None of us was born or raised in a vacuum. My politics are in line with my father's beliefs. My sports interests, especially as they pertain to baseball, are the same as his.
When I was young and full of myself ‘liberal causes’ were very important. Many friends and relatives predicted that I would eventually become conservative. That has not happened.
I attended the University of North Carolina for three years where I got an education in life and then earned a BA in English from Utica College where I got an education in the area that gives me great pleasure: I majored in English literature.
If having a career means working at something for a major portion of a lifetime, I never had one. But I have have earned a living in many ways: I have taught school, owned a restaurant and written how-to manuals. I worked with inmates in a correctional facility; I investigated child abuse and provided counseling. Before turning to full-time writing, I worked with 14 county legislators, researching, editing and writing.
The work I did with dysfunctional families no doubt influenced me most. I was forced to face the cold hard truth that the complexity of social, economic, emotional, ethnic, mental, and religious factors make it extremely difficult to effect significant change. I have reluctantly conceded that there are no simple solutions – no silver bullets – for social ills.
My wife Peggy has tolerated me for almost 50 years. Somehow she has been able to keep me from messing up the great job she did raising our five children.
My blogs will vary in theme and politics is sure to be the topic often. I hope you enjoy them and will help me by commenting (especially when you can offer serious critiques). I admit that readership is the goal and it is the only thing that fuels my desire to write.
Friday, July 5, 2013
Monday, May 14, 2012
|Miguel de Cervantes|
|Quixote & Panza looking for |
Senoritas in distress
|Tosti's, just before it was razed.|
The feed mill is on the left.
Whenever I run into customers of Tosti’s Steak House, the restaurant that my wife Peggy and I operated from 1969-1984, it’s likely I’ll hear about a special memory they have hung onto. It may have been a birthday party, or a New Year’s Eve gala, or one of our International Gourmet Nights. Believe me, in 15 years there were many memorable events. There were even a few love stories that germinated in the place; some ended in marriage.
On the flip-side, there were a few relationships that ended because of things that happened there. Maybe I’ll tell some of those stories some day, but this is going to be about one of my favorite memories. I’m telling you right up front that it’s a story about a pigeon, so if you’re not into bird tales, you won't waste your time with the rest of this narrative.
Anyone who was around in those days surely remembers that the place was next door to a feed mill and grain warehouse. With truckloads of grain coming and going daily, some of the feed would inevitably spill onto the loading docks, the roadway and parking area. The grain overflow created a great feeding ground for a healthy and prodigious critter population, the most visible of which were pigeons. They roosted under the eaves of both buildings and pretty much ruled the air space for about a block in all directions. For exercise, they would fly over to the Holiday Inn and (without checking in, of course) would spend a lot of R&R time on the roof. As far as I could tell, they didn’t go much farther than that so that when they got hungry their stash would be nearby. Of course, in setting up housekeeping, they did what all of us do when we settle down: they would bill and coo and the next thing you know they would have parental responsibilities.
When I said that Peggy and I ran the restaurant, what I meant was that she did the work and I did the glad-handing. If you’ve ever started a business on a shoestring, you know that you do what you can to save money; one of the ways we did that was to put Peg in charge of maintenance and cleaning. Every morning, while I got my much-needed rest snug at home in bed, she would go down to the to the place, swab the floors, put out the garbage, clean the restrooms, and follow up on whatever I had left undone the night before. Charley would go along with her and he would keep guard, so that no one would try to sneak in while she was working. Charley had been a tiny puppy when my son Gaetano brought him home as a birthday gift to me, telling everybody he was a small terrier, which turned out to be a lie, but that’s another story that I may tell later.
Before I go any further, I have to give you some background about Peg and her mother, Eva. Otherwise, this story would seem like I had made it up or something. Eva was born and raised in a small western Wisconsin farm town near the Iowa border. Eva’s father, Doc Stanton, was the veterinarian in the area, and Peg’s grandmother ran the local coffee shop where they served breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some of the food they prepared had been obtained as payment for Doc's services: fresh eggs, chickens, milk and even some steaks, I guess. Eva’s love for animals grew out of Doc’s profession. She was never without pets, usually several at one time. She told me about a pet chicken she once had and she claimed it obeyed her better than any dog or cat she ever had. Of course Eva passed the animal-loving gene down to my wife. Peg-O-My-Heart has driven me to distraction with her affinity for animals more than once. But that’s another story that I might get to at another time.
Peg’s father Fred had passed away, leaving Eva with an empty nest back in Wisconsin after her youngest son got married. So Peg and I asked Eva to come to live with us in Rome. She said she would come only if we agreed she could keep her car and her pets. We caved on both points so I took an airplane to O’Hare so I could drive her car back to Rome with her stuff as well as her two cats and a dog. That trip could be a story in itself, but I’ll save it for another time. After we got here, Eva settled in and helped with the kids, did some cooking at home, and helped Peg on cleanup duty at the steak house.
One morning as Peg went to unlock the back door of the restaurant, she glanced down to see a shoebox with holes in the lid on the doorstep. As usual, our dog Charley was with them. He stuck his nose under the lid, obviously checking for a bomb or some other threat. But it wasn’t ticking, so Charley nuzzled closer and lifted the top open with his nose. That’s when they heard “Peep-peep, peep-peep” instead of tick-tick-tick. Charley jumped a couple of feet in the air when he heard it and hid behind Peg, who went over and found two naked baby pigeons, scared to death, no doubt, and surely hungry. I’m certain that neighborhood kids had found the birds after they had fallen from their nest and put them on the doorstep in the shoebox. I’ll never figure out how they knew that Eva and Peg were such suckers for homeless creatures.
The cleaning chores suffered that day because Peg and her mom rushed to a drugstore to buy eyedroppers and bread and milk. They had become so involved in their latest animal rescue that I actually had to put out the trash when I got to work later that day.
Of course, when I arose that same morning, I knew nothing of the rescue mission. I poured my coffee and headed for the den to watch TV news. As I did so, I noticed that the folding doors to the den were closed tight with rubber bands holding them in place. As sharp as I am, I knew that something was not right. Peg had been in the living room and must have heard my chair move when I got up from the table because she ran in to tell me not to open the doors. I looked down at the base of the doors and for the first time noticed our four cats rubbing their back against the door with their tails pointed at the ceiling. They looked at me as though they wanted me to move faster to get the doors open.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked Peg.
Peg explained that we had visitors – a pair of hairless, featherless baby pigeons – and that the cats probably hoped they were going to be dinner guests. She told me how she and her mother had come upon the poor abandoned creatures and had taken on the burden of raising them. I think you can understand that I was not happy and I must have raised my voice when I demanded to know how long I would be deprived of my favorite room in the house. “I don’t ask for much, you know,” I said petulantly. Peg told me to lower my voice because she didn’t want her mother to hear me. It would break Eva’s heart if she thought I didn’t want her pigeons living with us.
I did better than lower my voice. I shut up completely and observed for the next several days as Peg and her mother dipped bread in honey and milk and shoved it into the beaks of those motherless little guys. One of them, though, acted like he just didn’t want any part of this world. He wouldn’t swallow no matter how much my ladies tried to coax him. They would stroke his throat and beg him to go gulp, but it was no use. I concluded that you can lead a pigeon to milk and honey, but …
|Only one of the two was interested in survival|
By this time, our daughter Ava had begun to take an interest in the survivor and helped take care of him. Ava had inherited the gene that afflicted Peg. Eva, our older daughter (she was named after her grandmother) had the picked up a giant version and has had pets galore. That's one more story that I have to keep in mind for another time. (I have to give you a hint on this one, though. It's about a vicious goose she took into her home.)
Ava got to name the orphan and chose to call him Coo, which I thought was very unimaginative, but everybody seemed to like it and so that became his name. I was later able to give him a last name and he became “Coo-Bird”.
As undernourished as he had been, Coo-Bird wasn’t out of the woods health-wise. But my three ladies worked hard at feeding him and making him feel wanted.
|Coo biding his time on the fridge|
I had anticipated that an insurmountable problem would arise with the cats as soon as Coo-Bird started to fly. But of course, I totally underestimated Peggy June’s genius for engineering solutions. At the first sign of Coo’s wing-flapping, Peg scoured the basement and came up with four old Easter baskets and hung them from the ceilings of the downstairs rooms. Then she picked Coo up and introduced him to each one of the baskets, demonstrating to him that they were his safety nets. It worked great. Whenever one of the cats got an idea about enhancing the menu, Coo would bat his wings and land in one of the baskets, leaving a frustrated cat or two and pawing at the air. He also found a sanctuary on his own. If the refrigerator was closer than one of the baskets, it also provided a safe haven.
As summer came on, I began to worry about Coo-Bird's physical development. By this time he should have been full-grown, but it became obvious that he was never going to be as big as his cousins who lived down at the steak house. It didn’t seem to bother him, though, as he appeared not to be very interested in flying. I guess having been raised with the cats and dog, he thought he was a land animal. When he did lift off, it was usually to get to safety in one of the baskets, or to jump onto our heads, or sometimes he headed for the top of the refrigerator. We figured that was his way of saying thank-you because if we gave him a cracker, or filled his feed bowl he would end up in our hair. Charley often had Coo either on is head or riding his back, especially if he had just barked a cat away.
Coo-Bird began taking strolls around the neighborhood. We live on a small dead-end street and almost everybody got to know him and look out for him. Once in a while he would take flight, but never very high, and only for a short distance. Usually he just strutted up and down the street, bobbing his head in time with his coo-coos.
|Ava giving Coo a ride upstairs|
I didn’t have time for an apology because I had to go the restaurant to open the bar. We were usually closed on Sunday, but during football season I opened the bar so that the guys could come down and watch the games. I would tend bar and put out some snacks and sometimes the register would ring a nice tune. As soon as I opened the doors, I put a couple of pizzas in the oven and we had a good crowd that day.
Between answering the phone, tending bar, and trying to watch the games, I was pretty busy. My car, a 1974 Buick with a landau top, was parked on Front St. where I could see its roof through the side window of the restaurant, directly across from the bar station. I probably saw the pigeon perched on the roof of the car several times before it struck me as unusual. Even though the local pigeon population was pretty bold, I had never seen any of them on a car roof before. I can’t say that I immediately figured out the problem, because I'm not that sharp. But the more I looked at that bird, the more certain I was it was Coo-Bird, mostly because of his size. I picked up the phone and called home. Peg answered and I told her that I was sure that Coo had flown down to the restaurant and was sitting on my car.
Peg said, no, he hadn’t flown down. She was using that voice that I knew too well. She was not happy with me. “Ava and I took him down there in the car so that he could join his cousins.” She said Ava was convinced that I meant what I had said about breaking his neck and that the poor Ava would rather turn him loose than let me commit murder. Peg added that she couldn’t convince Ava that I didn’t mean it because she had always had her own doubts about my sanity. It became clear to me that I was being told that Coo was on the loose and in danger all because of me. Peg said that poor Ava had a tearful moment with Coo before she tossed him in the direction of the Holiday Inn where several pigeons were roosting. Ava cried all the way home, I learned later, but she was comforted by the fact that Coo had joined his own kind and was safe from me. I told Peg that was ridiculous. Now Peg started to sob some and said it was my fault. I told Peg I was going out to put the bird in the car and before she hung up I think I heard her swear at me.
When I went outside, Coo appeared scared to death. He seemed to recognize me and might even have been happy that I was there to rescue him. The wind was blowing very hard and the configuration of the buildings created a tunnel that enhanced the wind speed. Coo-Bird walked over toward me and let me gently pick him up off the car roof. But when I opened the door to put him inside I had to press him against my chest and he panicked and flew straight up in the air and landed in my hair. I reached for him and I guess I held on too tightly because he pecked at my hand and I was forced to let go. No doubt he was now convinced that I meant what I had said earlier that morning.
It was very windy and flying wasn’t Coo’s forte
What could I do? I did what any sane person would do. I ran after him, and when I realized he was not going to let me pick him up, I went out into traffic holding my hand out to stop the cars while Coo crossed the street. It must have taken us ten minutes and looking back on it, I guess I’m lucky nobody called a cop or an insane asylum. Here I was, all 270 pounds of me, hair flying in the wind, shirt out of my pants, holding up my hand and shouting for people to stop their cars so that a bird could walk across the street. Not pretty, believe me.
Once he got to the parking lot, Coo decided to go for the roof of the motel again. He was out of the wind tunnel and that made flying easier. The wind did hold him up a bit, and he was pretty unsteady, but he got up there and perched with a bunch of other guys, looking pathetically small. I was certain that his cousins were edging away from him and saw no sign of a welcoming greeting.
But, since I couldn’t fly at all, I could do no more. I went back into the bar, called home and demanded that Peg drive down to take Coo home. She said that she wasn’t going to do it, and I felt about as bad as I had ever felt. I watched the rest of the football game and, of course, all my teams had lost.
When I got home that night I learned that Peg, Eva and Ava had gone to the Holiday Inn. Ava spotted her Coo-Bird and talked to him, convincing him that he was better off at home. She held her hands out and promised him that she would keep me under control. It probably was an easy sell, because the last time I had seen Coo, he did not appear to be very happy. He alit from the roof and landed gently in Ava’s hair and they all drove home. I felt like I was as they told me all about getting Coo home, and I protested a lot about the glares I was getting. Ava eventually accepted my story, acknowledging the fact that I had demonstrated a fondness for Coo-Bird by putting my own life on the line to get him across the street safely.
There was one time, though, that I thought we were going to have a serious problem. We watched from the picture window as Coo-Bird headed across the street where a visitor was sitting alone on a neighbor’s porch. She didn’t know Coo and we could see she was eying him suspiciously. I’m sure she had never seen a pigeon that did nothing but walk. He went right up to the porch, showing no fear, and sang his monotonous song, timing his coos with his head thrusts. I guess the lady figured he was hungry because she went into the house, telling him not to go away, and she came back with a slice of bread which she tore into little pieces and tossed in his direction. Coo stuffed himself with the free meal and when he was done, he thanked her by elevating and landing in her hair, which was abundant. This sudden move was not expected and the panic on her face was almost too much to bear. I nearly had a heart attack of my own just picturing the ambulance guys asking what happened to the lady who was sprawled out on the lawn with her hair all tangled up. Worst case scenario, I thought she might survive and sue us for all we were worth – not much, mind you, but I didn’t want to end up panhandling for meals like Coo had just done.
Unlike me, Ava was not frozen in a panic and she ran across the street, calmed the lady and told Coo to come to her. Coo obeyed and perched on Ava’s shoulder, and while Ava explained Coo’s eccentricities to the lady, she checked the victim for serious injury and found none. Since neighbor’s guest didn’t run into the house to call a lawyer, I relaxed a little.
Coo-Bird continued to make his rounds of the neighborhood without an escort and because everybody looked out for him, we weren't very concerned about his safety. Neighbors welcomed his visits, and usually provided a treat for him. They also made sure that their own pets did him no harm.
It wasn’t unusual for him to be gone from the house for a few hours at a time, so when he didn’t show for supper one day, we weren’t too concerned. However, when it began to get dark, we began to worry. Ava went out and called to him but she got no response. Peg and Eva took the car and drove around calling his name, but Coo didn't answer and there was no sign of him. We went to bed that night thinking maybe he had become lonely for his cousins and gone to visit them, hoping they would give him a nicer homecoming this time. At least that's what we told ourselves.
But, our hopes were dashed when Bruce, the policeman who lived across the street on the front door the next day and told us he had bad news. Bruce said his wife had seen Coo-Bird earlier in the day, strolling down the road as he usually did, when a truck turned the corner at a fairly high rate of speed. It was a delivery truck, he said, possibly UPS, but his wife was not sure. His wife had told him about the accident when he had come from lunch. He figured the driver had not made deliveries on the street before and must have assumed that Coo would fly out of his way. He guessed that because everybody in the neighborhood had looked out for Coo, the bird’s brain wasn’t on alert for dangerous vehicles. He said his wife told him that Coo suddenly realized he had a problem and tried to fly, but it was too late.
Bruce said his wife was sure that Coo didn’t suffer, and that he had himself had gone out and taken care of what was left. Bruce had provided him respectable burial to save us the emotional trauma. We thanked Bruce for his concern.
We tried to hold a vigil in the living room after Bruce left, but it was very brief. Peg and Grandma excused themselves and went upstairs to one of the bedrooms, to have a good cry, I’m sure. Ava’s tears were streaming down her face, and she glanced over at me to see if I had the appropriate reaction. The tear that was making its way down my face must have satisfied her and she quickly went out the front door, probably to commiserate with a friend or two.
Within a month or two, we were able to hold real mourning session, retelling our own favorite stories about our rare bird. I’m sure the neighbors have some stories of their own that they share with their own relatives and friends. And I know the gang that was at the bar on the day I saved Coo’s life have retold that one a few times.