Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Chloe and Poppie's Excellent Adventure"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
When it comes to writers who are famous for turning real-life adventures into literary gold, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway had nothing on me. That’s because their idea of adventure was to go rafting down the Mississippi, prospecting for gold, deep-sea fishing or big-game hunting.

These pitiful excursions are walks in the park compared to spending two full days with a toddler.

That’s what I did recently when I was in charge of watching my 3-year-old granddaughter, Chloe, with whom I actually did go for a walk in the park and who has turned my life into one giddy adventure after another.

The latest one began at 8:15 on a sunny morning, when my wife, Sue, and I arrived at Chloe’s house, which later that day would become her old house because she and her mommy and daddy were moving into a new house. Sue’s job was to help coordinate a mission that turned out to be more complicated than the invasion of Normandy.

My job, for however long it took, was to watch Chloe. It took 11 hours. And the whole next day. Needless to say, but I will say it anyway, I got off easy.

The first thing I did was to take Chloe to one of her favorite places: Dunkin’ Donuts.

“D!” Chloe exclaimed as she reached for the letter-shaped door handle. “For Dunkin’ Donuts!”

I stepped up to the counter and ordered a bag of Munchkins, which I shared with Chloe, and a cup of coffee, which I didn’t. Contrary to what the surgeon general might say, sugar and caffeine are absolutely essential for any geezer who is about to spend an entire day trying to keep up with an active child.

Next we went to Safari Adventure, which sounds like something Hemingway would go on but actually is a children’s recreation center that would have knocked even him for a loop. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations, although the new owners, Lindsey and Daniel, kindly gave Chloe a cup of ice cream with sprinkles on top.

It was 9:30 a.m. and already she had enough energy to power Manhattan. I figured she could burn it off at the playground. Instead, it almost burned me out.

For two hours, we ran around, going from slide to swing and back again. On the biggest slide, I took her up the stairs and hurried back down to catch her at the bottom. En route, I cracked my skull on a low-hanging bar that blessedly was made of plastic. If it had been steel, I would have bent it. If it was wood, I would have splintered it. Either way, I’d owe the playground a new slide.

Next we went to my house, where I made Chloe her favorite lunch, chicken nuggets, which I cooked in the oven without, somehow, burning the place down. Afterward, we went outside and spent the afternoon running around the yard. Then we came back in, where we ran around some more. I turned on Chloe’s favorite TV show, “Peppa Pig,” and caught my breath before making dinner (you guessed it: chicken nuggets) and playing with her until Sue came home.

That night, Chloe and I slept like babies.

The adventure continued the next day, when I set up her plastic pool outside and frolicked with her in the 6-inch-deep water. Then we ran under the sprinkler and, like Peppa Pig, jumped in muddy puddles. We also swung in my hammock, where I usually have a beer but refrained this time, even though I needed one because soon we were blowing bubbles and running around the yard again.

Around dinnertime, Chloe’s mommy and daddy came over to pick her up.

“Did you have fun with Poppie?” her mommy asked her.

“Yes!” Chloe chirped. “I had fun with Poppie!”

“Did you have fun, Poppie?” I was asked.

“Yes!” I chirped. “I had fun with Chloe!”

That night I slept like a baby again, outdoing Twain and Hemingway and dreaming of our next adventure.

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"You Have to Hand It to Him"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Whenever my wife asks me to tidy up the bathroom, I feel like throwing in the towel because I could never get it to look as nice as the porcelain convenience at a place like the Waldorf Astoria.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I met a guy whose job is to throw in the towel in the porcelain convenience at you guessed it the Waldorf Astoria.

I recently attended a dinner at the famed New York City hotel, which is ritzy enough to rival the Ritz but does not, to my knowledge, serve Ritz crackers, at least not in the bathroom, where I went to answer the call of nature, which called collect.

As I was washing up (according to some people, I have been washed up for years), I was handed a towel by a gentleman dressed to the tens, which is even better than the nines. He was nattily attired (if we were in the ladies’ room, he would have been Natalie Attired) in a white, pleated, wing-collar shirt; a black, crisply tied bow tie; a neat black vest; sharply creased black pants, and shiny black shoes.

I, dressed to the sevens in a wrinkled gray suit, took the perfectly folded paper towel, which was embossed with the Waldorf logo, and dried my hands, though not before dripping water all over my dull black shoes.

“Would you like another towel, sir?” washroom attendant Alex Giannikouris asked politely.

“Thank you,” I replied as he handed me one. “Now I can shine my shoes.”

I also took a shine to Alex, who has worked at the Waldorf for 32 years and, judging from the many visitors who stopped in to get tidied up themselves, is even more popular than the celebrities who frequent the premises.

“Alex!” exclaimed one gentleman (we were, after all, in a room marked “Gentlemen,” which made me wonder what I was doing there). “Como esta?”

“Muy bien,” responded Alex, a native of Greece who speaks about half a dozen languages.

The two men carried on a brief conversation in Spanish, at the end of which Alex said, “Adios!”

Another man, tall, handsome and bedecked in a tuxedo, greeted Alex with a handshake after, of course, drying his hands on the towel Alex gave to him.

“Are you a regular?” I asked the visitor.

“What?” he replied indignantly.

“A regular,” I explained. “Not irregular.”

“Yes,” said the man, who seemed relieved. “I’ve known Alex for years. He’s a great guy.”

That was the consensus among the other visitors, one of whom spoke with Alex in French and another in Greek.

“I even know a little Korean,” Alex said, in perfect English.

Then he regaled me with stories of the celebrities who have stopped in to admire themselves in the mirror.

“The best,” Alex said, “was Frank Sinatra.”

“Did he do it his way?” I asked.

Alex smiled and said, “Yes. He was very nice and very generous. A big tipper.”

“How much money did he give you?” I wondered.

“I can’t say,” Alex replied. “The IRS might find out.”

At least Alex won’t get in trouble with the Social Security Administration. That’s because Bill Clinton, when he was president, signed Alex’s Social Security card. Alex pulled it out of his wallet and showed me the inscription: “To Alex: Thanks, Bill Clinton.”

“Are you going to vote for his wife?” I asked.

“I don’t talk politics in here,” said Alex, who was happy to talk about George Burns (“a funny guy”), Al Pacino (“he washed his face in the sink”) and Ingrid Bergman.

“Ingrid Bergman was in the men’s room?” I spluttered.

“No,” said Alex. “I saw her upstairs. She was very beautiful. One other time, I saw Pope John Paul II upstairs. As he walked past, he gave me a blessing.”

But Alex said he feels especially blessed to be married to Maria, his wife of 39 years.

“One woman for all that time? Why not?” Alex said with a broad smile.

“Do you show your appreciation by tidying up the bathroom at home?” I wondered.

“No, she does it,” admitted Alex, who leaves the tidying up at the Waldorf to a cleaning crew.

He and Maria have three grown children and two young grandchildren.

“I’m a grandpa, too,” I said. “My granddaughter calls me Poppie.”

“I’m called Papou, which is Greek for grandfather,” said Alex, who is 63 and plans to retire soon.

“I’ve had a good career at the Waldorf,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of nice people. But one of these days it will be time to go. And then,” he added, “I’ll really throw in the towel.”

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, June 3, 2016

"A Traffic Ticket Hits Home"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Today’s Ridiculous Banking Question is: What’s the faster way to lose your house: don’t pay the mortgage or don’t pay a traffic ticket?

If you don’t know the answer, you are probably living in your car.

That’s the lesson my wife, Sue, and I learned during a home refinancing odyssey that took three attempts in as many years and was almost ruined by, of all things, a red-light camera.

The first attempt failed because my credit score was considered more important than my pulse, which before the housing bubble burst was pretty much all you needed to qualify for a loan.

The second attempt failed because Sue and I committed the unpardonable sin of actually paying both our mortgage and our line of credit on time each month. We would have been better off if we had fallen hopelessly behind and blown the money in Atlantic City.

Praying the third time would be the charm, I went back to the bank and spoke with Kim Delman, a senior mortgage loan officer who is so nice, so smart and so good that she ought to run the Federal Reserve System.

Kim, who worked diligently with us in our first two attempts, was determined to see us succeed this time.

In trying to combine our mortgage, which was at another bank, and our line of credit, which was at Kim’s bank, I went through the Process From Hell: countless phone calls in which I had to listen carefully because the menu options had changed (restaurants change their menu options less often than the average company); give the last four digits of my Social Security number and my date of birth, just to prove I’m a geezer; and come up with yet another seemingly irrelevant thing the underwriter wanted, which surprisingly did not include my high school transcript or my underwear receipts.

Then came the clincher: After we shelled out $455 for an appraisal, which valued our house at $315,000, Kim informed us that we were in danger of being rejected yet again, this time for a three-year-old unpaid traffic ticket worth a grand total of $75.

“There’s a lien on your house,” Kim said.

“Nothing’s leaning on my house,” I replied. “Not even a ladder, because I’m afraid of heights.”

“You have to get this cleared up,” Kim warned, “or the bank won’t let you close.”

I was put in touch with Leticia Glenn-Jones, a very pleasant home services specialist (“a fancy title for processor,” she explained), who said the underwriter did, indeed, want this black mark off my criminal record.

“Let me get this straight: $75 is worth more than $315,000,” I said. “Is this the new math?”

“I’m afraid so,” Leticia said sympathetically.

It turned out that a red-light camera caught Sue going through, yes, a red light. She received a notice in the mail in 2013 but forgot about it until the underwriter kindly noted that if we didn’t pay up, we couldn’t close. Sue sent a check for $75, plus late fees, which brought the total to $105 and, at long last, allowed us to refinance.

“It happens more often than you think,” Kim said afterward. “It’s those red-light cameras. Since they were installed, there have been tons of cases like this.”

In 21 years at the bank, she has seen just about everything.

“You and Sue may have set the record for the longest time it took to refinance,” said Kim, adding that her most unusual customer was a guy who applied for a mortgage  in 1995 and, under assets, listed a cow.

“He said it was worth $500,” Kim said.

“Was he trying to milk the bank for money?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Kim. “But believe it or not, he qualified.”

“I guess he didn’t have any traffic tickets,” I said.

I thanked Kim for all her hard work and promised that Sue and I would keep up on our payments.

“From now on,” I said, “we’ll pay the mortgage online. After all, we don’t want to drive to the bank and risk losing our house by getting another ticket.”

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Poppie's French Connection"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Of all the Romance languages, the most beautiful, in my humble opinion, is Pig Latin.

Take this simple phrase: “Hiya, toots!” Translated into Pig Latin, it becomes: “Iya-hay, oots-tay!”

Eloquent, isn’t it?

The second most beautiful Romance language is French, in which I am not, unfortunately, conversant. But I am learning it with a certain je ne sais quoi (translation: “Hiya, toots!”) with the help of my 3-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.

Chloe is learning French with the help of her daddy, Guillaume, who is from France, a magnificent (magnifique) country that I visited five years ago with my wife (ma femme), Sue (Sue), and some other members of our family (la famille) for the wedding of Guillaume and our younger daughter (fille), Lauren (ditto).

Now their daughter, Chloe, is teaching me (moi) French.

I want to speak it better than I do Spanish, which I took for eight years in high school and college and still can’t hold a decent conversation. I know only two phrases: “Cerveza fria, por favor” (“Cold beer, please”) and the natural follow-up question, “Donde es el bano?” (“Where is the bathroom?”)

That is why I am sure Chloe will be muy bien (sorry, I mean tres bon) in teaching me French.

According to Lauren, when Chloe went for a doctor’s appointment recently, she said to the receptionist, “Je m’appelle Chloe,” which means “My name is Chloe.”

“Did she just speak French?” the stunned receptionist asked.

“Yes,” Lauren replied, though she should have said, “Oui.”

The next time I saw Chloe, I said, “Je m’appelle Poppie.”

She smiled, no doubt at my pathetic pronunciation, and said, “Poppie!”

I was babysitting her and thought it was a good time for a French lesson.

“Bonjour, Chloe,” I said.

“Bonjour, Poppie,” she responded.

That was pretty much all I knew. But I was about to get a crash course. Chloe loves books and always wants me to read to her, so I was not surprised when she handed me a book starring her favorite character, Peppa Pig. The title: “Une Journee Avec Peppa” (“A Day With Peppa”).

Yes, it was in French.

If you read Chloe a book in English and stumble over a word, she will make you repeat it.

“My God (Mon Dieu),” I thought, “this is going to be terrible (terrible).”

I began to read: “Ce matin, Peppa se reveille.”

I had no idea what I just said, but it didn’t matter because Chloe didn’t correct me. I thought, however, that the word “reveille” meant Peppa was in the Army, though the drawing on the page showed that she was in her bed at home and was waking up at 7 o’clock in the morning.

It was obvious from subsequent drawings that the little pink porker was getting ready for school.

I trudged on: “Et prendre le petit-dejeuner tous ensemble, c’est encore mieux. Parole de Peppa!”

Chloe smiled and turned the page, a clear indication that my reading was d’accord (OK).

When Peppa got to school with her classmates, there was this line about the teacher: “Madame Gazelle, leur maitresse, est fantastique!”

Then Peppa went home for lunch: “C’est pizza et salade au menu!”

Afterward, she went to the park with her friends: “L’apres-midi, Peppa retrouve ses amis au parc.”

At dinner, Peppa’s father, Daddy Pig (Papa Pig), made his famous soup (fameuse soupe), after which Peppa had to brush her teeth (“apres avoir mange, il faut toujours se laver dents”) and go to bed (“bonne nuit!”).

Through the entire reading, Chloe didn’t stop me once, so I felt confident enough to add, “The end,” which I didn’t know in French (la fin).

But that was all right because Chloe paid me the ultimate compliment: “Merci, Poppie!”

I had passed my first French (francais) test. One of these days, with Chloe’s help, I will speak it fluently.

Then, of course, I will teach her Pig Latin.

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Nice Work If You Can Get It"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Whenever I attempt to do something I can’t do sing, dance, perform surgery somebody tells me not to quit my day job. The only people who want me to quit are my bosses, who don’t realize that the reason I have my day job is that I am spectacularly unqualified to do anything else.

Still, you never know when you will no longer be gainfully (or, in my case, ungainfully) employed. So, because I have had a fair career, I recently went to a career fair. It was held, perhaps not coincidentally, at the company where I work on Long Island, New York.

The first thing I found out, after stopping at a table sponsored by my company, is that I couldn’t get a job with my company. That’s because they were looking for someone to provide technical support.

“Technically speaking, my 3-year-old granddaughter is more advanced than I am,” I admitted, “which means she would have to support me.”

“Can you do anything else?” asked Craig Brusseler, talent manager for operations.

“Aside from telling bad jokes, I have no talent,” I said. “And hospital patients wouldn’t trust me to do operations.”

But Chrissy Huber, a sales recruiter, thought I had promise.

“You have a good personality,” she noted, “so you could go door to door to convince people who have switched to another cable company to come back to us.”

“What if somebody thought I was a scam artist and called the cops?” I wondered. “I don’t want to go back to prison.”

Chrissy raised her eyebrows, extended her hand and said, “Good luck with your job search.”

I had bad luck at the next table, which was sponsored by BMW.

“We are looking for technicians,” said recruiter Stefan Schedel.

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

“I’m afraid you’re not the kind of person we’re looking for,” said Renai Ellison, another recruiter.

“Could I at least get a free car out of the deal?” I asked.

I didn’t. But I did get a free tote bag. I dropped in the Cablevision Frisbee and the pen I got from my company.

Next I stopped at the Liberty Mutual table, where Maureen Baranello and Robert Moore were looking for someone to sell insurance.

“It involves outside referrals,” Maureen said.

“I don’t like working outside,” I replied. “What if it rains?”

“Buy a raincoat and an umbrella,” Robert suggested.

I told the two recruiters about the time I got into a car accident that was caused by a guy whose GPS told him to go the wrong way down a one-way street.

“Your company covered the damage,” I said.

“You can tell that story to potential customers,” said Maureen.

“Does the job include crunching numbers?” I inquired.

“Yes,” Robert said. “Lots of them.”

“I’ll have to disqualify myself,” I said. “One of the reasons I went into journalism is because I can’t do math. I’d bankrupt your company in a week.”

I’d do the same to Bethpage Federal Credit Union, whose recruiter, Amanda Shatel, said I couldn’t refinance my mortgage so I wouldn’t have any more payments.

“I helped bail out the banks,” I pointed out. “Would yours do the same for me?”

“Sorry,” said Amanda, who gave me a free letter opener so I could open my mortgage statements.

I visited other tables — including those sponsored by Riverhead Building Supply, where I got a paint stick and a rubber hammer; The Arbors, which runs assisted living communities, where I got another pen; and David Lerner Associates, an investment broker, where I got a handshake — but nothing panned out.

“Did you go to the career fair?” one of my bosses asked when I returned to my desk.

“Yes,” I said.

“How’d it go?” he wondered.

“Bad news,” I said. “I’m not quitting my day job.”

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"The Cool Cat in the Hat"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
I have never been a man of many hats, not just because I am afraid I’d get stuck in doorways, but because my head, though empty, is too big to fit even one hat over.

But that changed recently when, after a bout with skin cancer on my nose, which is attached to my head and is almost as big, I was urged by my dermatologist to buy a hat.

“Get one with a wide brim,” he suggested. “It will keep the sun off your head remember, the rays can penetrate your hair and will protect your face, including your nose.”

“To cover my whole nose,” I replied, “I’d need a sombrero. Or a beach umbrella.”

“A regular hat will do,” my dermatologist said. “But get one.”

So, for the first time in my life, I went hat shopping. To make sure I didn’t buy anything that would make me look even dumber than I already do, I brought along my wife, Sue, who likes hats and has great style. I, unfortunately, have a fashion plate in my head.

“What kind of hat do you want?” Sue asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never worn one.”

What I didn’t want was a baseball cap. I haven’t played baseball in half a century. And even then I was awful. Plus, to conform to a look adopted by just about every guy who wears a baseball cap these days, I’d have to put it on backward, which would assure, at least, that I wouldn’t get skin cancer on the back of my neck.

Sue and I went to three stores and all we could find were — you guessed it — beach umbrellas.

No, I mean baseball caps.

Then we spotted a mall store called Tilly’s.

“This place is for young people,” Sue noted as we walked in.

“I’m young,” I countered. “At least in my head. And since I need to cover it with a hat, I guess we’re in the right place.”

Indeed we were because the store had all kinds of hats.

The first one I saw was a straw hat with a brim as wide as my shoulders. Naturally, it didn’t fit over my head.

“One size fits all,” said a young (of course) salesperson named Dana.

“You mean one size fits all except me,” I replied. “Do you have a measuring tape so you can see how tremendous my head is?”

“No,” she said, spying my cranium and trying not to imply that the tape would have to be as long as the first-down chains in a football game.

Sue and I walked to the back of the store, where I saw a felt hat with a wide brim and a band. I tried it on. Incredibly, it fit.

“I look like Indiana Jones,” I told a salesperson named James after seeing myself in a mirror.

“You’re a lot younger than the guy who plays him,” he said, referring to Harrison Ford, who looks great in a hat.

“I’m going to get a feather,” Sue chimed in, “and stick it in the band.”

“Then I’d look like Super Fly,” I said.

“Cool,” said James, giving me two thumbs-up.

On the way out, I saw another hat, a khaki boonie that made me look like Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.”

“This one fits, too,” I said in amazement. “And the brim covers my nose.”

A salesperson named Anna smiled but was too polite to comment, except to say, “It looks good.”

Sue agreed.

“Now you have a hat to wear when you get dressed up and one for lounging around outside,” she said at the register, where we paid a grand total of $25 for both.

“You know what they say,” I noted. “Two hats are better than one.”

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, April 7, 2016

"Spare the Frame, Spoil the Grandpa"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
People have said for years that I will end up in the gutter. Little did I know it would happen when I went bowling with my 3-year-old granddaughter.

As part of Chloe’s birthday celebration, my wife, Sue (known to Chloe as Nini), and I (Poppie) recently went to The All Star in Riverhead, New York, with our younger daughter, Lauren (Mommy), and our son-in-law Guillaume (Daddy) for an afternoon of fun and, I will readily admit, humiliation, which is inevitable when (a) you are wearing bowling shoes and (b) you are defeated by a toddler.

I must say in my own defense, pathetic though it may be under the circumstances, that I had not been bowling in years, while Chloe is a regular at the lanes.

Not only that, but she uses a special contraption that is designed to give kids an unfair advantage over incompetent grown-ups such as yours truly. Here’s how it works: An adult places a bowling ball on top of this thing. Then a child pushes the ball down a ramp and onto the lane, where it rolls, slowly and steadily, until it knocks over some or all of the pins.

Did I mention gutter guards? They are used so a child’s ball can’t go where the aforementioned people have long expected to find me.

But none of that mattered because we were there to have a good time, even if, as required in order to use the lane, we would also be keeping score.

After settling in at Lane 20, we entered our names into the overhead electronic scoreboard: Mommy, Nini, Poppie and, of course, Chloe (who was playing with the assistance of Daddy).

My first ball, I swear to God, went straight into the gutter. I recovered enough to finish the frame with a 6.

I didn’t feel so bad because Sue’s first ball went straight into the gutter, too. In fact, her average roll traveled approximately four inches before the ball plopped into the gutter, although she displayed great versatility by throwing gutter balls on both sides of the lane.

“Bowling isn’t my sport,” she acknowledged.

But it appears to be Chloe’s sport. After Guillaume placed the ball on top of her kiddie ramp, Chloe pushed it onto the lane and typically knocked over most of the pins. By frame 5, she had racked up a strike and a couple of spares and was comfortably in the lead when she pushed a button on the control device and wiped out all the information on the scoreboard. The game, essentially, was over.

“I am crediting your granddaughter with the victory,” said the nice young man at the counter, likening it to a rain-shortened baseball game. “She beat all of the adults.”

Then, sensing my humiliation, he gave us another game for free.

“Try to do better this time,” he said with a smile.

I did try. Really. So did Lauren, a streaky bowler, and Sue, who continued to throw gutter balls and even used Chloe’s kiddie device and the gutter guards in a couple of frames. They didn’t help much.

In one of the later frames, Chloe said, “I bowl with Poppie.”

She took my hand as we walked up to the line. Then she helped me throw the ball, which rolled straight down the lane and, incredibly, knocked over all the pins.

“Poppie got a strike!” I exclaimed.

“Poppie strike!” declared Chloe, who must have sensed that I needed assistance, so she gave it to me in the next frame, too. I got a spare.

That helped put me over the top. At the end of the game, my score was 114. Chloe had 99, Lauren 91 and Sue 42.

Chloe, clearly the best bowler in the family, showed a maturity beyond her three years and sacrificed herself so poor Poppie, utterly embarrassed in the first game, could claim victory. In short, she let me win.

I was bowled over. And, thanks to my granddaughter, I didn’t end up in the gutter.

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima