This all started about seven years ago, when, by chance, I read a Janet Maslin review of The Turnaround, a novel by George Pelecanos.
I’d never heard of Pelecanos. But according to Maslin, The Turnaround was “a hard-hitting urban parable” about six teenage boys who get caught up in “an ugly race baiting incident from 1972.”
That sounded like something I had to read, so I bought the book and it was, like–holy shit, where have you been Pelecanos! I mean, it was like he wrote this book just for me.
It was page after page of nailbiting action with realistic dialogue and gritty Washington, D.C. settings. Also, pithy asides and observations about blacks and whites and movies and cars and music, especially music. Also, sex. Hey, man, I like a good sex scene as much as anyone else.
After that, I was hooked on Pelecanos. I read the books he’d already written–King Suckerman, Right as Rain, Hard Revolution, etc. Then I started reading the new ones he was churning out like What It Was and The Cut and The Way Home.
I think Hard Revolution–set during the riots of `68–is my all-time favorite. Though, now that I think about it, King Suckerman‘s pretty freaking good.
Anyway, one day not long ago I was chatting with Josh, my old high school pal who now lives in Washington, D.C.
And he asked if I could recommend a book for Ben, his teenage son.
George meets Ben…
“What’s he into?” I asked.
“Rap. Skateboarding. Washington, D.C…”
“You might want to try the novels of George Pelecanos.”
So I launched into my refrain about how a book by Pelecanos has it all–Washington, race, music, action, sex. You name it!
To Josh’s everlasting credit, he went out and bought several Pelecanos novels for his son.
And now, guess what? Josh and Ben are hooked on Pelecanos. They’ve read a bunch of his books. If this keeps up, Pelecanos’s gonna have to cut me in on some of the royalties.
Anyway, that’s where the story stood until a few days ago when I got a packet in the mail from Josh. In it was a copy of Martini Shot, Pelecanos’ latest book.
Turns out that Josh and Ben attended a reading Pelecanos gave at a local book store in D.C.
And, dig this, they got him to inscribe the book they bought for me.
“To Benny Jay–I love The Third City. George Pelecanos.”
Okay, he didn’t really mention TTC. Maybe next time.
Thank you, Josh. That’s one of the nicest things one old friend can do for another.
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It’s been an all-too typically brutal month or so of ethnic strife, violence and carnage throughout the world.
And then there was Leah Porter’s Bat Mitzvah!
Her father, Cap, is Baptist. Her mother, Deb, is Jewish. So Leah–like her brother Miles–has feet in two worlds, you might say.
Actually, more world’s than that.
Cap’s from the west side and is black. Deb’s from the north suburbs and is white.
I’m telling you–this family should have its own sitcom.
Of course, they live in Evanston. I mean, where else could they live?
There’s only about ten communities in the world that would tolerate such diversity. Evanston being near the top of the list.
For this blessed event, I not only get up early on a Saturday morning. But I put on a tie.
That’s loyalty, Cap!
I also pick up Norm–another bowling brother–who’s on the phone with his friend, Jesse.
“You’re gonna have to wear one of those hats,” Jesse is telling Norm.
“I don’t know about that,” says Norm.
“You will soon enough,” I tell Norm. “It’s called a yarmulke.”
Cap & Deb are sort of like Quincy Jones & Peggy Lipton!
Lesson time! A yarmulke is a skull cap Jews wear in synagogue.
Though back in the day, James Bevel, an aide to Dr. King and one of the most brilliant civil rights strategists of his time, wore a yarmulke.
Like I always say…
Blacks were Jews before they were Christian and Jews were black before they were white.
Back to Leah’s Bat Mitzvah…
I’d like to give a shoutout to Susan Salidor, the cantor. Man, that woman’s got the voice of an angel!
Plus, she was playing the zither. Not a whole lot of people know how to play the zither.
Another shoutout for the speeches.
The Reverend Beverly Gardner got up and told Miles and Leah how fortunate they were to have the aforementioned feet in so many worlds.
Then she said her favorite member of the Rat Pack was always Sammy Davis, Jr. And that Sammy had way more talent than Frank and Dino put together!
Okay, she didn’t really say that. I may have been the one who said that. But I’m sure Reverend Gardner would agree with me.
Then Miles got up and called Leah his “best friend,” and said he loved her.
Which is a pretty amazing thing for a 18-year-old to publically say about his younger sister.
Then Deb got up and said something along the lines of–”I’m so freaking happy, I could do a backflip!”
And Cap got up and said, “Waah, bwaah, boo-hoo…”
Which is my way of phonetically spelling the sound of a proud papa sobbing.
When he finally got his tears of joy under control, he said: “People say I’m a great father. But I’m not. I’ve got great kids.”
By then, I was sobbing.
To Cap, Deb, Miles and Leah…
Thank you for bringing a little peace, love and sanity to a crazy world. Shalom!
On Saturday, I accompany my mom to her local Jewel grocery store.
She’s a revered figure in this store–sort of like its very own Beyonce.
Which makes my dad Jay Z. So I’m not sure how far this analogy goes.
The point is…
It seems my mom can’t enter the Produce section without someone–a clerk, a shelf stocker, a fellow customer–stopping her to say hello.
Apparently, she’s reached that 80-something-year-old phase of life where everyone’s really happy to see she’s still got the zip to make it up and down the aisles.
One of the people who stops for a chat is Rubin, another 80-something-year-old from the neighborhood.
He’s telling me about his grown children–”it’s the Jewish Daily Double, one’s a doctor, the other’s a lawyer.”
When I realize my mother’s vanished from my sight.
How do you lose your 80-something year-old mother in the grocery store?
Imagine Beyoncé in a grocery store…
I beg Rubin for forgiveness and head off in search of my missing mom.
Has she lost her marbles? Is she wandering the aisles in a daze?
I walk from end of the store to the other, peering down the aisles looking for my mom and her two-wheel cart.
I’m nearing the drug counter–whose pharmacists are practically my mom’s best friends–when from over the loudspeaker like a voice summoning me to the Gods, comes the following message…
“Would Benny please come to the aisle three checkout counter. Your mother’s looking for you!”
At the aisle three checkout counter, the cashier, baggage girl and several customers await my arrival with baited expectation. As if they were wondering–who can this Benny possibly be?
And there I am–older than Beyoncé and Jay Z put together.
Well, not quite. But you get the idea…
“When my big mama calls–I come a running!” I exclaim to one and all. “I know you’d do the same for yours.”
No matter how old you get, you’re still your mama’s little boy…
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I’m standing on the platform of the Belmont el station, waiting for the Red Line to take me downtown, when I get an urge to call my mom.
So, I take out my cell and dial her up.
The phone rings twice and then I hear my mom’s voice. Only she’s not talking to me. She’s talking to my father, who must be in the same room.
“This phone’s not working,” she says.
I know what’s happened. It’s happened before, though not in the good old days of the rotary phone.
No, in the good old days ,when a phone was a phone, you’d pick up the phone when someone called and you’d start talking to each other–right away.
Only with these new cordless phones, you have to push a button to make the connection.
And sometimes my mom pushes the button without realizing it. Cause her hearing’s not what it used to be.
That’s what happened here…
Oh, for the old days of phones…
So, anyway, there I am on the platform and I’m practically yelling…
“Ma, ma, ma…”
“This phone sucks,” she says.
“Hang up,” says my dad.
“Don’t hang up,” I say.
“I did hang up,” says my mom.
“No, you didn’t,” I say.
“Why are you bothering me with this?” says my dad.
“Ma, ma, ma,” I say.
Then I hear the sound–beep, beep, beep–of her punching the phone buttons.
Clearly, she’s calling me back.
I hang up, hoping to clear the line before she connects. But, too late. Her call goes straight to voice mail.
Then my train arrives.
While I’m on the train, my mom calls back.
I’m talking softly cause I don’t want to be one of those obnoxious guys in a train loudly talking on his phone.
“Mom,” I whisper. “I can’t really talk cause I’m on a train.”
“I said–I’m on a train.”
I figure the only way out of this is to talk louder, so…
“I’M ON A TRAIN.”
The other riders look at me. I’ve become that guy I didn’t want to be.
“Oh, you’re on the train,” she says. “Call me back.”
It really was much easier in the days of the rotary.
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On Sunday, I head to the Jewel to buy some matzah!
For the uninitiated–that’s a cracker that Jewish people eat at Passover. Except for me. I eat it all year long. For reasons that even I don’t fully understand, I love matzah as much or more than any other cracker.
Except for Triscuits. God, I love the Triscuit.
Anyway, they used to sell matzah at my local Jewel grocery store, but then they stopped.
Not sure why. But it was around the time they also stopped selling Mr. Mustard–speaking of things I love. I wonder if there’s a correlation?
One day not long ago my wife came home with unexpected good news…
“The Jewel’s selling matzah!” she exclaimed.
At which point we started singing, “Oh, Happy Day!”
Alas, still no Mr. Mustard.
The path to paradise is slow. But I have patience.
Well, one thing led to another and here I am, wandering the aisles, unsuccessfully searching for the matzah.
You don’t have to be Jewish, to love matzah!
I stop at the first store clerk I see and say…
“Excuse me, sir, where’s the matzah?”
“Matzah?” he says.
“You’re kidding me–right?”
“You don’t know what matzah is?”
“Where did you go to high school?”
“The Catholic school?”
“Well, obviously, they’re falling behind on teaching you the Old Testament stories.”
“The Book of Exodus, my man.”
And with that, I launch into a long and glorious recitation of the story of Moses, as he lead the ancient Hebrews out of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Only in their haste to leave, they didn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise. So they made unleavened bread, which we call matzah.
“As I recall, Jesus ate matzah at the Last Supper,” I tell him. “But don’t quote me on that cause I’m not sure.”
I make a mental note to ask my old friend Frank Avila about this. Though an observant Catholic, Frank attended Jewish school. As such, he’s my go-to guy for any question regarding the ancient religions.
When I’m done, the clerk says…
“Oh, Jewish food. Look in the International aisle.”
So I got to aisle five, the little shtetl in the store where they keep stuff like Chinese Noodles, Mexican taco shells and matzah.
Not that I have anything against being relegated to an aisle with the other ethnics.
Quite the contrary. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an honor to be among the delicacies of China and Mexico–whose civilizations have created two of the finest cuisines in the world.
As opposed to Jewish cuisine. Which, well, put it this way–my people are a whole lot better at eating cuisines than inventing them.
Peace, my brothers…
As part of my mid-term review to see how I’ve been progressing in the new ways of the world, I’ve been summoned to a bar on the north side by two millennials I’ll call Joanna and Kristen.
Joanna’s my instructor. And Kristen’s more like the principal of the How to be a Millennial School.
They order a double shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey, as Kristen pages through my file that Joanna has prepared.
“It says here that you have an AOL email account,” says Kristen. “Is that true?”
“Even though Joanna specifically instructed you to change to Google?”
“I’ve been meaning to change, but it’s so confusing…”
Joanna interrupts to say: “You should see his phone, boss.”
“His phone?” says Kristen.
“It’s a flip phone.”
Kristen looks at me in disbelief as I pull my ancient phone from my pocket.
Even the millennial who’s tending bar starts to laugh.
“I was gonna get a smart phone,” I explain. “But I used all my upgrades on my wife and kids.”
Kristen scowls, as if to say–likely story.
I’m tellin’ ya’ — these millennials can drink!
“And get this, boss,” Joanna says. “He responds to texts with phone calls.”
“What!” says Kristen.
“That’s right,” says Joanna. “If you text him, he calls you back.”
Kristie turns to me. “Is this true?” she asks.
I’m so nervous I’m almost stuttering.
“See, it’s like–sometimes it’s just faster to call than the text,” I say.
They look at me in dismay.
“No, really–cause the keys are so small. They’re like mouse droppings. And, ugh, so, like, I’ll be walking down the street, trying to respond to Joanna’s text, and I’ll bump into a light post. So I figure it’s easier to just call.”
Clearly, they’re unconvinced. Instead, they’re making fun of me cause I still haven’t finished my Jameson.
Not only am I getting grief about phones and texting, but they’re drinking me under the table.
All in all, a tough night for Boomers.
As many of you may know, I’ve reached that stage of life known as empty nesterhood.
The kids have grown and moved to far-off cities, leaving me alone in the house with my wife and the dog.
However, over the holidays, the kids returned–friends in tow–and everything went back to the way it was.
For starters, it was warmer in the house.
I tend to keep the thermostat low on the grounds that it’s only me and the aforementioned wife and dog. And we can wear hoodies, if necessary. Well, not the dog. But you get the idea.
Obviously, my kids have a different point of view.
One day, feeling a little sweatier than usual, I walked to the thermostat where I discovered that someone had set the temperature at 87 degrees. Thus, generating the following exchange…
Me: What the fuck!
Kid One: Don’t turn it down–it’s cold!
Me: Put some socks on!
Kid Two: I’m telling mom!
Over the holidays, I saw a lot of The Wire, plus…
Another thing, the lights are always on, even if no one’s in the room. I’m starting to think my kids are living off dividends from secretly acquired shares of Com Ed stock.
I found myself constantly wandering through rooms turning off lights. Thus, generating this exchange…
Kid One: Dad, it’s dark!
Me: You don’t need a light, if you’re not in the room!
Kid Two: I’m telling mom!
This episode of Black Mirror…
There were also more dishes in the sink. And a scramble to get first dibs on the shower. And the TV was going day and night.
I suddenly found myself unable to resist re-watching episode after episode of The Wire.
Which remains the greatest TV show–ever!
Plus, I was watching American Horror Story, Transparent and Breaking Bad.
Until time lost all meaning, and I was going to bed at 4 and waking up at the crack of noon to watch another episode of Black Mirror.
Which is not a bad show, by the way.
And then one day, without warning, the kids were gone. Back to their new homes in far-off cities.
And now the house is cold and dark and the TV’s off and there are no dishes in the sink and I have first dibs on the shower anytime I want.
And I miss them more than ever…