Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Don't Quit Your Day Job"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
When my kids were young and had already fallen into the expensive habit of eating every day, I came to a sad realization: If people waited until they could afford to have children, the human race would die out.

Now that my kids are grown and have kids of their own, which means I don’t have to feed them anymore, I have come to another sad realization: If people waited until they could afford to retire, most of them would die at their desks.

This, I fear, is the fate that awaits me. My bosses would argue that nobody could tell the difference because I’d be just as effective as I am now. At least they wouldn’t have to pay me anymore.

Still, to get an idea of how long I could survive once I quit my job, or if I’d have to continue working until my kids retired, at which point they could feed me every day, I recently met with Jeff Sena, a regional consultant with Fidelity Investments, a multinational financial services corporation that is based in Boston and does business with the company that, in its limited wisdom, employs me.

“How old are you?” Jeff asked me at the start of the hourlong session.

“Old enough to know better,” I replied.

“Do you?” he wondered.

“No,” I said.

“Then I need to know your age,” he said, “because Social Security won’t accept ‘old enough to know better’ on your paperwork.”

“OK,” I conceded, “I’m 63.”

“You don’t look it,” Jeff said. “And you don’t act it.”

“I’m shockingly immature,” I responded. “It makes me seem younger.”

“I wouldn’t put that on your paperwork, either, or you’d have to work even longer,” said Jeff, who is 65 but doesn’t look or act it himself.

“You’re 65 and you’re not retired?” I said incredulously. “Can’t you afford it?”

“I can, but I love what I do,” said Jeff, who also loves hiking and belongs to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

“You must have clients from all walks of life,” I noted, adding: “People are always telling me to take a hike.”

“You should,” Jeff said with a smile. “But don’t take one now because we have to go over your finances.”

“That shouldn’t take long,” I said, producing the required documents, including bank statements, income information and investment records. “As you can see, I haven’t won Powerball.”

“Neither have I,” said Jeff, who scanned the figures and told me that I have a good RPM.

“My car has a good RPM, too,” I said. “And it will retire before I do.”

“I’m talking about your Retirement Preparedness Measurement,” Jeff said. “But more important than that is your FRA.”

“My car doesn’t have one of those,” I said.

“No,” countered Jeff, “but you do. It stands for Full Retirement Age.”

The standard FRA, Jeff said, is 66, though people can draw on Social Security beginning at age 62.

“I can’t draw on anything except my granddaughter’s coloring books,” I said.

“If you were retired, you’d have plenty of time for that,” Jeff said. “But you’d be better off working until you were 70 because Social Security payments go up 8 percent a year until that age.”

Jeff said he could plan a retirement strategy for me until I am 94 and for my wife, Sue, until she is 96. “Women live longer than men,” he noted.

“If it weren’t for my wife,” I said, “I would have been dead long ago.”

Nonetheless, I told Jeff, longevity runs in the family.

“You must have good genes,” he said.

“Of course,” I responded. “My wife does all of my clothes shopping.”

“The question is,” Jeff said at the end of the session, “would your wife want you around all the time if you were both retired?”

“I’d probably drive her crazy,” I said.

“Then you should keep working,” Jeff suggested. “You can drive your bosses crazy instead.”

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Stomping With the Stars"

By Jerry Zezima
Stamford Advocate
If I ever get my own sitcom, which I am actually working on, I’d call it either “Everybody Loves Jerry” (Ray Romano can star) or “I Love Jerry” (Lucille Ball can’t star because Lucy’s in the sky with Desi).

In the pilot episode, I would re-create Lucy and Ethel’s famous grape stomping routine. It would be based on real life because I recently went to Riverhead, New York, for a Grape Stomp Party at Martha Clara Vineyards, where I am a member of the wine club.

To steal a line from Groucho Marx, who also is dead and can’t sue me, I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member, but in the case of Martha Clara I have made an exception because the wines are really good and I had grape expectations (ditto Charles Dickens) for the party.

I do not pretend to be an oenophile with a discriminating palate, mainly because my files are disorganized and I don’t like to paint, but I prefer red wine because it is, according to my doctor, over-the-counter heart medicine. And for a geezer like me, that’s very important.

So when I received an email invitation to the Grape Stomp Party from Gina Messa, Martha Clara’s bubbly hospitality manager and empress of fun, I readily accepted. Then I had a glass of merlot, just to set the mood.

Merlot grapes, as it turned out, were one of two kinds that attendees would be stomping, the other being riesling, a white variety that my wife, Sue, prefers. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it to the party, so I chose merlot and hoped the grapes I stomped with my bare feet wouldn’t make their way into a bottle of Martha Clara Merlot Jerry 2017, the sniffing of which would certainly be something to sneeze at.

“No,” Gina assured me as the party got underway, “we wouldn’t do that to our customers. In fact, the grapes you stomp will be thrown out.”

That must have come as a relief to the other 130 attendees, who ate a light lunch  in the vineyard’s converted barn before going out back for the stomping.

There, all in a row, sat eight bins, each of which could hold a quarter-ton of grapes but contained only half of that to give attendees room to stomp them.

“The world of wine can be pretentious and snobby,” said Juan Micieli-Martinez, Martha Clara’s winemaker and general manager, “but this is going to be fun.”

No one had more fun than Juan’s 5-year-old son, Benecio, who had already stomped both red and white grapes.

“They’re squishy!” he told me.

“He can’t drink wine yet,” said his mother, Bridget, who used to work in the industry, “but he can help make it.”

When it was my turn, Gina asked me to take off my flip-flops. She looked at my naked tootsies and said, “You should have worn nail polish.”

“Since I’ll be stomping merlot grapes,” I replied, “I’ll get a red-icure.”

“You’re really getting into the spirit,” said Gina, who then helped me get into the bin, where we immediately started dancing in a shin-deep mass of merlot makings.

A crowd of attendees, wineglasses in hand, cheered us on as Gina twirled me around so dizzily that it felt like I’d already had a couple of glasses of wine.

After a few minutes, she helped me out of the bin and hosed off my feet, which were covered in juice and had crushed grapes between the toes. Benecio was right: They were squishy. His father was right, too: It was a lot of fun.

“A couple of years ago,” Gina said, handing me a towel, “two women showed up dressed as Lucy and Ethel.”

“If I don’t get my own sitcom,” I told her, “we could have a dance show, ‘Stomping With the Stars.’ ”

“I bet we’d win,” Gina said. “And we could celebrate with wine.” She smiled and added, “I know a guy who makes a mean merlot.”

Copyright 2017 by Jerry Zezima

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