Good Egg

You had to wonder if Fred got anything out of The Great Gatsby. This was 10th grade English at Freeland High School. This was Fred Conway, a kid everyone made fun of, a kid who was brutally picked on and mocked by guys (of course it was guys) for talking slow, for not being very smart. Today boys like Fred, when they’ve had enough abuse, bring a gun to school and go all Colombine. But there was kind of a serenity about Fred. He would look on, nod his head, and smile. In Miss Erdmann’s class he sat in the back of the room, over by the window. 

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Cats, Rats, and Donuts

The sign, an improvised advertisement, takes me by surprise. Cash for cats. 

It’s a Saturday afternoon in November. The sky is a smudge. I’m driving north on Old South Telegraph Road, past a Home Depot, past a UHaul and a long-term storage facility, past a place where you can get your crashed car fixed. At one time there was a party rental outfit on this stretch of road: tables and chairs, dishes and glasses and flatware, tents and dance floors. Now closed. Not a lot of partying going on these days. 

At the stoplight where Old South Telegraph meets New South, I notice the makeshift sign, written in black marker on a white placard, “Cash for Cats.”  

I accelerate through the intersection, cross the bridge over Millpond Creek, wondering, Did I really see that? Was there a cat collection center? A booth with a drive-through window where you can pawn your Persian or Calico for cold hard cash, money to help pay for that UHaul or storage space or to get your fender fixed?  Has it come to that?

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The Scream in My Heart

Chimps are funny.

When I was a kid there was a television commercial for Red Rose Tea. Four chimps, dressed in plaid jackets and black slacks, playing swing music at a club called The Savory Ritz. On stage there was piano chimp, trombone chimp, and string bass and drummer chimp.  Also, in the foreground, lady and gentleman chimp swing dancing. How could they resist? Man, that chimp band could swing. In the last seconds of the commercial, piano chimp channels Louis Prima, leaning into a bistro microphone and chanting, Red Rose Tea! Red Rose Tea!  

It was a great commercial. What made it great was the stressed syllables. Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Those stressed syllables were hammers. The message was pounded into your brain. What great pounding.

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Hey, Freddie

The first summer I worked on the construction crew, my foreman’s name was Fred. He was a big guy, a Ukrainian. “The Ukrainians,” he would say, “are a proud people.” Fred wore bib overalls and a billcap. He kept a pencil in one bib pocket, a pack of Kools in the other. In moments of stress he tweezed a cigarette out of the pack with thumb and forefinger, lit it, and complained about his ulcer. He never ate lunch. He was a Vietnam vet and bragged once in a while about shooting men over there. In another life, one in which there had been no war and no draft, he probably would have gone to college and become an engineer. 

“Your first lesson on this job,” he said, “is don’t get killed by the crane.”

This was residential construction. We poured basement walls in future subdivisions, three or four basements a day. It was production work. The crane hooked and swung eight-foot and twelve-foot panels from a trailer bed parked up on the road into a hole where we set the panels along a footing. On the back of the crane was a half-ton counterweight. Some of the tools we used were kept in a deep box on the crane platform. “Tell Joe you’re going in the toolbox for a sledge hammer,” Fred said. “If he doesn’t know you’re there and swings the crane around, that counterweight will rip your head off.”

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Tumbling Up–the cover

Rick Bailey has written three collections of essays. Married to an Italian immigrant, in 44 years of marriage he learned the language and food of Italy and led slow-travel excursions to Italy focused on local culture and heroic eating. He and his wife now divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino.

In Tumbling Up, he returns to his Midwest roots–a one-stoplight farm town in the Michigan cornbelt. It’s the 1960’s. On the radio you hear “The Chapel of Love” and “The Eve of Destruction,” on black and white TV you see The Beverly Hillbillies and the nightly horror of Vietnam. In Tumbling Up, Bailey remembers being lost, then finding his way, coming of age in a time of seductive mayhem. 

Coming soon.

Pass the Fennel

When I was a kid, my junk food of choice, purchased at Pat’s Food Center across the street from my house, or at the park store in the Missaukee County trailer park, was Twinkies or Mars Bar or Three Musketeers bar (Pat’s) or wax lips or wax coke bottle with that syrupy pseudo coca cola inside or colored-sugar-in-a-straw (county store). I had friends who bought Good and Plenty, black or red licorice. Not me. Ever.

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