Dead Freddie’s

August 18, 2010

When my oldest son was five or six (he turned 49 on August 13), we left the women—his mother and grandmother—in the cave and went to forage for lunch meat and hard rolls at Muller’s delicatessen on Harford Road, in Northeast Baltimore. (Muller’s still has the best German cold cuts and sandwich breads in the city.) Next door to Muller’s is a bar called “Dead Freddie’s.” It’s been there for as long as Muller’s has, but the name has long intrigued me for several reasons. For one thing, I can’t remember if “Dead” was part of its name back in the day. Was it just “Freddie’s” then  and, when Freddie (the owner?) died, rather than get rid of what is a fine example of a classic neon, the word “Dead” was added as a dark joke? Or was the word always part of the sign and I just didn’t notice? (If anyone out there knows the history of the bar and/or the sign, please set me straight in the comment section below.)

Anyway, to get to the point of my little story about that day of male bonding, either my son asked to go into the bar or I volunteered to take him. Either way, I thought it was a good idea, so in we went. Once inside I think I bought Shawn an orange soda, in much the same spirit my father used to buy them for me when he took me to bars to keep him company while he drank a few of his “Arrow” brand beers. (The sins of the father really are passed down.) And I clearly remember that I took the opportunity that day to demonstrate to Shawn how the pinball machine worked. In fact, I’m pretty sure he got to shoot a few balls himself. As you and I know, most boys love bright lights, fast-moving objects and noise, so of course he was delighted. And so was I, still being a kid at heart myself. That was it. We two happy guys finished our pinball game and headed back to the home cave with provisions for lunch.

But now comes the sad ending to my little narrative. (Here I feel it’s fair to  speak for Shawn, too, because I remember how boys think and feel when it comes to neon and pinball machines.) When we got home, still very excited about our wee adventure, we couldn’t wait to share our delight and  high spirits with my wife and her mother. Their reaction was not what we expected. Well, you know what comes next. My wife and her mother were shocked, shocked, that I had exposed the child to the dark and sordid interior of that bar. Their disapproval was clear in their words and the expressions on their faces. And here I won’t speak for Shawn, but personally I felt the morning’s fun feeling exit my soul in much the same way air instantly leaves a pricked balloon.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

Photo Quote

April 24, 2010


“News photography teaches you to think fast.”
Weegee  (Arthur H. Fellig), 1899 – 1968

Rendezvous

January 4, 2010

It’s a safe bet that few men my age can recall exactly where he was and what he was doing—and with whom—on a specific date sixty-two years ago. I’m one of the lucky ones, or at least I think I am. On June 25, 1948, I was ten years old and sitting on a bar stool in Milt’s Rendezvous, a low-end tavern not far from the shipyards in Curtis Bay. Curtis Bay was, and still is, a working-class neighborhood of tiny homes on the southern edge of the Baltimore waterfront. My father worked as a carpenter in the shipyards during World War II, and by this time the conflict had been over for three years. With the shipyards closed, daddy was out of work except for odd jobs here and there, but he still enjoyed visiting area bars. They were, he said, his “old drinking grounds.” It seemed that at each bar he took me the barmaids and many of the drinkers knew his name.

That day at Milt’s, I was sipping my usual orange “Nehi” soda and my father, on the stool next to me, was making wet circles on the bar top with the bottom of his beer bottle. “Arrow” was his favorite brand—no glass, he always drank it straight from the long neck. And he used his thumbnail to scratch the damp labels off the bottle as he sipped (a habit I picked up and still do on the rare occasions when I’m drinking a beer with a paste-on label). As he removed the labels he also seemed to remove himself, sort of go off someplace else in his mind. In those days I didn’t have the words to describe it that way, but I do remember being aware of his dreamy look as he deconstructed the labels. Meanwhile, my contribution to the overlapping art he created on the bar top was to smear the circles into an abstraction with my fingers. He didn’t seem to mind, at least not while he was on the early side of drunk and still in a good mood. My father could be a mean sot. Sober, he was often a fun-loving man who laughed and joked and did silly things, like singing country songs and accompanying himself with one of his tools. Often his “instrument” of choice was a hand saw, which he gripped handle-down between his knees and bowed with a stick strung with a wire nailed to it. As he stroked, he changed the angle of the saw-tooth blade which produced a wavering, eerie, high-lonesome sound.

