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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"How to Babysit a Grandma"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.

My granddaughter, Chloe, doesn’t have to take such a circuitous route to visit her grandmother, who also happens to be my wife, Sue, because our house is on a residential street and, besides, at 15 months old, Chloe can’t drive.

But she knows how to babysit Sue when she comes over because I got her a new book called, appropriately enough, “How to Babysit a Grandma.”

The book, a New York Times bestseller, was written by Jean Reagan, who authored last year’s kiddie hit “How to Babysit a Grandpa,” which has been enormously helpful to both me and Chloe because I am, at this point, less mature than she is.

Sue, who should be the subject of a book titled “How to Babysit a Husband” because without her I would be either dead or in prison, loves the grandma book.

“It’s adorable,” she told me after reading it.

“How to Babysit a Grandma,” delightfully illustrated by Lee Wildish, opens with a little girl’s parents dropping her off at her grandmother’s house.

“When you babysit a grandma, if you’re lucky ... it’s a sleepover at her house,” it begins. “What should you do when you get to her door? Put on a disguise and say, ‘GUESS WHOOOOOO?’ ”

The girl is shown wearing a Groucho Marx disguise.

“That’s what I am going to get for Chloe,” I told Sue.

“Don’t you dare,” she retorted.

The best part of the book is “How to Keep a Grandma Busy.”

Among the suggestions: “GO TO THE PARK. Bake snickerdoodles. Have a costume parade. GO TO THE PARK to feed the ducks. Do yoga. Look at family pictures. GO TO THE PARK to swing. ... GO TO THE PARK to slide. ... GO TO THE PARK to take photos.”

“Chloe loves it when I take her to the park,” Sue said.

“You mean when she takes you,” I corrected.

“Right,” said Sue. “She especially loves the slide and the swings.”

The next part of the book is about the sleepover, which features lots of fun things for the girl and her grandma to do, such as making dinner (“Add sprinkles to anything”) and finding places to sleep (“In a tent, on the floor, on the couch”).

The final part takes place the next morning, when it’s time to leave.

“How to Say Goodbye to a Grandma: Let her borrow some sprinkles, some books, some stickers, some ribbons. Say ‘I love you!’ without making a sound. Give her a BIG hug and ask, ‘When can I babysit you again?’ ”

“I’m glad your wife liked the book,” Reagan said when I called her to talk about it. “I wanted to make the grandma fun, as I’m sure Sue is. And I know Chloe thinks you’re fun.”

“She sure does,” I replied. “People have often asked me if I spoil her. I say no, that’s Sue’s job. My job is to corrupt her. I told Sue I’m going to get Chloe the Groucho disguise. She didn’t think it was a good idea. But when Chloe gets a little older, I am going to introduce her to the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.”

Chloe already loves books, even though she can’t read yet. So Sue and I read to her when she comes over or when we go to her house.

I haven’t read either of my books to Chloe, because they are below her intellectual level, but I did read both the grandpa and grandma books to her recently.

“What did she think?” asked Reagan, who is not a grandma yet.

“She loved them,” I said. “She pointed to the slide and the swings in the grandma book. But for some reason, she seemed to understand that the grandpa needed a little more help.”

“Next time she comes over,” Reagan suggested, “she can help Sue babysit you.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Mr. Zezima Goes Back to Washington"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Before my recent visit to Washington, D.C., a town populated by clueless people, so one more wouldn’t hurt, I had been in the nation’s capital twice once on purpose.

The other time, I took a wrong turn off the highway, found myself in Washington and promptly got lost. Because the statute of limitations has expired, I can now admit that I violated federal law and asked another guy for directions. They did no good. It took three hours to find my way out of town.

I then realized that this is the reason the aforementioned clueless people are in Congress for so long: Even they can’t find their way out.

In the best-laid-out city in America, the most important people are limo, cab and bus drivers because they’re the only ones who know where they are going.

To test this theory recently, I hailed a cab for an educational trip around town. Imagine both my chagrin and delight when I found out that my cabbie, a friendly 27-year-old guy named Yared, was on his first day on the job. I was his second customer.

“I don’t know how to get around Washington,” Yared admitted after I had buckled myself into the front passenger seat and he pulled away from my hotel.

“How did you get your taxi license?” I asked as he navigated the streets uncertainly.

“I used GPS,” replied Yared, an Ethiopian immigrant who came to America eight years ago. “I live in Maryland because Washington is too expensive,” he explained.

Before he became a cabbie, Yared parked cars.

“You must have wanted to take a step up and drive them,” I said.

“Yes,” Yared said when we were stopped at a red light and he consulted his GPS for the best way to get me back to the hotel. “I needed to make more money.”

Approximately half a second after the light turned green, the guy behind us blasted his horn and Yared tentatively turned left onto a street whose name I don’t know. Yared didn’t seem to know it, either.

“You could be in Congress,” I told him. “I’d vote for you.”

“Thank you,” Yared said with a smile.

We ended up making a big circle (or perhaps a trapezoid) back to the hotel. The fare came to $6.45. I gave Yared $10, told him to keep the change and wished him luck in his new career. He thanked me again and drove slowly away.

Later, I spoke with Yared’s first customer, Michelle Freed, a fellow scribbler who, like me, was in town for the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, an estimable organization that had to lower its otherwise high standards to let me join.

“He didn’t know where he was going,” Michelle said. “I didn’t know where I was going and I had to give him directions. He was sweet, but it was just my luck that I got a cabbie who was on his first day on the job. I guess it was an honor to be his first customer.”

That evening, on a bus ride to the Capitol, where the society had arranged to have dinner and bestow the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award (if you guessed that I didn’t win, you would be right), I spoke with Robert Tabor, who said he has been driving a bus for 37 years.

“Your backside must be sore,” I suggested.

Robert chuckled and confirmed my theory that these guys are in Congress for so long because they can’t find their way out of town.

“They don’t seem to know where they are going even when they’re not in Washington,” observed Robert, 64, who proudly said that D.C. has “the best transportation system in the country.”

This isn’t to say that he hasn’t had his challenges as a driver.

“One time a guy got shot on my bus,” Robert remembered, adding that the perpetrator was outside the vehicle. “The guy who got shot fell out. I closed the door and peeled rubber.”

Robert, who said things have gotten much better in D.C. over the years, also noted that he has never been afraid to ask for directions.

“You know what this means, don’t you?” I said.

“What?” said Robert.

“You can’t run for Congress,” I told him.

“That’s OK,” said Robert. “I can do more good driving a bus.”


Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Cool Customers"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the family room. Or, even better, buy a new air conditioner.

That’s what my wife, Sue, and I did recently because the old air conditioner, which was in a wall sleeve in the family room when we moved into our house 16 years ago, was beginning to spew out even more hot air than I do.

So we decided to play it cool and get one that actually works.

“Will you be installing it yourself?” asked a salesman at the appliance store.

“Not unless the warranty covers my hospital stay,” I responded.

Thus did Kevin Beyer and his stepnephew, Matt Grescuk, arrive on a Saturday afternoon to remove the old air conditioner, an asthmatic hulk that looked like it belonged in a Model T, and install the new unit, a high-tech appliance that looks like it belongs on the Starship Enterprise and weighs about as much as a baby grand piano.

“I would have ruptured a vital organ doing this,” I said.

“I just saved your life,” replied Kevin, who told me, after he and Matt had ripped out the old air conditioner, that we had the wrong electrical outlet. “You need a 220 for the new air conditioner,” he said, noting that we had a 110.

I called Sue on her cellphone to ask what we should do, as if either one of us could make the switch without getting electrocuted, but she didn’t pick up, so I left a message. A few minutes later, she arrived home and said, “I was getting my nails done.”

“That’s another reason why I couldn’t install the new air conditioner,” I told Kevin. “I didn’t want to break a nail.”

“Most guys don’t want to be bothered with stuff like this, so you’re not alone,” Kevin said. “Then there are the ones who think they’re handy. They try to do things themselves and of course they mess up and their wives just roll their eyes. Most of the time, their wives are handier than they are.”

“That’s the case here,” Sue chimed in.

“So you mean that ignorance really is bliss?” I said.

“For a lot of guys, yes,” said Kevin. “For me, it’s good for business.”

“Are you handy?” I asked.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” he said, adding that he owns KSB Construction in Commack, N.Y. “I install air conditioners on the side.”

“That’s appropriate,” I said, “considering this one is on the side of the house.”

Kevin ignored the remark and continued, “I do roofing, kitchens, bathrooms, you name it.”

“I’m petrified of heights,” I said, “so I don’t go on the roof.”

“I can’t get this body up there anymore,” confessed Kevin, a burly man of 46. “I let my guys do it for me.”

That includes Matt, who at 19 is about the same age Kevin was when he got into this line of work. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” Matt said. “Especially roofing,” he added with a smile.

When we went outside so Kevin could make sure the new air conditioner was in the sleeve properly, Sue said she wanted to do some gardening, so she asked me to get her a trowel and a pair of gloves from the shed. I emerged with them a moment later.

“See, you’re not totally useless after all,” Kevin said, adding that he and Matt would take away our old air conditioner.

“If I left it on the curb, someone might steal it,” I joked.

“Don’t laugh,” said Matt. “Someone would.”

“Don’t forget to call an electrician,” Kevin advised. “Once you get the new AC up and running, your wife won’t have to worry about your hot air anymore.”


Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, June 5, 2014

"Talking the Talk"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

When I was about 12 years old, my father and I had The Talk. It was such a traumatic experience that I remember only two things about it:

First, my father told me that what the birds and the bees did (though not with each other) was “more fun than playing football.” I now realize that, unless you’re a little kinky, you don’t have to worry about concussions.

Second, my Aunt Anita (my father’s sister, who was a real pistol) called in the middle of The Talk. My father excused himself and went into the kitchen. I strained to listen to what he was telling her, sweating in fear and embarrassment that Aunt Anita knew I was being filled in on the birds and the bees. It was the worst part of the whole thing.

“Today” and “Morning Joe” co-host Willie Geist never had to go through this excruciating father-son ritual because his father, “CBS News Sunday Morning” correspondent and legendary humorist Bill Geist, never bothered to subject young Willie (or himself) to The Talk.

It’s all explained in Bill and Willie’s hilarious and poignant new book, “Good Talk, Dad: The Birds and the Bees ... and Other Conversations We Forgot to Have.”

I wasn’t embarrassed to have a brief conversation about the birds and the bees with Bill and Willie before their recent appearance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where veteran journalist Mike Barnicle moderated a vastly entertaining program in front of about 300 Geist fans.

“You’re one of the first people we’ve met who has actually had The Talk,” Bill told me.

“There’s anecdotal evidence that you should avoid it at all costs,” added Willie.

“I never told Willie about the birds and the bees because I was afraid he’d correct me,” Bill explained. “And I never understood why it’s the birds and the bees. Why not two dogs in the backyard? Bees do it in midair and then the male dies.”

Another conversation they never got around to having when Willie was a kid was the one about drinking.

“We did have it eventually,” Bill said.

“A couple of weeks ago,” added Willie, who’s 39.

“You can’t tell an 8-year-old about the dangers of vodka,” said Bill, who’s 69. “They don’t understand.”

Still, Bud Light gave a teenage Willie the courage to share a rooftop kiss with a girl in his high school class. That girl, Christina, is now his wife.

After Willie turned 30, he went on a road trip to Atlantic City to see a Rolling Stones concert with his Uncle Herb, aptly named because he has worked in the herbal supplement business for years. Uncle Herb has a shrine to the Stones in the basement of his house in my hometown of Stamford, Conn. It would not be giving too much away to say that the trip was memorable because some of it can’t be remembered.

“I couldn’t keep up with Herb anymore,” Bill said, “so Willie had to take up the slack.”

Not all the stories in “Good Talk, Dad” are about fun and games. A couple of years ago, Bill finally opened up to his family about his service in Vietnam, where he was a combat photographer. “Until then, I didn’t even open up to myself,” Bill said. “Denial has always worked for me.”

A few years ago, Bill finally discussed with Willie and daughter Libby what his wife, Jody, had long known: Bill has Parkinson’s disease. “I didn’t want the kids to worry about me,” he explained.

That didn’t stop Bill from getting a laugh out of his condition. Speaking at a gala for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, he began by saying, “I thought at times about ending it all.” The audience at New York’s Waldorf Astoria sat in stunned silence. “But,” Bill continued, “I was afraid that if I tried to shoot myself, I’d miss.”

The program at the 92nd Street Y was sensational, not surprising considering that the book and its authors are, too.

Afterward, I confessed to Bill that I never had a father-son talk with my kids about the birds and the bees, either.

“It was easy to get out of,” I said. “I have daughters.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Miles to Go Before It Sleeps"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Any motorist knows that the best way to ensure longevity is to regularly check your parts, monitor your fluids and make sure your undercarriage is clean.

You should do the same for your car.

That’s why I am happy but not surprised that my sport utility vehicle recently hit 200,000 miles. Full credit for the fact that it is still running smoothly, which is more than I can say for myself most days, goes to Mary Husson, service manager at Hyundai 112 in Medford, N.Y.

“Oil is the lifeblood of the car,” Mary said when I brought mine in for an oil change.

“You mean extra virgin olive oil?” I wondered.

“That could be the lifeblood of you,” said Mary, who has been my car’s primary care physician since I bought it in 2004. “It’s also important to rotate your tires,” she added.

“Don’t I do that every time I drive?” I asked.

“Now I know why you don’t work here,” said Mary, who has three cars: a 2013 Hyundai Sonata, a 2011 Hyundai Elantra and, her pride and joy, a 1999 Ford Mustang convertible that has only 63,000 miles on it.

“I keep the Mustang in the garage for six months,” Mary said. “When the weather gets nice, I drive it with the top down.”

“Can’t you get arrested for doing that?” I inquired.

“Yes,” Mary replied. “But at least I don’t waste gas by using the air-conditioning.”

Then Mary showed me cellphone photos of her adorable little granddaughter, Sophia, who’s 1. Not to be outdone, I showed Mary cellphone photos of my adorable little granddaughter, Chloe, who’s the same age.

“Chloe has her own little car at home,” I said. “She loves when I push her around the house in it. Now that the weather’s nice, we go outside.”

“Does the car have 200,000 miles on it?” Mary asked.

“No,” I said. “But sometimes it feels like my feet do.”

“Going over 200,000 miles is not really a big deal,” said Mary. “If you take good care of your vehicle, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t last longer. I knew a guy whose car had 275,000 miles on it. You could even hit 300,000.”

Technician Anthony Busone agreed.

“It looks like you take pretty good care of it,” he said as we stood under the vehicle, which was on a lift in the garage. “Some people don’t.”

Like the guy who never changed the brakes on his car.

“He got all the way down to the metal backings,” Anthony recalled. “The rotors were worn away. He heard this thumping noise but didn’t do anything about it. Miraculously, the car still stopped. I don’t know what he would have said if it didn’t.”

“Those are the brakes,” I offered.

Anthony, 22, who has been a technician for three years, has a 1992 Honda Civic with 243,000 miles on it.

“You must change the oil regularly,” I said.

“Yes,” Anthony replied. “I’ve also changed the motor. Most people can’t do that.”

“I’d have an easier time transcribing the Dead Sea Scrolls than telling you what’s under the hood of my car,” I noted.

“You don’t have to,” said Anthony. “That’s my job.”

And he does it well. Fortunately, my car, a Hyundai Santa Fe, didn’t need open-hood surgery.

“You do need a new air filter,” Anthony said. “And your rear brakes are getting low. Don’t be like that guy. We’ll change them next time you’re in. Other than that, it looks pretty good.”

On the way out, I thanked Mary and said I’d see her in 3,000 miles for another oil change.

“Fluids are important,” she emphasized.

“I know,” I said. “Especially when you have the kind of mileage I do.”

“If you want to keep going,” Mary said, “drink a lot of Gatorade.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima