Shopping Mall food courts are not my idea of heaven, but I’ve been spending my morning here, downing coffee, noodling on the net, and waiting for the phone to ring wit a call from Sears Auto Center. Long story. King of Prussia Mall. King of Prussia, PA. An hour or so ago. Saturday. June 23, 2012.
The broken barista’s replacement has shown up and her mother has taken her away, but before leaving she and the manager got into a little discussion with a customer about why they work here at Famous Overpriced Coffee, the customer having assumed that they were there for the famous overpriced coffee and candy drinks and pastries.
It turns out that the broken barista doesn’t like coffee. She doesn’t like tea either. She doesn’t like hot chocolate even. And the pastries are the devil’s work and she resists temptation as staunchly as she can.
She works here because Famous Overpriced Coffee offers health insurance.
The manager is here because she was between jobs, as they say when they are in no mood to talk about how they lost their last job. Friday’s her last day here though. She has a new job, which she took just because the company offers halfway decent health care.
She tells the inquisitive customer, “I don’t care what they have me doing. They can ask me to don anything and I’ll do it, for that.”
In case you were wondering why Republicans hate the idea of public health care even though the system we have costs businesses pots and pots of money they’d rather spend on other things---desperate, frightened, and therefore obedient and compliant employees.
Good morning and Happy New Year from Famous Overpriced Coffee Shop, where at the moment the only other non-apron wearing occupant besides me is the mother of one of the baristas, come to take her to urgent care to have her ankle x-rayed as soon as a replacement shows up. Yep. My coffee was served by a barista on crutches. She twisted her ankle on the dance floor last night, an hour before midnight. She hadn’t even had anything to drink yet. Well, half a cocktail. But she wishes she had been under the influence. Maybe she’d have been more relaxed and her ankle more flexible. Oh well, she says, at least in the half hour before she got hurt she had the most fun she’d had in a long time.
Here’s wishing you all a year full of half hours like that, minus, of course, the morning after trip to urgent care.
On the way to the grocery store, there are two houses, side by side, identical, modest salt-boxes with real front porches and shuttered windows and steeply pitched roofs, built circa 1920, close together on small lots, with barely more than a driveway’s width between them. If the two families sit on on their porches at night in the summers, they could practically pass glasses of lemonade back and forth without anyone having to stretch to reach. I wonder, though, if that ever happens, because there’s this:
The house on the right, as you face in from the street, flies an Obama “HOPE” flag most of the year. The owners of the house on the left---and the mixed up left/right arrangement mildly amuses me---are, judging by the bumper stickers on their cars, almost certainly Right Wingers of the Tea Party persuasion, Fox News viewers, and 9/11 fetishists of the kind you can pretty safely bet knew nobody in the towers or on any of the planes. Recently, they started flying their own flag, a yellow Don’t Tread On Me one.
Today, however, when I drove by I noticed that if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which at first glance. Both houses are decorated from porch rail to attic gable with lights, wreaths, garlands, and candles in the windows.
It’s possible that the neighbors get along, that they’re even friends, that they regard their dueling political symbols as a sort of joke between them. But I can’t help feeling that the people in the house on the left have been nodding along knowingly with O’Reilly when he rants about the Left’s War on Christmas and in conversations with like-minded friends and relations work themselves up into a rage over liberals out to do away with religion. If they remember their neighbors, they’ve probably convinced themselves that the folks next door are the exceptions who prove the rule.
There is of course no left wing war on Christmas. There is, however, a Right Wing war on neighborliness and fellow-feeling, which, if you look at it from the proper point of view, which is from inside the stable, amounts to a war on Christmas all year round.
Last couple of years at this time, the blonde and I have sent our mothers the same little gift to start the holiday season. We order it from a catalog company that specializes in dressing all Americans like prosperous New England farmers. Yesterday I called in to place the order.
“Hi! Am I speaking to Lance Mannion?” the customer service rep said immediately upon picking up.
“Um…yes.” I almost asked her how she knew it was me but I figured the company has our phone number on file.
“How can I help you today, Mr Mannion?”
Yep. She “Mistered” me. How often does that happen anymore? I like being “Mistered” if I’m “Mistered” correctly. Better than getting “Lanced” in a chummy way. She did the “Mistering” just right, cheerful, friendly, but still businesslike and without any pretending that we’re pals.
“I’d like to place an order.”
“Ok. Will we be sending it to PO Box 263, New Paltz, New York?”
“Well, um, no, these are gifts.”
“That’s fine. So we’ll be using different addresses then. What would you like to order?”
“We have that in stock,” she said, “And it will go out within one to two business days. How many would you like?”
“And who are we sending the first one to?”
“Old---" I began.
“Old Mother Blonde?” she said.
“Three Numerals First Name of an Early President Street?”
“Yes.” I held the phone away from my ear and stared at it. Who was this mind reader?
“Most Strangely Named Town in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania?”
“We’re all set. The next one’s going to?”
“Also Three Numerals Last Name of a Character on a 1970s Sitcom Road?”
“Usually Unpronounceable and Unspellable Indian Name but Amazingly I’m Saying It Exactly As if I Grew Up There Myself, New York?”
“Your order’s placed. And how would you like to pay for it today?”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course I know, Mister Mannion, but I also know because I can tell from the trepidation in your voice that you’re bothered by the fact that I seem to know everything relevant about you without your having to tell me, so from here on out I will pretend that I don’t in order to lull you into a false sense of security.”
“I appreciate that.”
“My pleasure. As I said, your items will ship within one to two business days. Will there be anything else? Again, I know there won’t be until your wife calls us in a couple of days to order the barn coat she’s getting you for Christmas even though you insist you don’t want anything this year, but like I said I know this call is upsetting you and I’m doing my best to keep you calm.”
“You’re doing a good job.”
“Thank you. Have a good day, Mister Mannion, and thank you for shopping with us.”
“You can hang up the phone now, Mister Mannion. We’ll call you if we think of anything you’ve forgotten. Goodbye!”
Ok, I made some of that up.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that they had all that information on file from last year and I’m not comfortable that they do, but as long as they do, I think things should be even easier next year. I’ll call up and the rep will say, “Mister Mannion?”
And I’ll say, “Yep.”
And she’ll say, “Same thing?”
And I’ll say, “You bet.”
And that’ll be that.
The next year she’ll call and say, “The centerpieces have been delivered and your mothers love them, but both of them want to know why you haven’t called them yourselves."
Went to the doctor’s the other night and after failing to convince him I wasn’t long for this world, I hove up to the receptionists’ window to pay my co-pay. The receptionist was a bright young thing named Shannon which doesn’t signify except that she was clearly and beautifully Hispanic and it made me think how I like living in America in the 21st Century and that there are McNallys and O’Rourkes somewhere who’ve just christened their newborn daughters Juanita and Lupe, I hope in Arizona and Alabama.
At any rate, Shannon was brisk and cheerful and sincerely professionally friendly---that is she was able to convey that she was glad to deal with me because I was a patient and her job is to help patients and she likes that part of her job.
At home, after pulling into the driveway, I checked my cell and saw that I’d missed a call on the drive home. It was the doctor’s office. I called back. Shannon picked up.
“Oh, Mr Mannion, I’m very sorry, but I forgot to give you back your credit card.”
I didn’t correct her, even though she was wrong on two counts. First, it was my debit card, and second, I was sure she didn’t forget to give it back, I forgot to pick it up off the counter. I assured her it was no big deal. One of those things. Could’ve happened to anyone. The office was about to close for the night but Shannon promised to put the card in an envelope with my name on it which she would leave up front for me to collect in the morning. I thanked her and she thanked me, as if I was doing her a favor by letting her do me a favor.
Next morning I went back.
No Shannon. I was greeted by middle-aged blonde of no obvious ethnicity, whose name I don’t know and whose name tag I couldn’t read because she wasn’t wearing it, but let’s call her Doris.
Did I say I was greeted?
I was glared at.
Doris glared. She had an expressive glare. It said, What are you doing blocking the view of nothing I prefer to see when I look up from my computer?
I explained myself. “Shannon said she’d leave it in an envelope right up front,” I finished up.
Doris glared a different glare. This one said, You mean you’re not even a patient here to see a doctor and you’re bothering me this early in the day? But she looked for the envelope.
She looked by turning her head a few degrees to the right. Then she turned it a few degrees to the left.
“I don’t see it,” she said.
It was my turn to glare. My glare came with the semblance of a smile, but it still said, Would you mind taking another look or would that kill you?
Doris glared back, this glare full of a suppressed sigh, then stood up and walked a few feet towards the back of the receptionists workspace to a desk where she asked two women if they knew anything about a bank card Shannon might have left for someone.
The women shook their heads. Doris returned to the window and glared.
“I don’t know where it is. I just checked with our lost and found. They don’t know where it is either.”
I didn’t glare back. I goggled. That’s it? You’re done? my goggle said.
Doris said, “Shannon will be in this evening, if you want to stop back.”
“Um…I sort of need the card now.”
“Well, she’s in school all day, I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with her. You’d better come back or call.”
I got patient. Very patient. Extremely patient. Patient in a way that’s ruder than screaming, which is what I wanted to do.
“I’m not coming back later. Shannon said she’d leave it in an envelope right up front.”
Doris glared, but this glare didn’t say anything except that she hated my guts and probably Shannon’s too. She looked around her work station again, this time actually moving a few feet to her right and guess what she found tucked behind the credit card machine where it was held up in a way that made it a big white frame around the machine.
“Are you Lance Mannion?” Doris asked, reading off the envelope.
Happy ending. But now I’m wondering. Do you think Doris was ever a Shannon? How often does life turn a Shannon into a Doris? Life is full of twenty year old Dorises. You can still encounter a fifty year old Shannon. The world would be a better place if it was run entirely by Shannons. Trouble is when a Shannon is running things she inevitably has to run them with at least one Doris on hand.
As I left the window I looked at the envelope.
Shannon had beautiful handwriting, of course.
She’d also written my birthday under my name, her insurance that only the real Lance Mannion would be given the card.
Gorgeous morning here on the old front porch, if you don’t mind a bit of a chill in the air. Geese honking down by the river, breeze-driven brown leaves skittering on the sidewalk, mug of coffee steaming up on the rail, and pumpkin muffins baking inside. How’s it by you?
Chicago? You’re traveling again. For a guy so down to earth you spend a lot of time up in the air. This is a side of your life I can’t picture. I don’t travel much myself. I try to see you in airports but the architecture of the terminals of my imagination was designed by the movies. I see Leo DiCaprio in a snappy pilot’s uniform striding along, trailed by giddy stewardesses. I see George Clooney, unshaven, weary, but still charming a woman in blue-lit bar. But I can’t pick you out of the crowd until I see Tom Hanks turning a corner of a deserted waiting area into a makeshift hotel room. You’re telling him a joke in the made-up Eastern European language of his character. It’s not a very funny joke but you tell it well and it reminds Tom of home and he loves you for it.
There are no dogs in this house. There have been the suggestions of dogs. Somehow never acted upon. There are the ghosts of dogs. We don’t feel haunted. There are dogs who are welcome to visit. They can bring their humans as long as they promise to clean up after them. I would like a dog but I’d feel sorry for any dogs that had me as their human. They’d have to listen to the same joke over and over. We’d be out for a walk late at night and I would stop us at some point where there was nothing interesting to sniff and say, “What’s the worst thing about being an agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac?”
Dogs are patient. They would wait every time for me to deliver the punchline.
“You stay up all night wondering if there really is a dog.”
Wintery morning. Cold, clear, dark. More light shining upwards from the frost crystals on the ground and the car windshield reflecting the streetlamps and porch lights than I can yet find in the lower eastern corners of the sky.
Forty or so minutes north of here there’s a village called High Falls that is growing into a footnote in the history of 20th Century Art. From 1946 through 1948, Marc Chagall lived and painted here.
The reason it’s only achieving its footnote status now is that for years few people were aware he’d ever been there. His neighbors didn’t know him or know who he was. He had been living in the United States since 1941 but he hadn’t learned to speak English well. He just couldn’t get his tongue around it. He lived quietly, without obvious eccentricity. Whenever he needed to go act the part of artistic genius he would go down to the city. More often, though, the representatives of the genius would slip up from from the city and take back with them his most recent finished work to display and sell. If you were in the art world but weren’t paying close attention, you might think he was living and work in New York. Chagall himself preferred to stay put and work at being a genius. In his short time in High Falls he worked his genius into 90 or so paintings, drawings, and prints. Meanwhile, he kept mostly to himself. No local legends developed about him. No anecdotes or stories of encounters with the great artist were collected and handed down. When he finally left, he left little behind in the way of memories or, apparently, of his work. There’s just a rumor.
Somebody supposedly once heard somebody say that a neighbor of hers who’d been a neighbor of his said that he’d paid her for something with a painting or maybe given it to her as gift. Chagall’s neighbor apparently appreciated the gesture but not the painting.
“Where do you put a painting like that?” she said in explanation for why she put it…away.
No one knows what happened to it. Maybe it’s an attic or a garage or a basement or a shed somewhere in town, waiting.
The D & H Canal Museum in High Falls has put together an exhibit devoted to Chagall’s time in town. Young Ken and I went up there last week to take a look. There isn’t much to see, if you’re greedy to see original Chagalls. A few drawings and small prints, studies from his Four Tales From the Arabian Nights, reproductions of several of the masterworks he painted or completed while he was in High Falls---The Blue Violinist; Winter Night in Vitebsk, one of my favorites; The Falling Angel;Liberation; a few others. It’s a little museum and I suspect they couldn’t afford the insurance on any original paintings that might have been loaned to them. What we found, then, was a story.
In 1941, with the help of journalist Varian Fry, Chagall and some other Jewish artists were able to leave France just ahead of the Nazis’ occupation of Paris. In New York, gallery owner Pierre Matisse, son of Henri, took charge of him. Chagall and his wife Bella moved into their daughter Ida’s apartment on Riverside Drive.
Chagall and Bella were devoted to each other.
In 1944, Bella died.
They were on vacation in the Adirondacks. An infection took her. Chagall’s heart broke. Back in New York, he turned all his paintings hanging in Ida’s apartment to the wall.
He did not paint for almost a year.
In 1945 his daughter hired Virginia Haggard as a combination secretary and housekeeper. Virginia had just freed herself from a “sex-starved” marriage to a “depressed and destitute artist.”
One thing led to another.
Chagall was 57. Virginia was 30. They stayed together for seven years and had a son, David.
After two years of living together in High Falls, and with the war over and Chagall missing Paris, they left the United States.
Virginia left him for a photographer in April of 1952. The young docent at the D & H museum thinks it was the same photographer who took many of the photographs of Virginia and Chagall together that are featured in the exhibit.
Chagall’s daughter Ida decided it would not be good for her father to be alone. She introduced him to Valentina Brodsky who became his secretary.
Valentina, known as Vava, was twenty-five years younger than Chagall.
One thing led to another again.
Chagall and Vava married in July and were together until he died in 1985.
Here is the odd part of the story.
According to the docent, a young sculptor working on his MFA, Vava was able somehow to “disappear” Virginia from the story of Chagall’s life. He was not sure how, but it seems to be that since she was Chagall’s public representative, she made it clear that she would not help anyone working on exhibitions of her husband’s work, his biographies, or articles about him unless they agreed to pretend that Virginia didn’t exist.
However it was managed, in erasing Virginia from the story, Vava erased High Falls along with her.
“It is a Sullivan County treasure," said LaBuda, an avid hunter.
"I think it was one of the biggest bears shot in Sullivan County by a Sullivan County juror. It doesn't fit in his house. Rather than put it in the garage where no one would see it, he was kind enough to loan it here where people could see it. I received nothing but compliments."
“I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD. That’s one I really would like to own.”
The high school girl ahead of me at the convenience store the other night was still under the spell of the movie she’d just seen with her friends. There was a catch in her voice as she told the clerk all about it and her eyes were shining with tears but she was happy. I couldn’t tell if she was overcome by the movie itself as a movie or if it was the movie’s subject or both, but whatever it was it had filled her with joy.
I was jealous. It’s been a long time since a movie did that for me.
The clerk can’t wait for the DVD either. She’s been looking forward to seeing it too. She doesn’t go to movie theaters anymore though. Something to do with bedbugs.
The high school girl was tall and athletic and beautiful behind big round glasses. Her sun-blonded brown hair was loosely pinned up behind. Her perfect legs were deeply and evenly tanned. She had a band-aid on one of her big toes. The clerk was short and square and in her fifties. She wore a brown and black uniform with matching baseball cap. Her very short hair was dyed orange. At first glance, you wouldn’t suppose they’d have anything in common, but at the moment they were best friends, bound together by their affection for the movie, even if on the clerk’s part the affection was potential. Maybe she’d read the book.
Yes, there’s a book. And at this point I should mention that both women were white, because the movie was The Help.
This is one that went completely off my radar. I didn’t know it was coming. I didn’t know there was a book. This happens when you have a limited number of movies you know you’re going to be able to get to in a year and at least half of them are going to feature superheroes or wizards. I keep an eye out for the type of film I know the blonde and I will definitely be interested in seeing and I can’t help noticing when ads and trailers for something truly awful or that I expect will be awful pokes me in the eye, but everything else, good, bad, or indifferent, fails to register. I only knew that The Help was in the theaters because it was getting some mention on Twitter and mostly those mentions were negative.
But not negative in the sense of people tweeting it was a badly made movie.
Negative in that the movie offended them on principle.
Apparently, liberals have a problem with The Help and it appears to be that the movie presents the Civil Rights movement as being about white women. Is that right?
I could and should investigate this for myself, but, heck, I have this blog with all these smart, savvy, film-going, book-reading readers, why not ask them to do my work for me?
So I’m asking. What’s the problem with The Help?
But also what is it about The Help that that high school girl fell in love with and that the clerk expected to love?
Driving home from running errands this morning I stopped at the intersection by the post office. It’s a 3-way stop and an old guy in a Sentra reached it at the exact same time I did. Technically, since he was to my right, he had the right of way, but he waited to see what I’d do before he made his turn. Wise of him, because you never know what the other guy’s going to, if he even knows the rules of the road, never mind obeys them. When he realized that I wasn’t going to try to go ahead of him, he gave me a big smile and a wave.
I smiled and waved back in a proud to be a good citizen and neighbor way, happy to have the old guy thinking I’m such a nice fellow.
Thing was I wasn’t really letting him go first either out of courtesy or because I was following the rules of the road.
I wasn’t watching out for him.
I was busy watching a pretty woman walking into the post office.
If you're in NYC and you've parked in a garage, and the attendant in the booth has the Yankee game on, and the Yankees are losing, and the attendant is looking glum about it because he's rooting for the Yanks, and you're a Red Sox fan, you don't say to the guy who has the keys to your car, "ALL RIGHT!" and do a fist pump.
The conversation I was eavesdropping on at the coffee shop earlier was actually about theater and playwriting. The man describing how his father and uncle were treated with Haldol was listening to a friend read from a play he’s writing. He told his story to reassure the friend that a detail in his play was true to life. The first man was actually a quite cheerful fellow, somewhere in his late forties or early fifties, with a broad smile and a nose like W.C. Fields minus the redness and the booze-broken capillaries. The second man, the playwright, was in his seventies, thin and wiry, in an olive green work shirt and jeans. He had a lean, square, well-weathered face and a full head of iron gray hair with streaks of white. He read from printed pages, the letters large enough for me to make out as separate objects, from twenty feet across the room. Before he finished, he interrupted himself to start talking about a play he was involved with recently. Apparently he acts in and produces his own plays, but he doesn’t direct them, which is significant because…
“I’m waiting for a wave of adulation to come my way. I’m holding this play together. Everybody says. I held the play together, and the play was well-written so everybody listened.”
The problem, the reason he needed to hold it together by himself, was the leading lady.
“She comes out, fucking soap opera actress delivery. Nineteen years old. No curiosity. No understanding. She’s nineteen and she’s playing a woman of thirty.”
“Why didn’t you fire her?” the first man asks.
“I couldn’t,” the playwright says. In his disgust, he forgets about reading his play. Her folds the pages in half lengthwise and sticks them in the back pocket of his jeans. “I couldn’t. She’s the director’s daughter.”
Overheard in a coffee shop in Woodstock about an hour ago. Man talking to his friend:
“This is what they do. They take the old people and stick them in a corner, and they feed them Haldol. Chemical straight-jackets, my therapist would call it. They did that to my father, they did that to my uncle. I could shut down three hospitals from what I saw, if I had it on video.”