it was a good thing that we met him– Patrick told us that to get FREE COFFEE and be eligible for the incredible discount on comforters, we would have to be Ikea Family members. If not, we could quickly register at a kiosk inside the store. WHAT?!?! We weren’t IKEA Family members!! How did we do that?! And would that result in a delay?! Suppose somebody got ahead of us!!

At 9:30 sharp (this WAS Sweden, after all) the doors opened and we streamed in politely to have breakfast, the two of us stopping to ask the greeter where the comforters were– and everyone stopped in place behind us!!  I almost started singing Kumbaya! The answer was given– they’d be located in the warehouse area– and then patrick deftly pointed out two kiosks to us so that we could register as IKEA Family members. Which we did, though Kirk had a spot of trouble with his terminal, lending me no end of angst, sighs and sweat. The problem was that he had to type in his birth year as 1951, not 51 (sorry, Kirk) but I corrected it and we were on our way. We weren’t first in line anymore, but we queued up in the food area and had a nice discussion with two women (yes, they were there to buy comforters), one of whom ran her hand along my sweater, leading to a detailed discussion about all the different kinds of wool there were in the world.

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We wolfed breakfast, and then some sort of secret signal went off, and we paying  breakfasters advanced to the rope at about 9:50 so that we could be let into the store proper. And that’s when we noticed a giant crowd of people waiting beyond the rope who were there for the 10am opening, but who had to patiently wait while we Paying Breakfasters (except for the coffee) were herded past them.

It was incredible– an IKEA staffer led the hundreds of us to a staircase that reached down to the main floor, and there we were given a speech. He basically told us that:

*     There were enough comforters for everyone.

*     There would be no pushing, shoving or running.

*     We would advance toe the area where the comforters were offered, and we would be handed the size we needed by staffers. There would be no diving into boxes. No jumping ahead. Non issues.

*     Finally, even though the ad said TWO to a customer, we could each buy up to FOUR. Not twenty-five… FOUR. Still, there was mass salivation at that point, which (I think) was a great way of making the crowd feel even MORE disposed toward buying even MORE.

As we waited those final minutes before 10am, we talked with the people around us. We learned from our staffer that comforter COVERS were going to be offered for sale on Monday, and a woman next to us said “great!,” to which I replied “awww, whatta you need covers for?” And she replied: “Men leave stains.” Laughter and commiseration followed, and then I told the story of how my grandmother was waiting outside Gimbel’s sometime in the 1940s for a huge sale, and the crush of women dressed in their winter coats and hats eventually surged too far forward, breaking the store windows. But they let the women in anyway because, after all, a sale is a sale.  (Eugene, was your mother there for that? Because every Brooklyn woman I know was there for that.)

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10am finally ticked, and we were led like hungry sheep to the warehouse area; you could feel the crowd hurrying up as we got closer. Even though we had been instructed to WALK, the people in front were definitely breaking into a trot, causing the rest of us to do so as well. (The Brazilians, I am happy to say, were easily outflanked by the Americans among us who chose to use their splayed elbows as shields.)

And you know? IKEA was true to its word– there were comforters galore, and we all got our allotment. We couldn’t find and shams– I even called Lois from my Jitterbug, in public, which I never do because that phone is big and red and looks like a shoe horn stuck to my face– but we did find a bath mat for the guest bath because the one in there looks like a leaf of tissue paper on the floor.

They must have sold sixty-five thousand comforters this morning, all of us high on breakfast carbs. There was a sort of World’s Fair pleasantry going on, what with people talking and laughing and feeling one another’s sweaters. We were Americans, lined up politely, spending money, improving the economy, and making the President happy. And it was good. And then loaded our comforters and bath mat into the trunk and, drunk with accomplishment, we headed to our next scintillating destination– something we’d been planning for weeks: to Sears Fashion Square for vacuum bags.

(Incidentally, we met at a party on February 16, 1985– 28 years ago exactly, and we call it Meeting Day– and so this is exactly how to celebrate such an auspicious occasion: comforters, bath mats and vacuum bags. I rest my case.)

The Dr. Doolittle of Winter Garden (Me)

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Regardless of my experiences with the quadrupeds (both wet and dry) referred to in my previous post, rest assured that I am really and truly a friend to animals, regardless of the extraordinary ways in which many of them have impacted my life. They’ve always fascinated me, beginning with the fabulous caged beasts I gazed upon at various zoos in New York City as a boy. Usually I was dressed in the distinctive blue-and-gold Cub Scout uniform, instantly marking me as a target of derision by your nastier, non-Scouting teenagers, but nevertheless I forged on, game as always.

(Query: why is it that caged beasts always seem to indulge in the most vivid of erotic encounters whenever a prepubescent audience lurks beyond the bars? Answer comes there none.)

My other experiences with animals took place on television, safely seated atop a Herculon-covered couch next to Mom as we egged one another on through countless episodes of Wild Kingdom. Who was that old guy? Oh, Marlin Perkins. Each week he, via the benevolence of the Mutual of Omaha insurance conglomerate, guided us through close-up vignettes of wasps paralyzing weaker insects (think Hugh Auchincloss doing a number of Mickey Spillane); lions surrounding graceful gazelles and turning them into mincemeat; hundreds of millions of lemmings jumping off the White Cliffs of Dover; and ants observed deep within their burrows as they printed their own currency, played bridge, and enslaved aphids. Fascinating! And then you turned off the television and went to bed, knowing that you’d fall asleep without scratching.

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I haven’t had much to do with animals since, other than finding myself surrounded by a herd of chickens in Key West seconds after stepping off a city bus, laden with luggage. I stood stock still, afraid to move lest I excite their avian anger. (Come on– we’ve all heard stories about farmers found pecked to death by the very creatures they worked hard to keep in feed. (Imagine showing something off at a 4-H Fair, winning a ribbon, bringing it home, and being killed by it?) Other than that, animals have usually been encountered in my grocer’s freezer.

Today in Winter Garden, however, I made up for my years of animal ignorance, all within the space of five minutes.

Down from my office at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation History Research Center, where I happily spend my days looking up “Judge” James Gamble Speer’s third cousin twice removed, is a feed store called Winter Garden Feed and Seed. It’s located in a building that’s been there for many years, and we have a lot of clippings on file regarding its history. I like to shop locally wherever I find myself working, and it means a lot to me to patronize a business whose previous antecedents have stretched back many decades. Winter Garden Feed and Seed sells things for horses and cows and chickens, and I’ve gotten Blueie’s bird food there once before; Karen Grimes and staff are friendly and down to earth, and very helpful. Blueie is finicky about what he eats, flapping and screaming and rubbing his beak dramatically on his perch after he’s tasted something he decides he’ll never try again, but he’s decided that he likes the bird seed at Winter Garden Feed and Seed. And, since he’s trained me so well, there I take myself.

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There was a line today Yes– people were busily making purchases for various animals, speaking a language I’d never heard before; not having spent much time near farms, or even spacious backyards, I had no idea what the customers were talking about. All I knew as that I wanted a bag of bird food, no complications, and so I wandered over to the area where you could dispense seed into plastic bags; they would weigh it at the register, charge you accordingly, and then send you back to Tara. Simple, right?

Only I couldn’t find the plastic bags, though I knew they had to be nearby. I turned to search a close-at-hand shelf, and found myself confronted in the shins by something large and kind of soft. I looked down and a very large pig was looking up at me as if to say “what the heck? Excuse me?!” As I considered this, I stepped back to give him room in case he decided to scamper away, squealing, like in the cartoons,  and I stepped on something that sort of squeaked in a snarling sort of way. I looked behind me and saw a rabbit running off in the direction of a tub full of shavings.

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Pigs. Rabbits. While the woman at the counter instructed the pig to not eat her shoe, I took advantage of the lull in commerce to ask where the plastic bags were. Finding them, I filled one with what I’d hoped would be a financially beneficial amount of bird seed (I like to shop locally) and went up to the counter. I pulled out a credit card, checking above me for swooping albatross, and saw the woman at the counter removing a chicken from atop the credit card machine. And this wasn’t just a chicken– it was a glorious chicken made, it seemed, from a white feather boa. “She’s up there because the rabbit keeps nipping at her,” I was told, and it all made sense because I was in a place that sold animal feed and farm equipment. When in Rome…

Always be open to new experiences. A pig could eat your shoe, a rabbit could bite your ankle, and a chicken could compromise your credit card.

And this is why I love working where I do.