Friday, August 22, 2008

Of sailing ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings

When I started thinking about this post it was going to be about Harold W heartily welcoming me and my dad as new neighbors in 1979 or so. I was going to title it “Guns and Poses” because Harold was carrying a rifle that day even though it wasn’t hunting season. I know it wasn't hunting season because after saying "Hello Neighbors," and shaking hands Harold saw me glance at the rifle and he said he was going down to the woods to see who was shooting down there since it wasn't hunting season. In Norristown and in Trooper where we used to live people didn't carry rifles when they went to talk to people.

Then I got to wondering how Pop could have been with me when I met Mr. W the first time. I remember the meeting taking place up along the swale between Harold’s corn field and our property. But that’s across Doony Brook from Pop’s house, so how could Pop have gotten there?

That got me to thinking about Doony Brook, and the incorrect sign the township politicians put down on Route 29 that labels it "Donny Brook" even though I told them when they were talking about it that it's labelled "Doony Brook on the plat for our property. Years after I first met him Harold said he also told them it was called Doony Brook when I asked him about it. Mr. C, who was old as dirt, also said he told them it was called Dooney Brook but that's no surprise because we bought the property from him so he had seen the plat. For a little while then this post was going to be titled “Doony Brook, Dummies and Donnybrooks,” but then I got to trying to remember how Pop was dressed at that first meeting with Mr. W. My idea was to use my mental image of him as a memory aid to decide whether he was really there. And that got me on the subject of the various images Pop presented in different places at different times.

After thinking about that for a while I decided to title the post “Pop and Hip-Hop,” because it was going to be about the possibility that Pop started an important if regrettable social trend. Pop, you see, was from the hood, and he was always of the hood even after he moved away from it, although you would never guess that if you saw him in a suit at a funeral or a wedding looking more like Johnny Carson than Johnny Carson. But at home in Trooper or Collegeville, or even for a quick trip to the Wawa, when he was in relaxed mode Pop occasionally wore the elastic top of his boxer shorts smartly pulled up way above the waist of his sagging shorts. And he did that long before those rapper gangstas started wearing clothes with that kind of style and flair. Pop was every bit as capable as Mr. W of presenting a memorable image to new neighbors.

Thinking about Pop in his glory got me on a long riff about Pop’s colorful pals. Like Louie Jiggs and Louie Hop. Louie Hop also presented multiple memorable images to different audiences. I remember him as a friendly man in slacks and a loose shirt who would walk us kids down to Babes and buy us an ice cream or a lemonade. And I remember him as a very big and daunting man when he was sitting, scowling, on his stoop in a wifebeater tee shirt while his wife was singing, that’s what Mom told us she was doing, in the house. Sitting on the stoop at such times Louie Hop was a sort of Luca Brasi looking character, scary, with an unfriendly face and a far away look and lots of black hair on his arms and chest - lots of hair.

Uncle Froggy had lots of hair on his back when he had his shirt off at the beach, and he sometimes scowled and acted like he was mean. And he had a gruff and very loud voice, but Uncle Froggy wasn’t scary, at least not to me. He was never gruff and mean acting at the beach. He was just like a big kid playing in the surf with me and Matty and Sonny. I think Sam and Jas were a little scared of him, but they were really little kids then.

When Uncle Froggy was working the counter at Babes and me and Matty went in for lemonade Matty would give him a dollar for two big lemonades and he would give us each two quarters back as change, sometimes even three quarters each. I was pretty good with money even as a little kid and I asked Matty about it one time when we were walking back up to Grandmom L's house on Walnut Street. He told me not to worry about it. And he surely knew about such things because he was older.

Louie Jiggs used to do stuff like that too. Pop would give him a dollar or two for giving me, Sam and Jas haircuts, and he would give each of us a quarter or two quarters. Pop almost never asked us to give him those quarters, so we would go to Babes for lemonade, and if Uncle Froggy was there you would give him a quarter for a lemonade and get three dimes or six nickels back as change, sometimes even some extra pennies as well. Pennies were important in those days. You could buy a little pack of red hots for a penny, or was it two pennies? Sometimes Pop would borrow our quarters if he and Mom had been quietly talking at the kitchen table about money being really tight, but money wasn't often that tight. And even if Pop borrowed our quarters we would still get the lemonade if Uncle Froggy was at the counter at Babes, or we would get a soda if Lou was at the counter at Lou's.

I saw Pop maybe save Louie Hop’s life one day. Mrs. Hop, you see, was chasing Louie around his car in front of their house, two doors down from our house, and she had a little gun in her hand and it was going bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Or was it bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang? At any rate Pop went out after Mom sort of peeled me away from the screen door, and he took the gun off of Mrs. Hop after saying something like, “Come on Florence, you don’t really want to shoot him.” I think I remember him saying that, but Mom or Pop might have told me what he said to Mrs. Hop. Mom always said to us that "I grabbed you kids" to pull us away from the screen door, so that would mean that Sam must have been there with me. Jas was much too small then to be standing at the screen door. I don't remember Sam being there. But I remember that little gun.

I also remember how funny Louie Hop looked running around that car. But I can't remember what kind of car it was. There's a funny thing about the Hops. I can't remember their real last name. I remember that Florence was Mrs. Hop's real first name but I don't remember her last name because I never knew Louie Hop as anything but Louie. The "Hop" was to distinguish him from Louie Jiggs if Pop and Barber and The Count and Lardy and Cappy and Worm and Doc and Chink were talking about him at the corner.

I seem to remember that I called Mrs. Hop "Mrs" and not Florence. That was odd because I only called a few people "Mr." or "Mrs." back then. Mrs. G was definitely Mrs. G for instance. None of us kids would have dared to call her Florence. But I called Betty P "Betty" even though she was Frankie Jiggs wife, for example. And there is another oddity, because sometimes Pop and the boys called Frankie Jiggs "Barber", but he wasn't a barber, he was a politician, which I know because of the way Pop used to kid him about it. His brothers Louie and Charlie were both barbers, but Frankie wasn't. Come to think of it Frankie and Louie and Chollie had another brother, or did they?

I say Pop may have saved Louie Hop’s life because to this day I don’t rightly know if Mrs. Hop shot five or she shot six before she handed Pop the little gun. I also don't know whether she was really trying to hit Louie. Roy Rogers always hit whoever he was shooting at, and from a lot farther away than Mrs. Hop was from Louie. Another thing I don't know is whether she would actually have killed him if she had hit him. Roy Rogers never killed the people he shot, he just wounded them. Another thing, Louie Hop was a very big man and the gun was very little. It was a revolver that looked smaller than my cap gun, but it wasn't shiny like my cap gun. That I definitely remember, I think. It was probably a twenty-two caliber, but it might have been a thirty-eight. I was only four or five or six years old at the time.

I can’t remember whether I ever heard Mrs. Hop singing after that day. I don’t think I ever did. Much, much later Mom told me that she didn't think Louie ever hit Mrs. Hop after that day. Mom liked that story a lot. She thought Mrs. Hop was trying to hit Louie that day when she shot at him, but Pop always said he didn't think so. She was pretty close to him when she was chasing him around that car, but he was moving pretty quick. She was screaming something at him also, like she was mad or something, now that I think about it, but I can't remember what she was screaming and Mom and Pop never told me. There was lots of stuff I wanted to know that they never told me. I really wanted to know what Grandpop L sort of whispered in Italian that time everybody laughed so loud, but they wouldn't tell me. Pop always told me he would explain it when I was older. And then I forgot to ask him about it when I was older.

Pop also wouldn't tell me what it meant when Harry M yelled that sentence and waggled one finger at that woman when he was really mad. That sentence contained something like "Puttano" and "Du Leeowlo" and some other other Italian that I can't remember anymore. Pop smiled real broad when I repeated that sentence to him, but he never told me what it meant. Pat M also wouldn't tell me what that sentence meant even though for years after that he would waggle his finger and say "Pu. . . Pu" to his dad when Harry was acting cranky. And Harry would say, "Go ahead Patty, just go ahead."

Well, anyway, by this time I was well on the way to the barbershop, excuse me, salon, for my monthly clip. And I had to turn off the Donald Westlake audio book in the CD player because with all of the above rolling around in my head it was impossible to pay proper attention to Westlake’s silly tale about two groups of small time hoods that are both preparing to rob the same corporate malefactor of great wealth. That crime is going to go way wrong, like Westlake’s crimes always do.

I had to turn off the booktape because the thoughts in my head were swimming faster than Michael Phelps as I drove to the salon, but not as straight. They were swimming around as fast as they used to back when I would have occasion to be talked to by Mrs. M, not Harry's Mrs M, John's Mrs. M who owned the luncheonette. Mrs. M was one of the world’s great talkers but her plot lines and time lines interweaved as capriciously as those of V.S. Naipaul, whose autobiographical pastiche I am again trying to read.

Anyway, I got thinking about the time Mom did Mrs. M's laundry when Mrs. M's washer broke down. Mrs. M was so pleased that she talked her way around to believing that she had hired Mom to do her laundry every week, and Mom didn’t realize she had maybe agreed to do Mrs. M’s laundry every week until a little later when her thoughts slowed down and straightened out. And Mom went over and apologized to Mrs. M for a long time because she didn’t have time to do her laundry. Mom was working then at Farm Credit for Mr. K, who limped even though he had that one special shoe with the big thick sole and heel. That was before Mr. K retired and the Egyptian became the boss at Farm Credit. I never saw him. I wonder if he really was an Egyptian. An Egyptian would have been pretty exotic in Trooper in those days although I guess that was in the 1980's so maybe he really was an Egyptian.

Mom was very precise sometimes and not so precise at other times. Some of her stories changed over time and then changed back, and some of her stories contradicted other stories. Mom liked the story about Mrs. M and the laundry a lot because she could never figure out just how she came to agree to do that laundry. When she told the story about the laundry she would always tell about the time that Sam took a big swig from the sweety bottle that was filled with used cooking oil. Sam thought it was soda. The sweety bottle story connected to the laundry because Mom used a sweety bottle to sprinkle her clothes with when she ironed. The sweety bottle also connected to Sam because he was late off the bottle when he was a toddler and mom used to say she ended up giving him his milk in a sweety bottle with a nipple. But that never made sense because the laundry sweety bottle and the used oil sweety bottle were no bigger than the baby bottle that Marianne was sucking from by about that time. Or was that later? Sam is much better than me with ages and years things happened.

Well, anyway, after a while I reached the Great Clips Salon by courtesy of the mysterious autopilot that handles things for me when I'm paying no attention to the road and yet still manage to get somewhere without getting things like bicycles and highway cones and pedestrians stuck onto the front of the car. But the autopilot wasn't working perfectly today because first it took me past the CVS instead of stopping to pick up my prescription and then it took me past the Redners shopping center where the Great Clips is even though the purpose of the whole trip was to get a haircut. So I had to turn around at the Acme and go back. All in all the autopilot was working like crap, but not as badly as the time it took me down to Bala Cynwyd to the empty building where I had my old job when it knew that I had been working in Fort Washington for almost two years. I wasn't too irritated that time it took me down to Bala Cynwyd because I was listening to a really good book tape that day.

Anyway, it was lucky the autopilot got a little turned around because then my whole plan for this post was turned around. I arrived at Great Clips just as one of the stylists was going home and a new stylist was coming back from her break. So I drew the new stylist, who was shaped like Louie Jiggs, but who talked like Mrs. M. Not that I need a stylist. I’m a number three clipper for the sides and a number four clipper for the few stray hairs on top. Anyway this new stylist wasn't a walrus, and she didn't talk about sailing ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings; but she did talk and talk and talk about wonderful things that took me right back to the old days.

She talked about going to Jersey with her father and brothers to buy pick your own tomatoes by the bushel. At first I thought she was talking about long ago but I later realized she meant now. She talked about hair dressing in Naples and in a couple of other cities in Italy. And she talked about her relatives in Rome and in Naples. And she talked about her brothers and her father and her making sauce, she called it sauce, she's from South Philly. She talked about them making enough sauce to put up a full year’s supply for several families. Great big vats of sauce put up in hundreds of jars. And this is now, not way back then. She threw in the names of people in Rome and in Naples and in Philly and how they are related and she even threw in some of that old who did what to whom and when. Just like Mom and Aunt Mary or Aunt Carmella used to when they really got cranked up. She talked about living in Lafayette Hill with her dad, and how he still makes wine and she cranks the grinder that pulps the grapes. Thirty boxes of grapes last year.

Grandpop L used to get a lot of boxes of grapes to pass down through the little window into the cellar. I cranked the grinder for him one time. But I didn’t crank it long. Matty did most of the cranking. Or was it Sonny? Matty and Medio used to go down and drink the wine sometimes because Matty knew where Grandpop hid the key. But they couldn't have drunk much of that wine. Nobody but Grandpop drank much of that wine.

I drank it a couple of times when I went down to the cellar with Grandpop to help him fill up one or two of the bottles with no labels that he had. We filled the bottles from the little brass spigot on the barrel after he unlocked the padlock. I never saw where he got the key because I was always looking at the press with its big gear and those slats on the sides and the heavy iron bottom with the little lip. I helped him one time when he squeezed the grapes with that press and I remember the wine running over that little lip. It tasted really sour to me when he gave me some in a glass he filled right from the little lip of the press. It tasted a little better when it came from the barrel but I still didn't like it.

Anyway I couldn’t think about that very well because the stylist was still talking about wonderful things. She makes sausage at home with the intestine for the skin. She uses a hand grinder. Her wrist hurts after she grinds the sausage. Her brother has a motor on his sausage grinder. He makes a lot of sausage. He likes hot sausage. She likes the sweet. She told me his name, but I can’t remember it. She has been a stylist for thirty years but she just started at this Great Clips. She used to work at another Great Clips a couple of years ago. Her and Dawn, I think it was Dawn. Or was it Cheryl? Her and Dawn or Cheryl started three weeks ago at Great Clips in Collegeville. She doesn’t mind the long commute from Lafayette Hill because it gives her time to think. And sometimes she listens to booktapes! So she must have an autopilot too. But I don't think she told me the names of any books.

And now I can’t remember her name so I’m not sure I will be able to get her to cut my hair and talk at me when I go again to Great Clips in a month or a couple of months.

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