My father said that our mission that day at Milt’s was to watch the world heavyweight title fight between the champ, Joe Louis, and his challenger, Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott was a nobody, pretty much, at least in big-time boxing—until, that is, their first bout in 1947, when he had come very close to beating Louis. We watched the rematch on a small black and white television set mounted on a shelf over one end of the bar. In 1948, few poor people had TV’s in their homes (our family was securely in that category), but every bar in town had a set to lure the drinkers out of their living rooms. (Kids like me, and some adults, watched variety shows like “Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle at night, while standing on the sidewalk outside appliance stores. They kept their display window sets on all the time to entice customers. And it worked. By the mid-1950s most families, even some on welfare, had a TV in the house.)

Jersey Joe Walcott was a veteran fighter. His real name, which my father said sounded kind of “sissy,” was “Arnold Cream.” Walcott had learned to box starting when he was just 16, but daddy claimed Joe Louis was by far the better fighter. As it turned out, the rematch was another close one. In the final rounds, Louis was again behind Jersey Joe on points. Daddy was keeping score and said the champ needed to come up with a knockout punch to win. Everyone in the bar thought Louis was going to lose until very near the end of the match, when a single punch to Walcott’s jaw knocked him flat on the canvas for the count of ten. “Happy ending,” daddy said. When I finished my Nehi, and daddy took the last sip of his (fourth or fifth?) Arrow beer, he said “Jimmy, I’ve got to go see a man about a horse.” He had a lot of “saying’s” like that, things he’d drop into the conversation that made little or no sense to me at the time. What he said next I did understand. “You go on home and tell your momma I’m right behind you.”

Alone, I walked the narrow two-lane road from Milt’s Rendezvous to our house at 1011 Mast Court, in the nearby government-built housing project. All the streets in our development were named after parts of ships and boats, and the houses looked like army barracks. Dad claimed they were, in fact, converted barracks stuck up on a hill overlooking Baltimore City and the harbor, put there in a hurry to house the thousands of workers and their families that had moved into town for war work in the shipyards. (Beautiful view, actually, but ugly buildings.) There were no sidewalks on the road home. I walked on the black top facing traffic, like my father had taught me. He said that way, if you see a car coming, you have a good chance to get out of the way. Daddy was right, several times I had to scrunch up against hedges and bushes to let a fast car go by.

Daddy still wasn’t home when I went to bed that night. All evening my mother had looked at the clock and shook her head and tut-tutted, like she always did when Daddy was off somewhere. That was her regular life, but it always seemed to make her mad—or at least sad. When I checked the next morning daddy was splayed out on his back on their bed, fully dressed, sleeping off what my mother said was just another “toot.” At breakfast momma told me he had “come in at some ungodly hour” after the bars closed. She also said that on the way home he must have “skipped into the road and got his-self sideswiped.” Daddy wasn’t hurt, just a scratch here and there, and the upper plate of his false teeth was missing. Momma said she was going to trust me to retrace his steps and find it. She told me the best place to look was in clumps of bushes near the roadside.

All of this crazy business seemed perfectly normal at the time. It was all I knew. Another brief example to illustrate. When I was four or five, while we were still living in Virginia, my mother had taken my younger brother and me with her to a neighbor’s for a “house meeting”—bible thumping revival stuff, singing and testifying, that sort of thing. When we came home we noticed that the window next to the front door had been broken and there was blood on the jagged glass shards left in the frame. Daddy had lost or misplaced his key and smashed his fist through the window so he could reach inside and unlock the door. We found him peacefully asleep on the living room couch, fresh blood still oozing from several small cuts on his arm.

Eventually I found daddy’s upper plate in a hedge by the side of the road, not far from another of his favorite bars, one that happened to be roughly halfway between Milt’s Rendezvous and home. Two years after what I had come to think of as the “False Teeth Fiasco,” I returned home from school one day to discover that my mother had disappeared—she just ran off and left me, daddy and my younger brother. No note, nothing. Later I learned from a neighbor what had happened but, no matter the explanation, in those days I couldn’t understand how she could do such a thing. For a long time I couldn’t forgive her. By the time I was a grown man I had figured it out for myself. It wasn’t something I had done or said that drove her away. She had finally, after more than twenty years, simply got fed up with living her life with what she called a “flat-out drinking fool” for a husband.

Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.


Today’s Gag

November 30, 2009
Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

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Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 7, 2009

Final Part

Mike and me watched Blind John alone at his table across the cafeteria. He somehow found the ketchup bottle by feel — the square shape, Mike said — and checked the edge of his plate with the first finger of his other hand, then slid the finger in towards the middle until it touched his hamburger. He undid the lid and poured some ketchup on his burger. He only spilled a little. “You know, Andy, Blind John likes you,” Mike said.

“We’re sort of friends, yeah.”

“No, I mean he really really likes you.”

“Sort of buddies, sure.”

“Blind John is a fairy nice guy,” Mike said, and laughed.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” I said.

“Ha!” Mike said. “He’s a flat-out fag.”

“Don’t be stupid, being blind is all that’s wrong with him!”

“Watch his walk,” she said. “It’s girl steps. Listen how he talks.”

After school Blind John was on the corner with a crowd of kids who could see — he didn’t spend time with blind kids if he could help it. I went by and bumped him just for meanness’ sake. “Hello, Andy,” he said.

In a different voice I said, “’Scuse me,” still trying to fool him.

He touched my face and smiled. “Nice to see you, Andy.”

How did he know? My footsteps? What else? How I smelled? I stuck my nose in my armpit and got the answer.

Wilson said I had to see that movie so that’s why, when Blind John asked me to go with him, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was another bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck-and-cover under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also, Billy Gray is your twin brother,” he said, “right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the picture a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and — ” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie is when a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and his robot, Gort, disintegrates all their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and for some reason she believes him. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice — she lets him seduce her with his accent.”

Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy — a widow — she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu — Mr. Carpenter — he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. Right then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face — popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Hey,” I yelled, “why’d you do that?

“I ain’t deaf! I can tell from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the spaceship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says to just never mind and dies. Later, Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end of the movie Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. That movie had real good shadows but didn’t make much sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But when it was all over Blind John was on the edge of his seat, had a tight grip on my arm, and a fist jammed in his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

Wilson claimed there were five white boys in South Baltimore named Andy, all of them weird, and all but two were either ugly or stupid or both. He didn’t say where I fit in, but he did say I wouldn’t know a good movie if it hit me in the back of my head. Which kind of turned out to be sort of funny in a strange sort of way. I never did see that truck that came down Charles Street when I ran between parked cars, rushing to get Daddy out of Lombardi’s bar before he spent his pay. When I woke up in the hospital Miss Flower, the night nurse, was holding my hand. She was big-boned but not fat, with coal-black hair, pale skin, and she wore huge rings and laughed real big. From my eyebrows up was mostly bandages, and under that were scalp stitches front and back. I tried to picture how the doctors worked the needle and thread, like Momma sewing on a sock hole. I was “in traction,” Miss Flower said — my legs tied in ropes with counterweights to keep them up. She claimed I was lucky, that I only had a concussion and some cuts, but no cracked skull. “But you’ll live,” Miss Flower said, “mean as you are.”

People came and went. Momma came to visit on a Sunday — but no Daddy, Daddy never did come, being off drunk someplace. Kids from school did. Blind John did, found his way to the hospital by himself somehow. Mike came a bunch of times but never stayed long. She acted funny though, more like a girl. I noticed she was starting to get titties and it seemed like the little bumps made her nervous. “When you get better,” she said, “we’ll go to the movies,” and she batted her eyes like Kathryn Grayson in a musical. All I did was nod. When you get hit by a truck, people take notice. You are an automatic hero.

Wilson came to see me once and stayed just long enough to mystify me. Claimed he didn’t like how the nurses looked at him. No surprise there, he had a chip on his shoulder for white people in general. Told me he wouldn’t trust most of them farther than he could throw one over Cross Street Market. At first Wilson stayed on his side of the room and stared at me. There was a chair over there but he leaned on the wall, casual-like. Then, after a while, he said, “My blood commanded I come, Andy.”

“Huh?”

“My blood talks to me, tells me what to do.”

“Yeah, right.

“Tells me right from wrong. I hear the voices and know what the African gods expect from me.” He smiled. “This time they wanted me to visit a banged-up white boy.” I kept quiet. “When Africa speaks,” Wilson said, “I listen.” I started to laugh but caught myself because I wasn’t sure it was a joke. Then Wilson laughed big and said, “Don’t you get it, white boy?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Think about it,” Wilson said. I just shrugged. “Africa Speaks? The movie?” Wilson moved closer to my bed, his eyes shifting from my face to my head bandages. He reached out his hand and smoothed down what messy hair there was sticking out.

“What do you say, Billy Gray?” he said.

“What?” I said.

Wilson rubbed my head softly, and said, “Klaatu barada nikto?”

I said it back. “Klaatu barada nikto.” Then we said it together three times — “Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto!” — and banged fists.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Today’s Gag

March 21, 2009
0903barblogCopyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

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Today’s Gag

March 14, 2009

0903tastingblogCopyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

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