Site icon Rick Bailey's Blog

Toothpicks–walking, Uncle Buck, an old song

“Did you bring a flashlight?” Tizi asks. We’re setting out on our morning walk. It’s January, cold and dark. The snow that fell a few days ago has all melted, leaving puddles in the depressions in the asphalt pavement. She’s wearing her bright yellow Flectson vest over her many layers. A passing car will light up its gray reflector panels, two on the front, one in the back. By the side of the road you can’t miss her. Can’t miss us. I have one too, but i didn’t wear it. I figure one vest is enough. We are, after all, walking together.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Great,” she says. 

I detect miff. “I’ll just stay next to you,” I tell her. “And let your reflectors do their job.”

She’s miffed, I know, because we’ve turned left at the end of our street. She prefers to go to the right. A left turn takes us to our five-mile walk, whereas right is seven miles, a route I like, too, except it takes us down one mile of dirt road, and today it is wet, which means mud. 

Just wipe your feet on the wet grass after, she would say.

I don’t like mud.

Just walk on the dry patches in the middle of the road.

They’re not dry. And there’s more traffic than usual these days because of a road closure, forcing us to the muddy shoulder.

Just wipe your feet on the wet grass.

I don’t like mud.

There’s also some residual miff. Because of toothpicks. She was looking for toothpicks yesterday in the cupboard next to the sink. They should have been up there. It’s one of those dysfunctional corner kitchen cupboards, above the counter next to the range, requiring a chair to stand on and bodily contortions to reach into its furthest holds. 

She asked me to search the top shelves, which I did, finding a lot of junk: half a dozen boxes of expired cold medications, three pepper mills and a salt mill we’ve never used, Worcestershire sauce we never need, defunct vitamins we didn’t take, two small bottles of designer olive oil, never opened, a large jar of solid state honey, Child Life award winning liquid multi-vitamin and mineral supplement (orange/mango flavor), never been opened, no longer a liquid; also three stainless steel frothing pitchers, also a blue and white sixteen ounce ceramic caffe latte tumbler someone gave us, never used, and a lone blue and white espresso cup one of our kids made in a ceramics class and gave us, not needed, never used; zinc lozenges, a box of Bigelow chamomile tea c. 2002, a tube of truffle cream that I’m sure in disuse has become a solid. And more. 

When Tizi can’t find something, she accuses me of 1) moving it to an undisclosed location or 2) throwing it away. These accusations are not without foundation. It wasn’t the missing toothpicks. It was the reminder that I disappear stuff. She was miffed.

Our walk this morning will take 90 minutes. She slows down slightly, putting 5-10 feet between us. We should walk together. She’s wearing the Flectson vest. Also, it’s too long for us to walk in a huff.  But she’s making a statement. To lighten things up, I think of telling her what song is on my mind this morning, “Hang On Sloopy,” by the McCoys. I decide against it and say to her instead: “Toothpicks always remind me of Dennis Cockram.”  

We’ve seen Dennis in the movies–not at the movies, I mean in the movies. We’ve seen him and a few theater classmates from our undergraduate days. In the theater program back then, Tizi was in costume design. I was not a thespian. But I was theater curious. In a few productions I served as a stand-around, a potted plant, an actorkin that a director could move to a point on the stage, where I would stand, try to look authentic, and not say anything. Some of the actors who actually acted we eventually saw on television and in movies. Dennis could act. 

Along with his acting skills, he also knew what to do with a toothpick: lodge one in the side of his mouth, giving him an air somewhere between rugged and insouciant. More impressive, he could roll a toothpick vertically in his mouth. It was painful to watch–that double pointed object. You experienced vicarious peril. It may have been this skill that landed him his part in Uncle Buck. It’s a small part, but Dennis owns it: Uncle Buck’s friend Pal, who does that toothpick thing.

“Dennis,” Tizi says. 

“The toothpick roll in Uncle Buck.”

“He did that all the time. He came from a family of ranchers.”

“I remember,” I say.  “Like Rip, on Yellowstone. Rip is a toothpick man. Ranchers and toothpicks. Manly men and toothpicks. How did that get started?”

We’re walking down into my favorite part of the five-mile walk. We curve around a low swampy area. In the dark, the bare trees standing up reaching toward the sky remind me of dendrites.

“I wish you’d brought a flashlight.”

“It’s kind of spooky,” I say. “I like it.”

“What about deer?” 

There are deer. She reminds me that Sherrie, our friend, said she was attacked by a deer. I ask how a flashlight would help.

“We could see them.”

And duck? Actually, I think, if I had the flashlight, I would not shine malevolent deer. I would light up the back of Tizi’s head. Instead of a hat, she wears a neck warmer, essentially a tube pulled down over her head. Her hair, a silver that I find thrilling, spills from the back. 

“If it dries up today,” I say to her, “maybe we can walk the long walk tomorrow.”


Henry David Thoreau’s family was in the pencil business. I wonder, as we walk, if there were also Transcendentalist toothpicks in the 19th century. 

