Michael Jackson and the AOL Crazies

the lottery

Even though I should know better, I periodically check the comments on the AOL message boards when I’m curious about how the public reacts to a news story that I might be interested in. I know what you’re thinking: “are you crazy, Jim? Those people are lunatics and do not represent the well-informed and educated public!”

When Shirley Jackson published the famous short-story “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in 1948,  thousands of people wrote the magazine to vent their spleens about Jackson’s supposed anti-populist views. After reading much of the correspondence, here is what Jackson said: “I have all the letters still, and if they could be considered to give any accurate cross section of the reading public of  The New Yorker, or even the reading public of one issue of  The New Yorker, I would stop writing now.” Not only was she accused of witchcraft, she was accused of something infinitely worse– anti-Americanism! (And one darkly humorous inquiry from a Southern woman: “Why couldn’t they have made Mrs. Hutchinson Queen for a Day or something nice like that before they stoned the poor frightened creature to death?”)

The AOL boards are quite a snapshot of the American public, and I have to say: these people scare me. They are parading on Michael Jackson’s grave, trampling the sod before it even has a chance to take root. Not only are many of them rejoicing at this “pervert’s” death, but they are wishing upon his head the punishments and tortures of a vengeful and hateful God. (Yes, many of the posters are self-professed Christians.) I try to rationalize this population, manufacturing excuses as to why there are so many of them:  They are middle schoolers with access to Daddy’s computer and too much free time; or they are fringe people, sociopathic termagants with computer access who either transmit their views from home of from the local library; or they are the terminally unemployed and bitter, raging against the world; or they are perhaps even quite standard-looking, just like the people living next door to you. And none of them can spell, let alone tell the difference between there and their and your and you’re.

Who are these people to judge? Granted, they no doubt lack the rational ability to rein themselves in, and in that respect they are like untreated infections. Appallingly, these same voices also rise to the surface like pond scum in order to spew their bile about the President, gay people, Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, African-Americans… I wonder– should this be considered hate speech? Is this allowed? Should these people be censored, their computers taken away and their mouths washed out with lye? And does considering such measures make me as bad as they are? I’m all for free speech; I’m just against free hate.

Shirley Jackson’s central character was stoned to death by the regular folks living in a small village, apparently a sacrifice in hopes of a good corn crop. She describes the horror the poor woman experiences as her neighbors– and family– move toward her, their hands filled with stones. “And then they were upon her,” Shirley Jackson writes.

Are so many of us really villagers?


A Prelude to Italy– Mama Drama

Mom in Italy with cousins, 1950. Age 18.

Mom in Italy with cousins, 1950. Age 18.

Okay; I’ve gone on and on and ON about getting ready for this trip, both here and here.  And there was talk of my mother possibly coming along with me for this looming Italian trip– talk which, in a Northern Italian woman, is spoken silently but nevertheless reverberates along the horsehair-and-plaster walls of her 1912 semi-detached house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. We’d always spoken about making the crossing together, a trip I know she’d love. After all, Mom hasn’t been to see her cousins since 1950.

That trip was captured on film, all stored in yellow Kodak boxes and annotated by my family in various handwriting and spelling: “Porto Gallo” my grandfather wrote on the box that featured the ship’s stop in Portugal; “Le fabbriche” notes the Italian town he grew up in (“The Factories”); and another box is labeled “Marlia,” the small village on the plain below the Apuan Alps, which shares a box with “San Cassiano,” both done in my mother’s handwriting in which the dots above the letter “I” are really tiny circles. Even though I long ago transferred these 8mm films to VHS tapes, and then over to DVD, I can’t part with these old cardboard boxes with the postage stamps still attached.

My mother in 1950 is eighteen years old, and she wears voluminous New Look skirts and a short haircut. She’s clearly having a great time in these movies, and you wonder: did she vow to return every year like we all do when we visit someplace special? She had no way of knowing it would have been her last visit to Italy; and now, at almost 78, she claims she won’t be going back.

I can believe it, and I don’t push beyond a brave “oh come on, why don’t you come along?” when we decide to talk out loud about a possible return. But she won’t fly. “Why don’t we take the boat?” I suggest, but what boats ply the Atlantic like the old greyhounds? She wouldn’t want to cross on one of the cruise ships that ply the Mediterranean coast: “Who wants to eat with a bunch of strangers five times a day?” I had a taste of this when we all piled aboard a gambling ship for my sister Lois’ 40th birthday. It left from Palm Beach and anchored in choppy waters a few miles offshore; we pitched and bounced amongst the waves while we played the slots and consumed Manhattans by the pitcherful– we were fine, but an above-decks walk for some fresh air presented us with the spectacle of 90% of the boat’s revelers groaning and heaving in the dark dampness. “Oh my God,” Mom said. “Look at them… it looks like a hospital ship full of cholera victims!” The buffet line was a gymnastics event which had us all slamming intometal railings as we tried in vain to reach for our dinner and desserts. By the time we sat down we were bruised and exhausted. So no boats for Mom. I’m sure she’d have no trouble on the Berengaria or the Mauretania or even the Andrea Doria, as they all featured private cabins, showers, and endless cups of bouillon soup served on deck. Now that’s a crossing, and chances are you might even have run into Barbara Stanwyck or Princess Grace.

Even though she’s terribly afraid to fly, this mother of mine is basically fearless. The past winter in Brooklyn had her worrying about who would shovel the snow from the steps and sidewalks in front of her house, now that her older brother had died, so she hired itinerant “foreigners” with shovels for $20 after they offered their services. After they were done and walked off, the man across the street called Mom. “Vel, take a look outside: those guys didn’t do the sidewalk in front of your garden. Go catch them, they’re at Sylvia’s now.” I can just picture her dressing hurriedly, yet warmly, with the heavy coat and the wool hat and the gloves and scarf and boots– and she went after them with that shrill voice that she used to use on me when she asked me to take out the garbage for the fiftieth time. “You guys… you guys, you didn’t finish!”   “Oh, we finished,” they said.  “You call this finished?! You didn’t even touch this sidewalk and I want my money back!!”  “Oh no, no money back!”  “You’d better finish this sidewalk like I paid you for! Is this why you came to this country, so you can cheat everyone?!?”  So she’s yelling at these guys– and they have big shovels– and she doesn’t budge. And they finally relent, and she forces them to finish shoveling her sidewalk without them sticking an ice pick under her ribs. But she won’t fly.

And yet simple things she hesitates doing, things that would naturally provide endless entertainment for the rest of the family in their re-telling. Her friend Grace, who is a native of Croatia, has been haranguing Mom to start going with her to pre-wedding reception cocktail hours, uninvited. Grace figures they would eat the appetizers and have a few drinks while pretending to be friends or family of the bride and /or  groom. Sounds daring enough, but Mom questioned this chicanery: “You mean I gotta buy a new dress?”

She wasn’t afraid to scoop up Frank Sinatra’s discarded cigarette butt at the Copa one night when she was there with my father– fearless Mom said to Dad “dance me over to the floor by the piano where Frank just put out his cigarette.”  And Dad did.  “Now dip me.”  And Dad dipped her and she snapped up Frank’s cigarette butt, “that I carried in my purse for years!” She loved Frank. But she won’t fly.

So maybe someday we’ll go over to Italy together. I think it would be great; she cracks me up most of the time and doesn’t embarrass me in public, and you know? She’d probably slow dance with me in the ship’s nightclub, even without Frank crooning and smoking  in the room.

A Prelude to Italy– The Shopping

Do you like to shop? I don’t. I like to go and buy the things I need, checking them off a list as I go along from store to store, not doing any comparison shopping or wielding coupons. I mean, it’s not because I’m rich or anything, but I’ve felt that time is more valuable than anything else– time is the one thing you can’t see, and so I’m loath to squander it.

So, to make this as streamlined as possible, I’ve made a list of all the things I will need to bring to Italy in mid-July, which is cross-referenced to the things I’ll need to bring to North Dakota when we go there in early July for Kirk’s family reunion. (A lot of people running around with pudding.) Since I will have only two days between trips, with one day devoted to work, I will have only one day to do laundry and then transfer items from the North Dakota list to the Italy list. The laundry day– a Wednesday– will also serve as my shopping day, to replenish the things that I will have used up while in Bismarck listening to Sigurd Henriksen tell about the time the chickens danced in a circle under a full moon.

And my lists are exhaustive; there’s not a place on my body that doesn’t need some sort of attention and something to shop for: ears, eyes, nose, teeth, fingernails… with all the rigmarole, you would think that I was somehow going to conjure a replica of myself and then send him on vacation. Maybe I should! This way the REAL me can sit in the back yard here in Winter Park while the FAKE me deals with customs and Helen Olsen telling about the time she used bad eggs in her meringue and ended up poisoning the entire Lutheran choir.

I do need some clothes, but not many. I tend to dress simply and preppily, which means that everything sort of looks the same. You bring a handful of solid color Lacostes with you, they can last three weeks…  Still, just to be sure, I suggested to my second cousin once removed, Nicola, what clothes I should bring for an Italian July: shorts, a set of dress clothes for Mass, tee shirts, and jeans?  “Perfect,” he said, and then checked with his grandmother (my first cousin once removed). Giuseppina also suggested a “swimming costume,” and I immediately pictured myself dressed as a mermaid, or Popeye– you know, something nautical. I certainly am not going to be able to get into the candy-striped number I cavorted around in circa 1984 at Lido di Camiore, so perhaps I should bring along the notorious red shorts featured a few blogs previous. Just what are stylish middle-aged men wearing to the Italian shore these days? Maybe we won’t even get to the beach; who can say? Maybe it should be a surprise. If it turns out that men are wearing fishnet bikinis, however, I’m staying at the house!

So I’ll soon be in Target with my lists, looking for tiny bottles of shampoo and toothpaste and roll-on, and miniature packages of Q-tips. And isn’t it amazing how expensive those miniatures are? And I need things like batteries and contact lens solution, which is something you need a LOT of, but the airlines only allow you a thimbleful. Then I need my allergy medicines, and some sort of preventative against germs and colds because we all know that it’s everyone ELSE on the plane wheezing and sniffing and sneezing and spreading toxins. Think about that for a minute– there’s no new air coming into a plane, so you breathe recirculated air. At least in the days of smoking, the nicotine killed everyone’s germs!

In the final analysis, knowing myself as well as I do, there’s a good chance that my adult-onset ADHD will kick in and I will grow bored of my lists and needs, leaving everything to do the night before the trip. You’ll probably find me in Wal-Mart at three a.m., wrestling the last miniature tube of Pepsodent from the hands of someone who desperately needs that toothpaste more than I do. And that’s probably all I’ll end up traveling with– but at least customs will be a breeze!

Read more about my upcoming trip here and here.

Lido di Camiore, 1984: My sister Gina; and me in the bathing suit that's NOT returning to Italy.

Lido di Camiore, 1984: My sister Gina; and me in the bathing suit that's NOT returning to Italy.

Walking In the Rain

Ronettes 45

It’s been raining a lot lately, earlier this year than usual. And I never fail to think of  “Walking In the Rain.”  That’s a great song by the Ronettes, and the reason how I came to move to Florida in 1978.  It all started in the Summer of 1970 when the Crescitellis of Brooklyn traveled to Massachusetts to visit relatives in Milford and Mansfield. I think we stayed in a motel rather than move en masse into somebody’s house (albeit temporarily). I mean, there were six of us from my family alone, and no matter how much your cousins love you, they tend to develop glints in their eyes after three days– and you just know they’re wondering when the hell you’re going back to Brooklyn where you belong.

So there we were, eating in new restaurants by day, and sleeping on strange sheets by night. In between, we lounged around my father’s cousin John’s pool. It was big, and built in, and so naturally we were very impressed. Our pools in Brooklyn tended to be assemble-it-yourself above ground models with metallic walls that grew blazingly hot in the sun. Though these walls were festooned with innocent, cartoonish images of sea life, they were lethal. The pool liner itself– basically a large, blue plastic bag– gradually developed wrinkles so that it felt like you were stepping on bodies while romping. It was almost the best way to stay cool in the Summer, a close second behind cavorting in the huge geyser from the fire hydrants that the older kids used to uncap for us. Thirty five screaming  little kids in their underwear, running around in the gutter as the water pressure steadily dropped in all the houses on the block: priceless!

Compared to our watery diversions, the built-in pool in Mansfield was the height of glamour and sophistication. There was a diving board, and they even had painted something on the pool’s cement floor, some sort of graphic that I can’t recall. How cool was that? We were very humbled.

So there I was, swimming away in my silly bathing suit, wearing my black plastic-rimmed eyeglasses, and trying to coax myself into attempting a dive– something my much younger cousins did without thinking. I could never be like them; they were suntanned and breezy and white-blond, and I was thin and white and asthmatic. I had to be careful; anything as exciting as jumping off a diving board into six feet of water might easily kill me.

I relaxed onto a lounge chair across from my father’s cousin Claire; she was cool because she had once been sent home from school because her skirt was too short, an unforgettable episode from 1963 that I witnessed personally. Claire had the radio on and I immediately noticed the most beautiful song being played: it had thunder in it, and glorious choruses, and a winsome lead singer. Winsome! I asked Claire what this song was, but she didn’t know; a minute or so later the dee-jay said that we had just heard “Lady Walking In the Rain” by Ronnie and the Ronettes.

Well,  back in Brooklyn I embarked on a wild goose chase for this new record. In those days there were “record stores” scattered throughout the city, and I went to a few of them in pursuit of the elusive Ronnie and the Ronettes. Nobody knew who I was talking about! I even had to sing a bar or two for some of the clerks, which embarrassed me horribly. (And them, as it turned out.)

Finally, my father found a copy at the House of Oldies in Manhattan. It turns out that it was an “oldie” from 1964, and cost him seven dollars… SEVEN DOLLARS! That was a lot to pay for a single 45 back in 1970. And the song was called simply “Walking In the Rain.” I was beside myself with excitement, which is how I reacted to anything I became obsessed with in those days. Naturally I made him tell me everything about the place, and asked if the clerk told him anything about the Ronettes. It turned out that they were “black chicks,” Dad said. Black chicks! Was I cool, or what? I liked black music!

“Walking in the Rain” was produced by the notorious Phil Spector, and featured lead vocals by Veronica Bennett, the woman who would eventually become his second wife. It was their fifth chart hit; three more records would follow, none of which reached the Top 40. By 1967, the Ronettes were already musical history.

And the song brought me to Florida. In those pre-Internet days, there were a lot of publications dedicated to record collectors. I had, by 1973, become a fanatic girl-group aficionado, especially taken by the productions of Phil Spector. Older cousins let me sift through their stacks of 45’s , and I unearthed gems by the Crystals, more by the Ronettes, the Chiffons, the Shangri-Las… it was an unending mother lode of musical butterscotch. One collector’s magazine featured want ads by people looking for certain records to buy or to trade, and in September of 1973 I struck up a correspondence with a collector in Winter Park, Florida that turned into a friendship and eventually a relationship. Things can be intense when you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty… even through the U.S. Mail!  And by 1978 I was living here.

Not everything lasts forever– some things do, but not everything. Our situation changed and I went off in another direction which lasts to this day. Phil Spector is in jail on a murder rap (he was always loose with the guns), and I still play those songs occasionally. (One never really grows tired of “Da Doo Ron Ron,” especially played at full volume on a Ford Focus CD player.)

And every time it rains, I think of the Ronettes and their thundering little three minutes of teen-aged longing. It can snap me back thirty-eight years in an instant, which proves one thing– rock and roll keeps you young !

Ronettes LP