Thursday, October 23, 2014

"The Inn Crowd"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
If I can afford to retire when I am eligible in five years I took a vow of poverty when I went into journalism, so I may be working posthumously I’d like to be an innkeeper.

My wife, Sue, who is a teacher, thinks it’s a great idea that I retire, not that I continue to work even after I am dead because she’d like to quit, too.

Then we can be like Bob Newhart and Mary Frann, who played the husband-and-wife owners of a Vermont bed and breakfast that was frequented by kooky characters on the old TV sitcom “Newhart.”

To B&B or not to B&B that is the question Sue and I have been asking ourselves. To find the answer, I spoke with Neil Carr, 83, a lovable character who owns the Sea Beach Inn in Hyannis, Mass., where Sue and I stayed when we spent a very pleasant weekend on Cape Cod recently.

“I love people — that’s why I am in this place,” Neil told me. “You have to have a positive outlook.”

“Do you ever get any kooky characters here?” I asked.

“You mean like you?” Neil responded.

“Yes,” I said.

Neil chuckled and said, “You’re not kooky. In fact, you’re normal compared to some of the guests I’ve had. One of them is here right now.”

He was referring to an exceedingly fussy woman who had traveled from Missouri to watch her daughter play in a field hockey tournament.

“She’s a pain in the butt,” Neil explained. “She wants bacon and eggs every morning. I told her that we serve only a continental breakfast. She said, ‘Is that all I’m getting?’ I said, ‘That’s it, honey.’ She’s also been driving the cleaning girls crazy. One of them came down and said, ‘What’s going on in Room 2?’ I said, ‘She’s here for six days. It’s good money. Humor her.’ That lady has been avoiding me and I’ve been avoiding her. And where’s her poor husband? Back home. He’s probably been drunk since she left.”

Neil has also had his share of crazy adventures since he and his late wife, Elizabeth, bought the Sea Beach Inn in 1987.

“About 10 years ago I decided to add a prefabricated garage with a room on top,” Neil recalled. “I had a spot cleared off and the footings put in. Then I got a call from a guy on Route 6 who said he had this building in a big dump truck. Part of the building brought a wire down, so now I had the cops on my hands. This guy was a terrible driver. He had to turn the truck around in a parking lot and come down the street, and there was traffic piling up behind him as far as you could see, and it looked like he was going to wreck the lawn of the people across the street. The woman who owned the house used to own the inn. She sold it to me. So now she wanted to kill me. She said, ‘Now you can look down into my living room.’ I said, ‘Who’d want to look at you anyway?’ She moved into a condo, but I hear she’s still alive. She must be 98. She used to pop out from behind trees. She could have been in a cartoon.”

“Or,” I added, “a sitcom.”

“This is just the place for one,” said Neil.

“Would you ever sell the inn?” I inquired.

“One couple recently asked me that,” Neil replied. “They followed me around. The wife said, ‘This must be a wonderful life for you. We’d like to get a B&B.’ I said, ‘Really? I’ll tell you what. I’ll call the bank and find out what I still owe them. You go upstairs and get your checkbook. Pay me for what I still owe on the place, add two dollars to it and I’ll be out by 5 o’clock this afternoon.’ ”

“Maybe my wife and I will buy it in five years,” I said. “Until then, we’ll come back as guests.”

“You and your wife are always welcome,” Neil said. “I could talk to you until the cows come home. We don’t have any cows, but two horses used to live here. They could have been in the sitcom, too.”

Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Rocky Mountain Guy"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
I have long been told, by people too numerous to mention, including members of my own family, to take a hike. But because of the rarefied air between my ears, I waited until a recent trip to the Rocky Mountains to take them up way up on their suggestion.

My initial ascent of a slope high enough to let me see what flight attendants were serving on passing airplanes was made during a long weekend in Granby, Colo., a picturesque town that is about 8,000 feet above sea level. Considering I am 6 feet tall and live close to the shore, it is 7,994 feet higher than what I am used to.

Accompanying me on this exhausting excursion were my wife, Sue; our daughters, Katie and Lauren; Katie’s husband, Dave; and our niece Ashley. All are in better shape than I am. So are some dead people, but I didn’t want to join them by falling off a cliff or being eaten by a mountain lion.

The first hikers we encountered on the trail were three young children, two women who apparently were their mothers and a white-haired lady whose age, I would estimate, was 112. She had a walking stick.

“Good morning!” she chirped as we tramped by. “Are you enjoying your hike?”

“This is my first one,” I told her.