It turns out, no, there weren’t. Toothpicks were popularized in the US by an American titan named Charles Foster, who, according to toothpick literature, is “credited for mass-producing the toothpick in the nineteenth century after noticing the locals’ great teeth on a trip to Brazil (they credited toothpicks for their sparkling smiles).” To create demand for toothpicks in restaurants in Boston, Foster bribed Harvard students to politely request them.

When I look into toothpicks, I find more lore than I ever imagined. Ancient toothpicks found in Italy and Mesopotamia. Seventeenth century Portuguese nuns that made, and still make, the world’s most highly prized toothpicks. Eskimos, no surprise, poking their teeth with walrus whiskers. In Osaka, there is a toothpick museum shedding light on both the history and multi-cultural implications of toothpicks. Death by toothpick? Sad but true. The American writer Sherwood Anderson  and possibly President Warren G. Harding, died of peritonitis, having accidently swallowed toothpicks. 

The record number of times an individual rolled a toothpick vertically in his mouth, ala Dennis Cockram, is 50, held by Pete Carpenter of Whitmore Lake, Michigan, on October 17, 2020. As far as I know, Pete Carpenter is still alive. 


I heard a crash one morning. In one of our kitchen cupboards, a clip securing a metal track on one of the pullout shelves gave way. (See the assembly illustration at the top of this page for item #1.) The pullout was overloaded with large white heavy deep Corningware dishes, three of them, one stacked on top of the other. The pullout dropped, shattering all three, smashing a couple ceramic trays below it. It was a terrible loss. Those lasagna dishes were Tizi’s mom’s. It was a terrible mess. And it was an inconvenience because a few more Corningware dishes, also in the stack, did not break. Where would we put those, now that the cupboard was compromised, rendered useless?

So began my relocation program. Other cupboards, also with pullouts, were similarly overloaded. I read the other day in the New York Times about the six-month rule. It you haven’t needed something in the past six months, and if you don’t anticipate needing it in the next six months, get rid of it.

The heavy panini grill in another cupboard, overloading another pullout, an appliance we use once a year, went to the basement. The food processor, heavy as a boat anchor, similarly relocated. We have stacks of pans, three shiny stainless steel All-Clad saute pans, small medium and large, that we do not use. Or that we use once every 3-5 years. Into the basement they went, behind the doors of more cupboards. 

“I might need one of those pans,” Tizi said. 

“Another clip might break, another pullout might crash. Remember the lasagna dishes.”

“But I don’t know where you’re putting things.” Undisclosed locations.

“Ask me. I fetch.”

Miff. Major miff.


Traffic picks up. The sky takes on that delicate, faintly lit, gloomy early morning  light. I can’t help myself. “Sloopy let your hair down, girl,” I sing, “let it hang down on me.”

To which Tizi says . . . Nothing.

“In the first band I played in,” I tell her, “I sang that song.”

“That’s nice.”

“In the high school gymnasium, in The Troupe.” 

We’re walking side by side down the middle of Westmoor Road. When a car approaches us, we move to the right shoulder and walk single file. When we hear a car coming up behind us, we move to the left shoulder and walk single file. Tizi walks in front of me. There’s enough light, I take a picture of her hair.

“Sloopy let your hair down, girl . . .”

“Why must you sing?”

“I got the music in me,” I say. “My brain is a jukebox.”

“I’ll have that dreadful song stuck in my head all day now. Does that make you happy?”

“So come on, Sloopy,” I sing. I know I’m pushing it. What kind of a name is Sloopy? I ask Tizi what she thinks.

“Maybe you can look it up.”

Still singing: “You make me feel so good.”

When we get home, I do look it up. According to one source, Sloopy was the nickname of one Dorothy Sloop of Steubenville, Ohio. More Sloopy trivia: Before the McCoys, a group called The Vibrations recorded Hang On Sloopy. It was written by Burt Berns, who also wrote “Twist and Shout” and “I Want Candy.” And more: The Ohio State University marching band plays Hang On Sloopy at every home game. The 116th Ohio General Assembly made it the state’s official rock song on Nov. 20, 1985. 

That’s a thing I wish had caught on nationwide, marching bands adopting top-40 songs from the 60’s, playing them in formation at home games. University of Michigan marching band, arranged on the field in the shape of giant grand piano, dazzling the 103,000 fans as they belt out Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”

Tizi lets her hair down when we get home from our walk, pulling that tube off her head. I don’t dare sing about it, but I want to, in the worst way.

This morning I find not one but two boxes of toothpicks in the cupboard. They were hiding in plain sight. That’s a problem with my relocation project. If I can’t find something hiding in plain sight, how will I find something I’ve stashed in the basement? “I put it where I knew I would remember.” Both of us say that–when we look for something we’ve put away somewhere, only to forget what we knew we would remember. I know it’s down there somewhere, buried treasure.

“Your hair,” I tell Tizi, “reminds me of Brian May.” When she rolls her eyes, I tell that’s a good thing.

“Who’s he?”

“He’s the guitar player in Queen.” She shakes her head, meaning I don’t know him. Meaning, You just never stop. “We will we will rock you?”

“I don’t like that song.”

If only she would play just a little air guitar. That would be so great. There’s no point in asking.

Exit mobile version