Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Lions and Tigers and Beers, Oh, My!"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
In the immortal words of Dr. Doonothing, otherwise known as yours truly, if I could talk to the animals, what a neat achievement that would be. But would a tiger or a camel, bird, reptile or mammal, really, truly want to talk to me?

That’s what I hoped to find out, without being eaten in the process, during my recent trip to the Bronx Zoo, where I trekked with my wife, Sue; our younger daughter, Lauren; and our granddaughters, Chloe, 4, and Lilly, 11 months, both of whom were first-time visitors who soon learned that some of the most fascinating creatures walked on two legs and talked to the animals with a New York accent.

We heard them chatter (most of what they said was either incomprehensible or unrepeatable) during a stampede into the zoo, which was overrun with humans because it was Wednesday, when admission is free and the animals get to see what wildlife is really like.

The first denizens we saw were bison, which were once almost hunted to extinction, prompting Lauren to remark, “They make really good burgers.”

Then we flew into the World of Birds, which housed, among other fine feathered friends, a guira cuckoo.

“Who’s a cuckoo?” I asked Chloe, who looked up at me and chirped, “Poppie!”

The next exhibit was Tiger Mountain, featuring a massive Amur (or Siberian) member of the species that earned its stripes when Chloe commented, “Just like Tick and Tock, the Tiger Twins,” referring to the feline siblings who star in a book that teaches kids how to tell time.

By then it was time for lunch (not, thank God, for the tiger, which looked directly at me and licked its chops), so we found a shady spot and gobbled up turkey sandwiches. I didn’t feel guilty because turkeys are among the few animals that don’t reside at the zoo. It wouldn’t have been the case with bison burgers.

As we were finishing, a visitor started yelling at one of her kids (not the goat variety), who ran off faster than a cheetah, further incensing the woman, who brayed, “My house is more of a zoo than this place!”

The scene drove me to drink, so I went to the watering hole and ordered three beers for the adults in our group.

“May I please see an ID?” Tiffany D. asked me.

“God bless you!” I gushed. “I haven’t been carded in decades.”

“You’re looking young in those sunglasses and that hat,” she said with a wink and a smile. “In fact,” added Tiffany, who couldn’t have been more than 30, “you’re looking younger and younger all the time.”

“I’m going to come back,” I said after I paid her (and left a nice tip).

“OK!” said Tiffany. “Come back and I’ll card you again.”

As we strolled off, a woman pushing a stroller stopped so her young daughter could say hello to Chloe and Lilly, each of whom was in a stroller, too.

“That’s a good idea,” the merry mom said when she saw our refreshments.

“You’re going to get a beer?” I asked.

“Of course,” she answered. “Why do you think I come to the zoo?”

Another woman passed by with her kids in tow and said, “I wish someone would push me around in a stroller.”

Sue, who worked up a sweat pushing Chloe, said, “It’s a good thing I go to the gym.”

A good thing, indeed, because there was plenty more to see, including a polar bear, two grizzly bears, several giraffes, a herd of zebras and a caravan of camels, which Chloe liked because, as she noted while the beasts of burden masticated disgustingly, “It looks like they’re chewing gum.”

The only creatures smart enough not to come out were the lions, which disappointed everyone because they were, naturally, the mane attraction. But we did hear them roar from wherever they were hiding, which I hoped wasn’t behind my car, where we headed after a long but exciting day.

If I weren’t driving, I would have gone back for another beer so Tiffany D. could card me again. At the zoo, it’s called animal magnetism.

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, September 7, 2017

"No Bed of Roses"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and sore as hell, especially if he has to move not just one bed but two, after which he is convinced he will soon be on his deathbed.

My wife, Sue, considers me a strange bedfellow, which is why it took both of us to drive up to our hometown of Stamford, Connecticut, disassemble a bed, load it into a rental truck, drive it back down to our house on Long Island, New York, unload it, deposit it in our living room, disassemble a bed in an upstairs bedroom, bring it downstairs, load it into my car, drive it to our younger daughter’s house, go back home, bring the first bed upstairs and reassemble it in the aforementioned bedroom. All of this involved headboards, footboards, box springs and mattresses.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And I didn’t even mention that more furniture, including a kitchen table and a set of chairs, was involved.

Fortunately, it didn’t happen all in one day. Also, we had help. And we are grateful to Sue’s mother and sister for their generosity (and, in the case of Sue’s sister, physical assistance) in giving us, respectively, the bed and the kitchen set.

Still, for someone my age (old enough to know better), it’s hard work, which I have always tried to avoid.

This is the best time of life because you can still do everything you have always done, but if there’s something you don’t want to do, you can pull the age card.

“I don’t think I should be lugging furniture anymore,” you might say to no one in particular, because no one in particular will listen to you.

Sure enough, it fell on deaf ears. And those ears belong to Sue, who pretended not to hear my feeble excuses (hernia, heart attack, death) about why we could live  without all the exertion.

I must say, however, that we are a good team: Sue’s the brains, I’m the pawn. So we joined forces to get the job done.

The worst part of bedding against the odds involves: (a) mattresses and (b) stairs.

The mattress of one of the two beds has handles; the other doesn’t. With the former, at least you have something to grab hold of; with the latter, you have to try to grasp the smooth edge and lift, pull, push, slip, slide or, if you are not careful, drop it down an entire flight of stairs. Or vice-versa, though it’s impossible to drop a mattress up a flight of stairs because it will only slide back down with you holding on, handles or no handles, until you both crash to the floor.

It’s not that a mattress is heavy (any Olympic weightlifter can hoist one for at least three seconds before EMTs have to be called), but it’s definitely unwieldy. That is why Sue and I had so much trouble navigating each of them, not just up and down stairs, but around corners, over railings and past a wall full of family photos that include one of me when I was a baby (it was taken last week).

Then there are the headboards and the footboards, which are meant to be dropped on your head and your foot, respectively. These not only are unwieldy but are approximately as heavy as a full-grown rhinoceros, without the horn but with posts that can do just as much damage if they hit you in the wrong spot. After one such near-catastrophe, I was lucky I didn’t have to go to Vienna, either for medical treatment or to join the Boys Choir.

Finally, Sue and I got the first bed upstairs and put it together, a herculean feat that called for several infusions of cold beer.

That night, we collapsed on our own bed. It was the best night’s sleep we ever had.

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Junkyard Dog Tags"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
According to Zezima family legend, which goes all the way back to last week, my wife, Sue, is so proficient at chopping down trees, bushes and other massive flora that she is known far and wide as Paula Bunyan.

I, her faithful companion, am known even farther and wider as Jerry the Dumb Ox.

It was in this capacity, which otherwise is about a six-pack, that I was charged with hauling a mess that I was afraid included Audrey II, the giant plant in “Little Shop of Horrors,” to the dump, where I met Teddy the Junkyard Dog.

This shocking example of horticultural horror began when Sue went on a chopping spree and took down several humongous growths whose stems, trunks and branches were roughly equal to those of a California redwood. And she did it not with a chainsaw but a hand saw, which is easier than using a seesaw.

When I saw, I said, “Who’s going to cart all this stuff away?”

Sue pointed the saw at me.

I refrained from making a cutting remark and dutifully dragged the whole thing to the curb in the hope that the Town of Brookhaven, New York, where I live, would take it away.

There it sat for three weeks until I got a letter that was headlined: “Notice before summons.” It went on to say I was in violation of a town ordinance by having litter described as “loose oversized branches” on my property. It also said I would be subject to “a potential fine and a possible misdemeanor charge” if I didn’t take care of it.

I called the Department of Waste Management and spoke with a very nice woman named Maureen.

“Look,” I explained, “I’m a geezer with a bad back and a history of kidney stones. I’m doing my best. Have mercy.”

Maureen was sympathetic and said, “I got one of those notices before I started working here.” Then she added, “You have to cut up the branches and either put them in containers or bundle them. It’s probably easier just to load them into your car and bring them to the landfill. If you’re a town resident, there’s no charge.”

Consoling myself with the thought that the worst things in life are free, I stuffed everything into the back of my SUV, which stands for Sequoia Utility Vehicle, and drove to the landfill.

That’s where I met Teddy, whom Jim Croce would not have described as “meaner than a junkyard dog.”

“He’s more like a teddy bear, which is how he got his name,” said his owner, Nancy Blomberg, adding: “It’s a very exciting day. This is Teddy’s first trip to the dump.”

Teddy, a terrier mix who was born in Puerto Rico, seemed to take it in stride.

“He’s a rescue,” Nancy said. “He’s 6 or 7 years old, I’m not sure and he’s not telling, but I’ve had him for a year and a half.”

Teddy, who was sitting in Nancy’s lap on the passenger side of a 2003 Chevy pickup truck, gave me a high paw through the open window.

“Woof!” I replied.

Just then, Nancy’s friend Micky McLean, who had been hauling stuff out of the back of the truck, came around and introduced herself, saying she is a former Marine.

When I told her I’m a newspaper columnist, Micky said, “I thought so when I saw you interviewing the dog. What’s the matter, the Marines wouldn’t take you?”

“The Marines have standards,” I said. “They’re looking for a few good men, and obviously I’m not one of them.”

Micky, who served honorably from 1977 to 1986 and is now retired, asked if I needed help unloading the branches from the back of my car. When I gratefully accepted her kind offer, she got her trusty cultivator, which is a three-pronged rake, and in the span of about seven seconds cleaned out my trunk.

“Next time, cut down the trees and bushes yourself instead of making your wife do it,” Micky commanded.

I saluted and said, “Yes, ma’am!”

At that, Teddy barked.

“He’s a dog,” Micky said. “He knows something about trees and bushes, too.”

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"Chloe and Poppie Make Ice Cream"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
If anything is sweeter than ice cream, it’s my 4-year-old granddaughter, Chloe, who is sweet on ice cream herself.

That’s why she was happy to meet someone who makes sweets for the sweet: Choudry Ali, who owns Magic Fountain, a popular ice cream store in Mattituck, New York.

Ali, as everybody calls him (“It’s easier,” he said), recently invited me, Chloe and my younger daughter, Lauren, aka Chloe’s mommy, to Magic Fountain to see the magic behind the fountain of ice cream he makes every day.

“I’m going to need your help to make the next batch,” Ali told Chloe, who was busy eating a cone of vanilla soft serve with sprinkles, her favorite, which Ali kindly gave to her as prepayment for her manufacturing services.

Chloe nodded, getting a dab of ice cream on her nose.

“Can I help, too?” I asked eagerly.

“Yes,” Ali replied. “As long as you don’t make a mess. I have a feeling that Chloe is neater than you are.”

Ali, 49, acknowledged that he has made his share of messes in the 10 years he has owned Magic Fountain.

“One time I forgot to turn on the freezer switch, so when I opened the machine, chocolate spilled out all over the floor,” Ali recalled. “I had to go home to get changed. At least I smelled good.”

He was just finishing a batch of black raspberry, which prompted me to show off my vast ice cream knowledge by saying, “Let me guess. The main ingredient is black raspberry.”

“What are you, a stand-up comedian?” Ali asked.

“Well, I am standing up,” I noted. “If I were sitting down in a tub of black raspberry, the fruit would be on the bottom.”

Lauren rolled her eyes. Chloe kept eating.

As Ali cleaned out the 24-quart machine for the next batch, he said Magic Fountain has 250 kinds of ice cream, including 45 everyday flavors and five that rotate every two weeks.

“What’s your favorite flavor?” I asked Ali.

“Pistachio,” he said.

“Do you ever make extra just for yourself?” I wondered.

“Of course,” he replied. “And I never get in trouble with the boss.”

“My favorite is rocky road,” Lauren said, adding that it helped her get through her pregnancy with her younger daughter, Lilly, who is 9 months old and will no doubt be an ice cream fan, too.

When Ali asked what my favorite flavor is, I said, “Whatever we’re about to make.”

It was honey-cinnamon.

“An excellent choice,” I told Ali as he opened a 48-ounce bottle of honey and asked me to pour it into a plastic container.

As I squeezed, with minimal results, I asked Chloe to lend a hand, which at this point was streaked with vanilla ice cream and sprinkles. Lauren wiped it off so Chloe could help me. The honey came pouring out.

“Good job!” Lauren said.

“She’s a pro,” Ali added.

“How about me?” I asked.

Ali responded, “Let’s just say it’s a good thing Chloe is here.”

Chloe smiled and helped me pour 8 ounces of ground cinnamon into a measuring cup, which we then dumped into the container. Ali gave me a spatula and asked me to mix the two ingredients. I was slower than molasses, which wasn’t even in there, so Ali took over and showed me how it’s done, after which the honey-cinnamon had the smooth, creamy consistency of honey-cinnamon.

Ali opened the slot in the front of the machine and squeezed in a two-and-a-half-gallon bag of ice cream mix, which includes butterfat but is egg- and gluten-free, and asked me to pour in the honey-cinnamon mixture.

“Turn on the machine,” Ali said. “And don’t forget the freezer switch.”

Twenty minutes later, the ice cream was finished. It filled two buckets totaling five gallons.

“OK,” Ali said. “Time to taste it.”

He handed a small plastic spoon to Chloe, who scooped some out, put it in her mouth and exclaimed, “Wow!”

“Is it good?” Ali asked.

“Yes!” Chloe chirped.

“And you helped make it,” Lauren said proudly.

“I know,” said Chloe, who got a clean spoon and had another taste, after which Ali gave her a cup of vanilla and pistachio “for being such a good ice cream maker.”

It was a sweet gesture by a sweet man, who gave some honey-cinnamon to Lauren and me and tried it himself. We all agreed it was great. Then Ali put the batch in the shocker, or deep freezer, where it would stay for 12 hours before being sold.

As we were leaving, Chloe gave Ali a high-five and said, “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” Ali replied. “Now you can say you taught your grandfather how to make ice cream.”

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Moe, Larry and Poppie"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
There are many reasons for a man to be proud of his grandchildren, as I am of my three, who are beautiful, smart, loving and, even though the eldest is only 4 years old, more mature than their grandfather.

Now I can add one more reason: My grandson, Xavier, at the tender age of 4 months, is a Three Stooges fan.

I made this delightful discovery recently when my wife, Sue, and I took a road trip to visit Xavier, who lives with his mommy, Katie, and daddy, Dave.

The moment of revelation occurred on a sunny morning in Katie and Dave’s bedroom, where I was watching Xavier while everyone else got ready for a day of fun, frolic and, of course, infantile behavior. And I’m not talking about Xavier.

Anyway, I was upstairs with him, cooing and babbling (so was he), when Dave entered the room and said, “Having some guy time?”

“We sure are,” I answered.

As Dave left to go back downstairs, he said, “If I hear any Three Stooges noises, I’m rushing right back up.”

Answering the challenge, I did my award-winning Curly imitation, snapping my fingers and making funny faces as I exclaimed, “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!” and “Woo, woo, woo!”

Xavier smiled and started to wave his arms and kick excitedly.

I told him that many years ago I was first runner-up in the National Curly Howard Sound-Alike Contest (I won $100 and some Stooge paraphernalia in the telephone competition, whose winner was never identified and must have been an inmate somewhere).

I also told him that I once attended a Three Stooges convention in Pennsylvania and again was first runner-up, this time in the Curly Shuffle Contest, which was won by a 4-year-old girl.

Xavier furrowed his brow as if to say, “Poor Poppie. What a knucklehead!”

Then I imitated my favorite Stooge, Shemp. I inhaled deeply and made the famous Shemp sound: “Ee-bee-bee-bee!”

Xavier — this is absolutely true — laughed out loud. I did it again. He giggled uncontrollably.

“I am so proud of him!” I said to Dave when he rushed back upstairs. “Xavier loves Shemp!”

Dave, a wonderful young man with a terrific sense of humor, kindly refrained from poking his father-in-law in the eyes.

“The surest sign of maturity in a man, if indeed it ever happens, is when he comes to appreciate Shemp,” I told Dave. “Xavier is starting at a young age.”

Just as the late, great original Stooge has a new fan, so does the new fan.

“Xavier is my little man,” said Junior Bush, who lives across the street and is known as the mayor of the neighborhood.

Junior, 73, a retired revenue collector, doesn’t have kids of his own, but he does have 10 nieces and nephews who look up to him as a father figure. Everyone on the block loves him.

I found out why when Junior knocked on Katie and Dave’s door to warn me that my car would get ticketed and towed if I didn’t move it for the street sweeper.

“I’ll give you my parking space,” Junior said.

I found the lone remaining spot across the street, so I didn’t have to take up Junior on his nice offer, but I appreciated it.

“I love Katie and Dave,” Junior told me. “And Xavier is just the cutest.”

“I’ve been teaching him about the Three Stooges,” I said.

Junior chuckled and replied, “You have to start them early.”

Despite Dave’s fears, I have. Every time I did my Shemp imitation, Xavier laughed. At least a dozen times over the next few days, whether he was in his car seat, on the changing table or in my arms, when I said, “Ee-bee-bee-bee,” he let out a baby guffaw.

The next time we get together, I am going to introduce Xavier to Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp and the other Stooges on video. Will he love them even more?

In the immortal words of Poppie doing his Curly imitation, “Soitenly! Nyuk, nyuk, yuk!”

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"The Graduate"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
I have never been to a graduation at Yale, Harvard or any other Ivy League school, mainly because I couldn’t get into one of those prestigious institutions unless I broke in at night, in which case I would be arrested and sentenced to serve time in another kind of institution.

But I recently did attend a graduation at Old Steeple, a preschool in Aquebogue, New York, and its moving-up ceremony beat anything a university could put on. I admit to being prejudiced because my 4-year-old granddaughter, Chloe, was in the Class of 2017 and, I can proudly say, graduated magna cum little.

The impressive event began as Chloe and her classmates filed into the church above their school and waited for the formal procession past dozens of guests. They included my wife, Sue, and yours truly (known to Chloe as Nini and Poppie), as well as Chloe’s mommy, Lauren; her daddy, Guillaume; and her little sister, Lilly, who is 9 months old and won’t be in preschool for another two years.

Mrs. Kramer, the teacher, and Mrs. Link, her assistant, guided the 19 members of the graduating class into position. That’s when Chloe spotted Sue and me sitting in the second row. Because she didn’t expect us to be there, her eyes widened and she broke the line, rushing up to the first row and squealing, “Hi, Nini and Poppie!”

Sue and I smiled and waved.

Chloe looked at me and said, “I’m so glad you could make it, Poppie!” Then she said, “Doh!”

It’s an utterance most recently made famous by Homer Simpson, but it was originated in the early 1930s by James Finlayson, eternal antagonist of Laurel and Hardy. Chloe and I have been saying it to each other since she learned to talk, so I returned the greeting.

Sue nudged me and whispered, “Stop fooling around.”

Then we both indicated to Chloe that she should get back in line.

“OK, Nini and Poppie!” she chirped and, accompanied by Mrs. Kramer, reclaimed her spot.

The exchange drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience.

As “Pomp and Circumstance” did not play, the students walked up to the altar and took their seats on folding chairs that were arranged in a horseshoe shape. Mrs. Kramer stood at the microphone and welcomed the guests.

What she didn’t do was give a commencement address, a refreshing switch from the typical graduation ceremony in which some bloviating speaker tells the graduates they are “the future of this great nation” and urges them to “go out and change the world,” which would have been an unreasonable exhortation to kids whose idea of change not too long ago involved their diapers.

One by one, the students went up to the microphone and said a rehearsed line that introduced the next part of the program. Some were tentative.

Not Chloe. When it was her turn, she strode up to the mic and said in a strong voice, “We will now sing ‘The More We Get Together’!” For emphasis, she elongated the last syllable, which drew a laugh and a round of applause from the audience.

Then the graduates sang the catchy song:

“The more we get together, the happier we’ll be. Your friends are my friends, my friends are your friends. The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”

When the hearty applause stopped, Chloe looked down in my direction and again said, “Doh!”

The crowd chuckled once more.

The rest of the program was just as delightful. At its conclusion, Mrs. Kramer stepped back up to the microphone to hand out diplomas. The first student she called was Chloe, who took the sheepskin and, with a flourish, bowed to the crowd, which responded with enthusiasm.

“She’s tops in her class,” I said to Sue, Lauren, Guillaume and Lilly, who recently learned to clap and was doing so, perhaps unwittingly, for her big sister.

Afterward, everyone went downstairs to the school for milk and cookies. It was a fitting end to the best graduation I have ever attended.

Yale or Harvard couldn’t have done better.

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima