Friday, October 31, 2008

"If I Had a Hammer"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

As the Least Handy Man in America, a title I bestowed on myself when my wife and I moved into our house 10 years ago, I have been known to throw a monkey wrench into every home improvement project I have ever undertaken. Unfortunately, a monkey wrench is often the only tool I can find.

Or at least it was until I met Jerry Guirlinger, who not only may be the Most Handy Man in America, but who knows an Allen wrench from a monkey wrench. He also knows that a screwdriver is not necessarily vodka and orange juice but concedes that it can be a valuable tool in a difficult home improvement project.

The only other person I know who is as handy as Guirlinger is another Jerry, my father, the original and by far the best Jerry Zezima.

The only other person I know who is as inept as I am is yet another Jerry, Jerry Howard, better known as Curly of the Three Stooges.

I never knew Curly personally because he died before I was born, but I once met his daughter and granddaughter at a Three Stooges convention. Neither one had a shaved head, but they were very nice and said Curly was, too, so I felt like I knew him.

Anyway, the Stooges wielded tools in a way that was painfully funny, which is why my mother didn’t want me to watch them when I was a kid. I guess she was afraid I would get a hammer from my father’s tool cabinet and hit one of my sisters over the head with it. I would never do that because it would have ruined the hammer.

But at least I knew where the hammer was. That’s because my father was – and, at 91, still is – so organized. Unfortunately, his organizational skills have skipped a generation with me.

That was evident when my father visited recently and saw first hand, in which he has expertly used many a hammer, wrench and screwdriver over the years, just how disorganized I am when it comes to tools, most of which he has given to me. They are tossed, willy-nilly, which would be a good name for me, in several toolboxes in the garage.

"You should know where all your tools are," my father said.

"I do know where all my tools are," I replied. "It’s just that I can never find the one I want."

Enter Guirlinger, who made a house call recently with his handyman invention, Mobile-Shop, a portable organizer than can hold 230 tools and even has a small shelf that serves as a bar where you can make yourself a screwdriver.

"Sometimes you need one," said Guirlinger, who is based in Columbus, Ohio, but had come east on a business trip. He stopped by one morning with his vice president of sales, Angelo Mazzella, who drove down to New York from Milford, N.H.

"The good news," Guirlinger said as he surveyed the chaos in my garage, "is that you’re actually pretty normal. The bad news," he added, "is that you have a lot of chaos."

Mazzella was especially amused by my vintage collection, including a wooden extension ruler that I didn’t know I had and obviously hadn’t used in a long time. "This is pretty old," he noted.

"Well," I said, "there’s no tool like an old tool."

I’m surprised he didn’t hit me over the head with a hammer. Then again, he probably couldn’t find one.

That wouldn’t be the case with Mobile-Shop (more info at because everything would be at my fingertips, which I am lucky to still have considering the way I use saws. In addition to the aforementioned 230 tools, which come with the wheeled contraption and are kept in labeled pockets, there is a first-aid kit.

"That might come in handy for you," Guirlinger said.

I was pretty impressed with Mobile-Shop, which is 40-by-26-by-21 inches and weighs 140 pounds fully stocked, but I couldn’t find a drill to extract $3,167 from my bank account, so I haven’t purchased one yet.

But Guirlinger and Mazzella did give me some valuable tips on how to be handier and more organized with my tools. Will I ever be in the same class as my father? No. Am I now better than Curly? Soitenly! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!

Copyright 2008 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Law & Disorder"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

I’m the very model of the modern model citizen, although I’m not as beautiful a model as Heidi Klum, which explains why I have never been featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Still, I am proud and slightly flummoxed to say that I do not (as yet) have a criminal record. On the advice of my attorney, who is in jail, I can’t say anything else except that I am disappointed I wasn’t chosen to serve on a court case when I was called recently for jury duty.

After I received my summons in the mail, I eagerly called the telephone standby number every day for a week, only to be told by a recorded message that my services weren’t needed. At the end of the week, I was excused and was told I wouldn’t be called for another six years.

I was so crestfallen at this miscarriage of justice that I went to see Michael D. O’Donohoe, commissioner of jurors for Suffolk County, N.Y., where I live, to find out why I wasn’t picked.

"Don’t take it personally," O’Donohoe told me as we sat in his office just off the jury room. "We’re looking for anyone who is reasonable."

"I guess that’s what eliminated me," I reasoned.

Actually, O’Donohoe said, failure to be called for a case isn’t unusual. "It happens," he explained. "At least you wanted to serve. There are some people who will do anything to get out of jury duty."

Like the guy who filled out his juror information form by writing, "I hate everybody." Then he added epithets about various religious and ethnic groups.

"He thought we wouldn’t pick him because he was prejudiced," O’Donohoe said. "He also blackened out his name and figured we would never find him. But he didn’t realize there was a bar code on the form, so we tracked him down and put him back in the system. When he came in, he said, ‘How did you ever find me?’ I told him I had my ways. Then I reported him to the bias crimes unit. He wasn’t anything but a knucklehead. In this job, you have to deal with idiots like that."

Even O’Donohoe’s wife couldn’t get out of jury duty.

"Not that she wanted to," he said. "During questioning for a civil case, an attorney asked if she was any relation to the commissioner of jurors. She said, ‘Yes, I’m married to him.’ The attorney said, ‘You’re his wife and you can’t get out of jury duty?’ My wife said, ‘I’m sleeping with him and I still can’t.’ Then the woman behind her said, ‘I guess my excuse isn’t going to work.’ My wife got picked. So did the other woman."

And if you think being a celebrity can get you off the hook, O’Donohoe said, think again. That’s what actor Alec Baldwin found out after failing to report.

"He didn’t show up for his first court date and he didn’t show up for his next one, either," O’Donohoe recalled. "I said to his attorney, ‘I am going to give him another date and I want him to show up this time,’ but he didn’t show up again. I called his attorney back and said, ‘Let’s not play games.’ Finally, Alec walked in and said, ‘I’m very sorry, Mr. Commissioner.’ He wasn’t selected to be on a jury, but he went through the process."

So did other Hamptons celebrities such as Christie Brinkley, Billy Joel and Alan Alda, whom O’Donohoe called "a gentleman," adding, "He was a really nice guy."

There was, however, one person O’Donohoe did excuse from jury duty: his mother.

"One day a letter came across my desk," O’Donohoe remembered. "It said, ‘My car can make it but I don’t think I can.’ And it was signed ‘Helen O’Donohoe.’ I said to myself, ‘That’s my mother!’ So I called her and said, ‘Why didn’t you call me instead of writing a letter?’ She said, ‘I didn’t want to bother you.’ I get thousands of these letters, but I excused her anyway."

O’Donohoe, 60, a former legislator, has been on the job for 15 years and loves it. "The system really does work," he said, adding that I wouldn’t have to wait six years to be back in the jury pool. "You can volunteer after two years," he suggested.

When I asked what I had to do to get on a case, O’Donohoe smiled and said, "Just make sure you’re not the defendant."

Copyright 2008 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, October 3, 2008

"Fast Paul and the Ping-Pong Kid"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Paul Newman had such a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that he probably wouldn’t mind if I said I’m glad I’m not the reason he’s dead. But I came close to killing him several years ago, when the legendary actor and popcorn pooh-bah almost choked on a bowl of Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger.

The first ingredient in my recipe for near-disaster was a ping-pong ball, which came into play when someone from the office of Newman’s Own, the Westport, Conn.-based food company that sells salad dressing and gives lots of lettuce to charity, called to ask if I wanted to play Fast Paul in a game of table tennis at the Rainbow Room in New York City.

I immediately accepted the challenge because the game would be played at the awards luncheon for the annual Newman’s Own and Good Housekeeping Recipe Contest and, being a serious journalist, I knew there would be free eats.

The place was filled with more than 100 people, not just contest winners from across the country but celebrities such as Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford and writer A.E. Hotchner, Newman’s Westport neighbor and his partner in the food company. And right in the middle was the ping-pong table, at one end of which stood Newman, paddle in hand. I was at the other end. A woman from Newman’s Own wore a striped shirt and carried a whistle. She was the referee.

I quickly learned one thing about Paul Newman: His propensity for cheating was, I am sorry to say, even greater than mine.

He hit a shot into the net. The ref said, "Point, Mr. Newman."

I hit a forehand smash past the athletic star. "Point, Mr. Newman."

One of his shots was long. "Point, Mr. Newman."

It continued in this fashion until I was utterly defeated.

The crowd roared. Newman shook my hand and said, "Nice game, kid."

At least he fed me.

Being not just a glutton for punishment but a glutton, period, I went back for more the next year. But the luncheon was delayed because there was a fire in the kitchen at the Rainbow Room. By the time it was out, the entertainment portion of the program had to be shelved.

"Is it true that you used some of your hot sauce to start the fire so you could weasel out of playing me in a rematch?" I asked Newman.

He winked one impossibly blue eye and replied, "You might want to say that."

The following year, I created a dish and brought it to the luncheon for Newman to try. The ingredients were garlic, onions, chicken, hot sausage, red and green peppers, salt, black pepper, red pepper and a jar each of Newman’s Own Bombolina and Sockarooni sauces. I also poured in some red wine and vodka and served the whole thing over a bed of pasta.

I fed the concoction, which I dubbed Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger, to my family. Miraculously, nobody had to be hospitalized, so I put some in my wife’s best Corningware dish and brought it to the luncheon.

For some reason or other, Newman never got a chance to try it. To make matters worse, the Corningware dish got misplaced and was never found. To this day, my wife has not forgiven me. But Waldy Malouf, executive chef of the Rainbow Room, sampled my creation and said it was delicious. "You should enter it in next year’s contest," he suggested.

So I did. I filled out the entry form with my recipe and mailed it in. A few weeks later, I got a phone call informing me that I was the runner-up in the pasta sauce division. I, a man who can barely make toast, had finished second in a field of thousands.

I made another batch and fed some to my dog, Lizzie, just to make sure it was OK. Lizzie wolfed it down and wanted more, but I put the remainder in a Tupperware container – no Corningware this time – and brought it to the awards luncheon.

Afterward, I went up to Newman with my plastic bowl of Zezima’s Zesty Ziti Zinger and asked if he wanted to try it. "Sure, kid," he said, grabbing a fork.

As he was shoveling in the first mouthful, I told him I had fed some to my dog and that if it was good enough for her, it would be good enough for him, too.

"Gack!" Newman said in mid-chew. Then his eyes bulged, his face flushed and he gasped for air.

"Oh, God!" I thought. "He’s going to choke to death on my recipe. I’ll forever be known as the man who killed Paul Newman."

Fortunately, he recovered, swallowed the mouthful and asked, "Is your dog still alive?"

"Yes," I assured him.

That was all Newman needed to hear. He scarfed down the rest of the Zinger, saying between bites, "Mmmm! This is – umph, umph, umph – delicious! You could have been a winner, kid."

Thanks to the man with a great appetite for life and a twinkle in those famous eyes, I sure felt like one.

Point, Mr. Newman.

Copyright 2008 by Jerry Zezima