The lady looked at my ratty sneakers, worn sweatpants, “I Love Garlic” T-shirt and bloodshot eyes and said, “I hope you don’t have trouble with the altitude.”

“I’m naturally lightheaded,” I replied, “so it doesn’t bother me.”

What did bother me was the prospect of being attacked by any number of ferocious fauna, including but not limited to Bigfoot.

“What happens if we encounter a bear?” Sue asked.

“It would be pretty grizzly,” I said.

To which Ashley responded, “Good one!”

Then there were beavers, which came to my boggled mind when we passed a stream that had been dammed by the industrious rodents.

“Last year,” I recalled, “a fisherman in Europe was killed by a berserk beaver.”

Dave saw the bright side when he pointed to the sparkling water and said, “Every delicious ounce of Coors Light starts right here.”

I could have used a beer because I was hot on the trail (of what, I wasn’t sure), but all I had was a bottle of water, and it was warm.

As we made our way up the steep grade (I was expecting my grade to be F, which would have stood for “fainted”), I actually felt invigorated.

“You’re doing very well,” Katie said with a touch of astonishment.

“I thought you would have keeled over by now,” Lauren added optimistically.

Aside from a couple of brief rest stops, we made a beeline (and did not, fortunately, get stung by bees) to the top of the trail, where I beheld two wondrous sights: a waterfall and a lawyer.

The former was not exactly Niagara Falls, though I did approach it step by step, inch by inch, but the latter was exactly what I didn’t expect to see.

“You think you can get away from us,” said Patrick Fitz-Gerald, an attorney from Denver. “But we’re everywhere.”

He was hiking with his wife, Katie; their daughter, Larkin, 3; and their golden retriever, Buddy, 7, who Patrick said is on the cover of the paperback edition of the best-selling Garth Stein novel, “Racing in the Rain.”

When Patrick told me that he used to be a journalist but quit to become a lawyer, I said, “You finally found honest work.”

“If you get hurt on the trail and need representation,” Patrick said, “call me.”

Except for a scratch on my middle finger, which I was too polite to show him, I didn’t get hurt at all. On the way down, which admittedly was a lot easier than going up, I told our merry band that I had a terrific time on my first hike.

“I guess,” said Lauren, speaking for everyone, “you’re not over the hill after all.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"A Chore Thing"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

The late, great humorist Erma Bombeck once said, “Housework, if you do it right, can kill you.”

Since I am still alive, thanks to my wife, Sue, who does most of the housework in our house, I guess I am not doing it right.

This does not come as a surprise to either me or Sue because of a startling statistic I read in the latest edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which states: “The average American woman will spend 6 years of her life doing housework; the average American man, 3 years, 8 months.”

Looking on the bright side, men die sooner. According to the Almanac, the average American man lives for 76.19 years; the average American woman, 81.17 years.

This means, I figured out when I should have been doing housework, that women live about five years longer than men but do housework only 2 years, 4 months longer. So men actually do housework for a greater percentage of their lives, 21.16 vs. 13.53, than women.

“That’s a stupid statistic,” Sue said when she heard this, resisting the urge to end my life about 16 years short of the average. “I’ve been doing housework for 36 years. I started the day we got married.”

“No, you didn’t, because we went on our honeymoon, remember?” I pointed out helpfully.

“OK, so I got a week off,” Sue said. “But I’ve been doing housework ever since.”

“You can’t say I haven’t helped,” I said.

“Yes, you have,” Sue acknowledged. “You do clean our bathroom, but I do the other two. So that means I clean twice as many bathrooms as you do.”

“One and a half,” I noted, reminding her that we have a half-bathroom downstairs.

Sue also acknowledged that I clean the litter boxes (for our two cats, not me, because I use the bathroom that I clean) and that I vacuum (the carpets, not the litter boxes).

“And I iron,” I said, “because I’m a member of the press.”

Sue ignored the remark, even though she was steamed, and added, “And you do fold clothes.”

This gave her a chance to air my dirty laundry. For the first 25 years of our marriage, I didn’t do the laundry. Then, finally, I learned how. But we recently got rid of our old washer and bought a new one, which Sue won’t let me use.

“I’m afraid you’ll break it,” she said.

“Does this mean I don’t have to do the laundry for the next 25 years?” I asked.

Sue looked at me as if to say, “If we’re still married 25 years from now, I’m going to stick my head in the oven.”

Speaking of which, she said, “You don’t cook. And you don’t empty the dishwasher. And you don’t dust.”

“You’re not supposed to dust dishes, are you?” I inquired.

“And,” Sue continued, “you don’t do windows.”

“That’s because they’re a pane,” I reasoned.

Sue reminded me that I don’t do yard work anymore because we hired a landscaper this year. “So you should have more time to do housework,” she said.

She was right, of course, so I said, “What do you want me to do?”

“The windows,” Sue responded. “They’re filthy.”

“Should I use ammonia and water?” I asked.

“You sound like you’re stuck in the 1950s,” Sue said. “Nobody uses ammonia and water anymore. Use Windex.”

“I use that on the bathroom mirror,” I said, though I was afraid to mention that I also use it to clean stains from the carpet when one of the cats coughs up a hairball.

I got a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex and proceeded to do the windows in the family room. I also cleaned the glass in the front storm door. For the first time in ages, sunshine streamed in.

“Nice job,” Sue said.

“Anything to help,” I replied. “Do you want me to make dinner?”

“No!” Sue shrieked. “You might burn the house down.”

“At least then,” I said, “we wouldn’t have to clean it.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Wrong Turn on Red"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

In their chart-topping 1965 hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the Byrds sang, “To everything, turn, turn, turn.” To which they might have added: “Except if you make an illegal turn, turn, turn.” In which case you’ll end up in traffic court.

That’s where I found myself recently after getting a notice in the mail saying that I had been caught by a red-light camera making an illegal right turn at a traffic light.

Accompanying the notice was a series of three photos I was sure would vindicate me because they showed not only that it was perfectly legal to turn right on red, but that my brake lights were on at the intersection. Since the fine was $80, I decided to fight the charge because I had an otherwise clean driving record. This involved paying strict attention to traffic laws, being respectful of other drivers and, most important, not getting caught rolling through right turns at red lights.

I showed up at the Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency in Hempstead, N.Y., and beheld scores of other alleged scofflaws who sought justice because they were, according to the U.S. Constitution and TV shows like “Law & Order,” innocent until proven guilty of running stop signs, speeding and, of course, making illegal right turns.

I temporarily surrendered my driver’s license to a stern security officer and stood in line, where I met a woman named Surbi, who was there because, she said, “I parked in front of my house.”

“Did you get a ticket the day you moved in?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’ve lived there for six years.”

“I hope you don’t have to pay six years’ worth of parking tickets,” I said.

“I couldn’t afford it,” Surbi said. “This one alone is $120. And there’s not even a ‘no parking’ sign on the street.”

After we were ushered into the courtroom, I sat next to a young woman named Lauren, who admitted that she “rolled” through a stop sign. “I was being tailgated and didn’t want the guy to plow into the back of my car,” she explained.

“Tell it to the judge,” I suggested.

“I will,” Lauren promised.

I showed her the photos of my car at the intersection. “This is Exhibit A,” I said.

“They’ll get you anyway,” said a young guy named Jacques, adding that he had six tickets totaling $1,700 but that he could prove he was a victim of identity theft and that the car wasn’t his.

Among the other people in the courtroom was a young man who was holding a toddler. An old lawyer said to him, “Did you rent that kid to get sympathy?”

Just then, my name was called by a court clerk named Laura, who took me to a hallway, sat me at a table with a computer screen and pulled a shocker: “We have a video of you at the intersection,” she said. It showed me braking but not coming to a “full and complete stop.” Laura said I could pay the fine or see a judge, who would either uphold the fine or dismiss the charge.

“I know my rights,” I said, though I guess I didn’t because I had evidently made an illegal right. “I’ll see a judge.”

She was the Hon. Elizabeth Pessala, who was indeed honorable but went by the letter of the law when a smug traffic prosecutor showed her the video.

“It’s a good thing you weren’t stopped by a police officer,” Judge Pessala said. “The fine would have been $218 and three points off your license.”

“Guilty as charged, your honor,” I confessed.

I paid the fine and drove home very carefully. After all, I didn’t want one bad turn to deserve another.

Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Laundry Basket Case"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Life is a vicious cycle because there is always a laundry list of things to do. This is especially true if you have to do the laundry, in which case there are three cycles: wash, rinse and spin.

But you can’t do the laundry, as my wife, Sue, and I found out recently, if your washing machine is on the fritz. Unfortunately, we don’t know anybody named Fritz, so we called a plumber named Harry.

Harry, who owns Brookhaven Plumbing and Heating on Long Island, N.Y., came over because our laundry room was beginning to flood, though not enough to open an indoor swimming pool.

The problem, we thought, was coming from the washer, a decrepit machine that had many clothes calls in its 15 years (that’s about 100 in appliance years) but now seemed to be a victim of death by drowning.

Then we discovered a leak coming from the pipe under the slop sink, into which the washer regurgitated water, suds and lint, which is not immaterial. In fact, I have a navel reserve of lint, but that’s another story.

The real story, according to Harry, was that the elbow was leaking.

“Will I have to see a rheumatologist?” I asked.

“Not your elbow,” Harry answered. “The sink’s elbow. You need a plumbing doctor. That would be me.”

“Thanks for making a house call, doc,” I said.

“That’s my job,” said Harry, who noted that most insurance claims are the result of plumbing problems. “A washing machine hose will blow and cause a flood,” he said. “I’ve gotten calls from people who had four feet of water in their basement.”

“I’ll never have that problem because I don’t have a basement,” I said.

“The water would just go through the garage,” said Harry.

“Then my daughters would have to get all their stuff out of there,” I said.

Harry’s daughter has two daughters who are, of course, Harry’s granddaughters.

“They’re 5 and 2 years old,” Harry said. “And they’re always asking questions, like ‘Papa, why is the sky blue?’ ”

“Do they ask plumbing questions?” I asked.

“I haven’t gotten that yet,” Harry answered. “But they know I can fix anything. They’ll say to their mother, ‘Mommy, call Papa. He knows how to do it.’ ”

“My granddaughter is only 16 months old,” I said, “but I think she already knows that I can’t fix anything.”

Harry fixed the problem under the sink and attached a new hose from the washer to the slop sink, which he guessed was installed by the house’s previous owner, a handy guy who had his own workshop in the garage.

“He probably came in here to wash his hands before he went into the kitchen so his wife wouldn’t yell at him,” surmised Harry, whose wife does the laundry in their house. “We have one of those high-tech machines, like the Starship Enterprise, with all these fancy features. It’s just one more thing to go wrong. I employ the ‘kiss’ method: ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ When we get another washer, it’s going to be a simple one.”

The next day, our washer conked out. Sue went to a nearby appliance store and bought a new, high-tech model that plays a tune when the wash is done.

The day after it was installed, I called Harry to tell him that he did an excellent job on the sink but that we ended up needing a new washer after all.

“You jinxed me,” Harry said. “The day after I was at your house, our washer conked out, too. My wife got another high-tech model.”

“Don’t worry, Harry,” I said. “It all comes out in the wash.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"The Call of the Wildman"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
As a homebody whose idea of communing with nature is to open the windows, I could never see the forest for the trees, or even the mushrooms for the pizza, which is why I went on a nature walk recently with a guy who knows all about trees and mushrooms. He also makes his own pizza.

I naturally refer to “Wildman” Steve Brill, a naturalist who is a natural at taking people on nature walks, not just because he knows which mushrooms are good on pizza and which can kill you, but because for him, joking is second nature.

“I’m a funny guy,” Wildman told me when we met at Belmont Lake State Park in West Babylon, N.Y. “And when I see mushrooms,” he added, “I’m a fungi.”

Like a fungus, Wildman’s delightfully corny jokes grow on you, even though the 25 people who had signed up for the walk didn’t see any corn.

“If you walk far enough,” he told me, “you may develop corns.”

Wildman, whose beard and mustache grow on him, and whose glasses and pith helmet make him look like a jungle professor, is billed on his website (www.wildmanstevebrill.com) as “America’s Go-to Guy for Foraging.” At 65, he has seen the forage for the trees for 32 years, during which he has taken nature lovers and mushroom pizza aficionados on excursions throughout the Northeast.

He was even arrested by park rangers in 1986 for eating a dandelion while giving a tour in Central Park in New York City.

“I was charged with criminal mischief,” Wildman remembered, adding that the case was eventually dropped. “I guess they were afraid I would eat the whole park.”

There was no such concern on our walk.

“Will we see a lot of flora?” I asked Wildman as we got started.

“I don’t think Flora is in this group,” he replied, “but it would be nice to see a lot of her.”

The first thing we saw was the common plantain, a lawn and garden weed that not only can be used on mosquito bites (you have to apply the juice to the affected area), but also can be eaten, as Wildman proved by producing some leaves he had cooked at home and passing them around so we could munch on them.

“I garnished them with parsley, sage and rosemary,” he said.

“Not thyme?” I asked, referring to the lyrics in the Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.”

“That’s Scarborough unfair,” said Wildman, who also showed us a plant called Curly Dock. “Not to be confused,” the Three Stooges fan noted, “with Moe Dock and Larry Dock.”

Then we saw and tasted succulent, delicious wineberries. “They’re dangerous because you can die of happiness,” Wildman said as he popped some in his mouth. “They’re berry good.”

One thing that can kill humans is poison ivy, but only if you light it on fire and breathe in the smoke. “Do you know the only person who is immune to poison ivy smoke?” Wildman asked the group. When no one answered, he said, “Bill Clinton. He doesn’t inhale.”

Poison ivy flowers, Wildman added, are “beautiful but deadly, like my ex-girlfriend.”

Then there are mushrooms, only about 1 percent of which are poisonous, such as amanitas. Wildman held one and said, “It’s even worse for you than school lunch.”

Most others, he added, are perfectly safe to eat, like the bolete we found.

“It's good with just about anything,” Wildman said as he showed us a large specimen he had dug up from the ground.

“It’s a ’shroom with a view,” I offered.

“I’ll have to remember that one,” Wildman said.

His entire nature walk was memorable, the perfect combination of education and entertainment.

“I make foraging fun,” Wildman said when the walk was over. Then he handed me a hunk of bolete to take home.

“It’ll make a great mushroom pizza,” he said. “Any way you slice it.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"On the Fence"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
I have never believed the old saying that good fences make good neighbors because, really, who wants to live next door to a guy who deals in stolen merchandise?

Fortunately for me and my wife, Sue, the neighbors on both sides of us are friendly, law-abiding citizens.

Still, we needed a new fence recently because the two front sections of the old one were rotting, sagging and generally in deplorable condition, which our neighbors are too nice to say about me.

So we called Suffolk Fence Co. of Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. As its name implies, the company specializes in fencing (not with swords, thank God) and offers an array of styles, all of which come with doors that don’t, like the one on our old fence, have to be held up by ropes.

At 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday, Herberth and David arrived to install our new fence.

“I’ve been here before,” said Herberth, who remembered coming over several years ago to replace a side-yard fence that was crushed when one of our trees fell on the house next door.

“The tree crashed through the roof of the garage,” I said. “Fortunately, we have good neighbors. Their insurance company covered the damage and they got a lot of free firewood.”

“My father-in-law says that when a hurricane is coming, you should go up on the roof and rip it up, then call the insurance company and say, ‘I need money.’ Of course, he’s only kidding,” said Herberth, who kidded me about my Three Stooges T-shirt. “I used to watch them in Spanish when I was growing up in El Salvador,” he recalled.

“I can just imagine Curly saying, ‘Buenos dias. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!’ ” I said.

Herberth pointed to the image of Moe on my shirt and said, “He’s the smart one, but he’s really pretty dumb.”

“Can you imagine if the Stooges installed fences?” I said.

“It would be crazy!” Herberth exclaimed.

Just then, David walked by, playfully flipping a hammer.

“If it hit him in the head, it would be funny,” Herberth said.

“If it hit me in the head,” I added, “he’d need a new hammer.”

“Just like the Stooges,” said Herberth, who asked if we have a dog.

“We used to,” I replied, “but she went to that big backyard in the sky.”

“I wanted to make sure that if you had one, she wouldn’t get away when we took the old fence down,” said Herberth, adding that his dog used to dig under the fence at home. “She’d go over to my neighbor’s house for a visit. My boss gave me a fence, which was very nice of him, but I had to put another one outside the den door so the dog would have her own area.”

Herberth has had his share of both dog and people trouble on the job.

“One time I was taking a customer’s fence down and his neighbor got angry. He said he was going to send out his pit bull so it could eat me,” Herberth remembered. “I said, ‘Go ahead. I have a hammer.’ I love animals and would never hurt one, but I wanted to see what this guy would do. It turned out that he didn’t have a pit bull, just this little dog that was pretty cute. One other time, a little dog bit me on the knee, but it was cold and I was wearing thermal pants, so it didn’t break the skin.”

“Do good fences make good neighbors?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Herberth, who has been on the job for 13 years. “I have good neighbors. So do you. But some people don’t like their neighbors. One time I had to put a 4-foot-tall section of lattice on top of the fence we had installed so this guy’s neighbors couldn’t look over and see him.”

Herberth and David took down the two old sections of fencing, which were made of wood, and installed new ones, which are PVC. They worked hard and did a fantastic job.

“That looks much better,” I said.

“It’s a good fence,” Herberth noted. “I guess that makes you a good neighbor.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima