Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Wrong Turn on Red"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

In their chart-topping 1965 hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the Byrds sang, “To everything, turn, turn, turn.” To which they might have added: “Except if you make an illegal turn, turn, turn.” In which case you’ll end up in traffic court.

That’s where I found myself recently after getting a notice in the mail saying that I had been caught by a red-light camera making an illegal right turn at a traffic light.

Accompanying the notice was a series of three photos I was sure would vindicate me because they showed not only that it was perfectly legal to turn right on red, but that my brake lights were on at the intersection. Since the fine was $80, I decided to fight the charge because I had an otherwise clean driving record. This involved paying strict attention to traffic laws, being respectful of other drivers and, most important, not getting caught rolling through right turns at red lights.

I showed up at the Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency in Hempstead, N.Y., and beheld scores of other alleged scofflaws who sought justice because they were, according to the U.S. Constitution and TV shows like “Law & Order,” innocent until proven guilty of running stop signs, speeding and, of course, making illegal right turns.

I temporarily surrendered my driver’s license to a stern security officer and stood in line, where I met a woman named Surbi, who was there because, she said, “I parked in front of my house.”

“Did you get a ticket the day you moved in?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’ve lived there for six years.”

“I hope you don’t have to pay six years’ worth of parking tickets,” I said.

“I couldn’t afford it,” Surbi said. “This one alone is $120. And there’s not even a ‘no parking’ sign on the street.”

After we were ushered into the courtroom, I sat next to a young woman named Lauren, who admitted that she “rolled” through a stop sign. “I was being tailgated and didn’t want the guy to plow into the back of my car,” she explained.

“Tell it to the judge,” I suggested.

“I will,” Lauren promised.

I showed her the photos of my car at the intersection. “This is Exhibit A,” I said.

“They’ll get you anyway,” said a young guy named Jacques, adding that he had six tickets totaling $1,700 but that he could prove he was a victim of identity theft and that the car wasn’t his.

Among the other people in the courtroom was a young man who was holding a toddler. An old lawyer said to him, “Did you rent that kid to get sympathy?”

Just then, my name was called by a court clerk named Laura, who took me to a hallway, sat me at a table with a computer screen and pulled a shocker: “We have a video of you at the intersection,” she said. It showed me braking but not coming to a “full and complete stop.” Laura said I could pay the fine or see a judge, who would either uphold the fine or dismiss the charge.

“I know my rights,” I said, though I guess I didn’t because I had evidently made an illegal right. “I’ll see a judge.”

She was the Hon. Elizabeth Pessala, who was indeed honorable but went by the letter of the law when a smug traffic prosecutor showed her the video.

“It’s a good thing you weren’t stopped by a police officer,” Judge Pessala said. “The fine would have been $218 and three points off your license.”

“Guilty as charged, your honor,” I confessed.

I paid the fine and drove home very carefully. After all, I didn’t want one bad turn to deserve another.

Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Laundry Basket Case"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Life is a vicious cycle because there is always a laundry list of things to do. This is especially true if you have to do the laundry, in which case there are three cycles: wash, rinse and spin.

But you can’t do the laundry, as my wife, Sue, and I found out recently, if your washing machine is on the fritz. Unfortunately, we don’t know anybody named Fritz, so we called a plumber named Harry.

Harry, who owns Brookhaven Plumbing and Heating on Long Island, N.Y., came over because our laundry room was beginning to flood, though not enough to open an indoor swimming pool.

The problem, we thought, was coming from the washer, a decrepit machine that had many clothes calls in its 15 years (that’s about 100 in appliance years) but now seemed to be a victim of death by drowning.

Then we discovered a leak coming from the pipe under the slop sink, into which the washer regurgitated water, suds and lint, which is not immaterial. In fact, I have a navel reserve of lint, but that’s another story.

The real story, according to Harry, was that the elbow was leaking.

“Will I have to see a rheumatologist?” I asked.

“Not your elbow,” Harry answered. “The sink’s elbow. You need a plumbing doctor. That would be me.”

“Thanks for making a house call, doc,” I said.

“That’s my job,” said Harry, who noted that most insurance claims are the result of plumbing problems. “A washing machine hose will blow and cause a flood,” he said. “I’ve gotten calls from people who had four feet of water in their basement.”

“I’ll never have that problem because I don’t have a basement,” I said.

“The water would just go through the garage,” said Harry.

“Then my daughters would have to get all their stuff out of there,” I said.

Harry’s daughter has two daughters who are, of course, Harry’s granddaughters.

“They’re 5 and 2 years old,” Harry said. “And they’re always asking questions, like ‘Papa, why is the sky blue?’ ”

“Do they ask plumbing questions?” I asked.

“I haven’t gotten that yet,” Harry answered. “But they know I can fix anything. They’ll say to their mother, ‘Mommy, call Papa. He knows how to do it.’ ”

“My granddaughter is only 16 months old,” I said, “but I think she already knows that I can’t fix anything.”

Harry fixed the problem under the sink and attached a new hose from the washer to the slop sink, which he guessed was installed by the house’s previous owner, a handy guy who had his own workshop in the garage.

“He probably came in here to wash his hands before he went into the kitchen so his wife wouldn’t yell at him,” surmised Harry, whose wife does the laundry in their house. “We have one of those high-tech machines, like the Starship Enterprise, with all these fancy features. It’s just one more thing to go wrong. I employ the ‘kiss’ method: ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ When we get another washer, it’s going to be a simple one.”

The next day, our washer conked out. Sue went to a nearby appliance store and bought a new, high-tech model that plays a tune when the wash is done.

The day after it was installed, I called Harry to tell him that he did an excellent job on the sink but that we ended up needing a new washer after all.

“You jinxed me,” Harry said. “The day after I was at your house, our washer conked out, too. My wife got another high-tech model.”

“Don’t worry, Harry,” I said. “It all comes out in the wash.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"The Call of the Wildman"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
As a homebody whose idea of communing with nature is to open the windows, I could never see the forest for the trees, or even the mushrooms for the pizza, which is why I went on a nature walk recently with a guy who knows all about trees and mushrooms. He also makes his own pizza.

I naturally refer to “Wildman” Steve Brill, a naturalist who is a natural at taking people on nature walks, not just because he knows which mushrooms are good on pizza and which can kill you, but because for him, joking is second nature.

“I’m a funny guy,” Wildman told me when we met at Belmont Lake State Park in West Babylon, N.Y. “And when I see mushrooms,” he added, “I’m a fungi.”

Like a fungus, Wildman’s delightfully corny jokes grow on you, even though the 25 people who had signed up for the walk didn’t see any corn.

“If you walk far enough,” he told me, “you may develop corns.”

Wildman, whose beard and mustache grow on him, and whose glasses and pith helmet make him look like a jungle professor, is billed on his website ( as “America’s Go-to Guy for Foraging.” At 65, he has seen the forage for the trees for 32 years, during which he has taken nature lovers and mushroom pizza aficionados on excursions throughout the Northeast.

He was even arrested by park rangers in 1986 for eating a dandelion while giving a tour in Central Park in New York City.

“I was charged with criminal mischief,” Wildman remembered, adding that the case was eventually dropped. “I guess they were afraid I would eat the whole park.”

There was no such concern on our walk.

“Will we see a lot of flora?” I asked Wildman as we got started.

“I don’t think Flora is in this group,” he replied, “but it would be nice to see a lot of her.”

The first thing we saw was the common plantain, a lawn and garden weed that not only can be used on mosquito bites (you have to apply the juice to the affected area), but also can be eaten, as Wildman proved by producing some leaves he had cooked at home and passing them around so we could munch on them.

“I garnished them with parsley, sage and rosemary,” he said.

“Not thyme?” I asked, referring to the lyrics in the Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.”

“That’s Scarborough unfair,” said Wildman, who also showed us a plant called Curly Dock. “Not to be confused,” the Three Stooges fan noted, “with Moe Dock and Larry Dock.”

Then we saw and tasted succulent, delicious wineberries. “They’re dangerous because you can die of happiness,” Wildman said as he popped some in his mouth. “They’re berry good.”

One thing that can kill humans is poison ivy, but only if you light it on fire and breathe in the smoke. “Do you know the only person who is immune to poison ivy smoke?” Wildman asked the group. When no one answered, he said, “Bill Clinton. He doesn’t inhale.”

Poison ivy flowers, Wildman added, are “beautiful but deadly, like my ex-girlfriend.”

Then there are mushrooms, only about 1 percent of which are poisonous, such as amanitas. Wildman held one and said, “It’s even worse for you than school lunch.”

Most others, he added, are perfectly safe to eat, like the bolete we found.

“It's good with just about anything,” Wildman said as he showed us a large specimen he had dug up from the ground.

“It’s a ’shroom with a view,” I offered.

“I’ll have to remember that one,” Wildman said.

His entire nature walk was memorable, the perfect combination of education and entertainment.

“I make foraging fun,” Wildman said when the walk was over. Then he handed me a hunk of bolete to take home.

“It’ll make a great mushroom pizza,” he said. “Any way you slice it.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"On the Fence"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
I have never believed the old saying that good fences make good neighbors because, really, who wants to live next door to a guy who deals in stolen merchandise?

Fortunately for me and my wife, Sue, the neighbors on both sides of us are friendly, law-abiding citizens.

Still, we needed a new fence recently because the two front sections of the old one were rotting, sagging and generally in deplorable condition, which our neighbors are too nice to say about me.

So we called Suffolk Fence Co. of Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. As its name implies, the company specializes in fencing (not with swords, thank God) and offers an array of styles, all of which come with doors that don’t, like the one on our old fence, have to be held up by ropes.

At 9 a.m. on a sunny Saturday, Herberth and David arrived to install our new fence.

“I’ve been here before,” said Herberth, who remembered coming over several years ago to replace a side-yard fence that was crushed when one of our trees fell on the house next door.

“The tree crashed through the roof of the garage,” I said. “Fortunately, we have good neighbors. Their insurance company covered the damage and they got a lot of free firewood.”

“My father-in-law says that when a hurricane is coming, you should go up on the roof and rip it up, then call the insurance company and say, ‘I need money.’ Of course, he’s only kidding,” said Herberth, who kidded me about my Three Stooges T-shirt. “I used to watch them in Spanish when I was growing up in El Salvador,” he recalled.

“I can just imagine Curly saying, ‘Buenos dias. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!’ ” I said.

Herberth pointed to the image of Moe on my shirt and said, “He’s the smart one, but he’s really pretty dumb.”

“Can you imagine if the Stooges installed fences?” I said.

“It would be crazy!” Herberth exclaimed.

Just then, David walked by, playfully flipping a hammer.

“If it hit him in the head, it would be funny,” Herberth said.

“If it hit me in the head,” I added, “he’d need a new hammer.”

“Just like the Stooges,” said Herberth, who asked if we have a dog.

“We used to,” I replied, “but she went to that big backyard in the sky.”

“I wanted to make sure that if you had one, she wouldn’t get away when we took the old fence down,” said Herberth, adding that his dog used to dig under the fence at home. “She’d go over to my neighbor’s house for a visit. My boss gave me a fence, which was very nice of him, but I had to put another one outside the den door so the dog would have her own area.”

Herberth has had his share of both dog and people trouble on the job.

“One time I was taking a customer’s fence down and his neighbor got angry. He said he was going to send out his pit bull so it could eat me,” Herberth remembered. “I said, ‘Go ahead. I have a hammer.’ I love animals and would never hurt one, but I wanted to see what this guy would do. It turned out that he didn’t have a pit bull, just this little dog that was pretty cute. One other time, a little dog bit me on the knee, but it was cold and I was wearing thermal pants, so it didn’t break the skin.”

“Do good fences make good neighbors?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Herberth, who has been on the job for 13 years. “I have good neighbors. So do you. But some people don’t like their neighbors. One time I had to put a 4-foot-tall section of lattice on top of the fence we had installed so this guy’s neighbors couldn’t look over and see him.”

Herberth and David took down the two old sections of fencing, which were made of wood, and installed new ones, which are PVC. They worked hard and did a fantastic job.

“That looks much better,” I said.

“It’s a good fence,” Herberth noted. “I guess that makes you a good neighbor.”
Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"How to Babysit a Grandma"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl is shown wearing a Groucho Marx disguise.

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

“Don’t you dare,” she retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Mr. Zezima Goes Back to Washington"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before he became a cabbie, Yared parked cars.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Yared said with a smile.

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

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

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

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

“Your backside must be sore,” I suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Robert.

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

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

Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"Cool Customers"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you handy?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2014 by Jerry Zezima