Tag Archives: pointless nostalgia

If You Need Any Clues…

It is an odd bit of coincidence that the whole @TimesPublicEdit thing blew up this time of year, which is when my dad is on my mind the most. He had a love/hate relationship with the New York Times. Or perhaps love/snark is more accurate.

My father read the Times without fail every day, devouring what he could on the train to work and finishing it up on the couch once he returned home. He did the Times crossword with monastic dedication, particularly on Sundays, when he would fill in all the squares with his own strange brand of calligraphy. On weekends, Dad would often copy the puzzles so my mother and him could have competitions to see who could finish them first. (They didn’t waste their time on the Monday-Thursday puzzles; too easy.) Whoever won would throw down the completed puzzle in front of the other, saying “If you need any clues, just let me know…”

I joined in on the puzzling when I was old enough to figure out that finishing Times crossword puzzle has nothing to do with being smart. Through repetition, you’d figure out recurring ploys and frequently used answers. “Baseball family” was always Alou. “Pitcher” or “vessel” was almost always ewer.

Dad would work away at a puzzle for a while, trying to figure it out, then suddenly say, “Oh, stupid…” in this annoyed tone of voice. We knew that meant he’d discovered the “trick” of that week’s puzzle. But for some reason we’d always ask what his groan meant anyway, and he’d in turn always say, “You’ll figure it out.”

When he died, it came as such a shock that there were many details of his funeral we didn’t know how to handle. But we knew one thing for sure: he should be buried with a book of Times crosswords, clutched in his arm like a Bible or a rosary.

As religiously as he read it, the Times annoyed him thoroughly. In my own budget analysis, I think he had the resentment found in many smart people born to relatively humble circumstances (something I would know nothing about…). I think he believed that if he’d just been born in, say, Greenwich, he would’ve had access to the world of class and sophistication (and bucks) found in the pages of the Times. Instead, fate conspired to see him born in crushing poverty in Ireland, then move to Queens as a kid, and grow up the son of a baggage handler. He wasn’t ashamed of any of this, but I think maybe some part of him wondered what if…

He also had pretentions of his own, or did once upon a time. He wrote poetry as a young man. He used to try his hand at gourmet cooking. By the time I was born, he’d abandoned all of this, save for making trays of stuffed mushrooms at holidays. In the Times, I think he saw something he’d either given up on or decided was now worthless to him. A piece of himself, really.

So while he continued to read the Times to the end of his life, he also loved to point out its ridiculousness. If he found some especially pretentious piece, he would say, in his best Larchmont Lockjaw, “devastating article in the Times” (a line I’m almost positive was cribbed from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, though I haven’t seen it in forever). He loved to mock the recipes in the Sunday magazine with ingredients that were completely unavailable to anyone not within walking distance of Balducci’s. (“Wild boar pancetta?!”) And he loved to read out the bitchiest capsule movie reviews from the TV insert, often trying to find the ones with the least amount of words. Nothing cracked him up more than to see a film summed up simply with “Drivel.”

I didn’t start @TimesPublicEdit with him in mind, but as I continued to write jokes for it, his memory kept popping up. I’d write something about hipsters in Bushwick building tree forts and I’d see his disbelieving smirk at a sophistic essay or his eyes rolling at a trend piece that tried way too hard. Eventually I realized that @TimesPublicEdit was, basically, a high tech version of what he used to do on the couch after work, Times in his lap, brow furrowed.

I never quite articulated this feeling until last week, when my wife voiced it for me. As the Anderson Cooper tweet spiraled beyond my control and “tricked” a few news outlets, she said to me, “I think your dad might be proud of you for this.” And for a moment, I allowed myself to think, “Yeah, he might have been.” I thought the man who exposed me to Monty Python and George Carlin at a criminally young age might have taken some kind of parental pride if he’d been alive to see it.

In order to think this, of course, I’d also have to think that he’d have had any use for social media of any kind, which is highly unlikely. And naturally, within minutes of me allowing myself this hubristic thought, @TimesPublicEdit was shut down.

Last weekend, while the account remained shut down, I found myself back at my mom’s house. On Sunday morning, we divvied up the Times and read it silently around the kitchen table. For a moment it felt like I was back in high school, reading the Book Review and the Metro section, dreaming of escaping to the city.

But that was long ago. Now, my eyes just skimmed over the words. I tried and tried to take them in, but nothing registered. It was like the paper knew I’d been mocking it, and was refusing to be understood in protest. You think you’re funny, huh? Well, guess what: This is gonna be weird for you from now on. Even if you get your little Twitter account back, you’ll never be able to just sit here and read this paper and not feel vaguely guilty and punished. Happy now, smartass?

No, I was not happy. After a few feint stabs at trying to get through the Book Review, I accepted that yes, this would be weird from now on.

Still finished the puzzle in 20 minutes flat, though.

Discarded Markers

You probably don’t know what this is. I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it. This comes from a coworker of mine, who was cleaning out her desk and decided she could finally part with this register mark dispenser.

In the days before digital publishing, books and magazines were laid out by hand, using lots of tape and glue and X-Acto knives. Blocks of text were meticulously constructed, calculating the character count with monastic dedication, so you would know if a photo that you couldn’t resize without an enormous hassle would fit on the page. When the layout was finalized, you had to place these register marks on the margins of each page. Each of the colors in four-color printing (CMYK) were printed in separate print runs, so these register marks ensured that all the colors would be properly aligned. This was essential, because even slightly misaligned colors produce an unsettling “vibration” effect.

I’ve worked in publishing of one type or another my entire adult life, going all the way back to college. And yet, I’d never seen an item like these stickers. By the time I entered the industry, publishing had already abandoned typesetting by hand. Quark XPress, Pagemaker, and their brethren had made that trade as dead as vaudeville disco. These new layout programs not only removed the tedious algebra of character counts and pica rulers, but they also placed those handy register marks right on the document for you.

At first glance, these register mark stickers struck me as quaint and archaic, in the same category as bygone office equipment such as the intercom and the Dictaphone. But in truth, these stickers were still in heavy rotation much more recently. Thirty years ago, most publishers still needed them by the boatload. A decade later, nearly none of them did. Ten years might seem like a long time in the Internet Age, but in the history of an industry as old as publishing, it’s the blink of an eye.

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Slice of Turkey: Forever Plaid, 1990

One evergreen feature of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is to feature the cast of a Broadway musical performing a number from their show. The effect is often weird, since the actors, singers, and dancers are asked to complete a routine in an area a fraction the size of an actual Broadway stage. It’s like asking Michael Phelps to breaststroke across a bathtub. Not to long ago, I wrote about Starlight Express, which is an extreme but representative example of this phenomenon. Starlight Express was bonkers even at its full scale. Reduced to tiny TV dimensions, it was practically suicidal.

I’ve chosen this clip that features the original cast of Forever Plaid for a few reasons. For one thing, it is a rare case where it seems that no reduction in scale was necessary, nor did it endanger anyone’s life. It’s also pretty amusing. I was genuinely impressed by the insane showmanship on display here.

But mostly I chose this clip because it triggered an ancient memory. My freshman year at NYU, one of my roommates was a pleasant enough person with whom I had no problems with at all, except that he loved to belt out songs with wild, unbridled enthusiasm, particularly early in the morning while showering. It bugged me, but I dealt with, because when it comes to putting up with petty annoyances (as opposed to actually confronting their sources), I have Herculean strength. I will exhaust any and all contingencies before asking someone to knock off whatever they’re doing.

My roommate was painfully, blissfully oblivious to how loud he was, until one morning after I’d invited several girls to crash in our room. (Nought but crashing went on; it was, for all intents and purposes, a slumber party. I only mention this to emphasize how awkwardly chaste I still was at age 18.) I was used to my roommate’s performances and just buried my head under a pillow. The girls, however, thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They all tried to shush each other but couldn’t help breaking out into chortles at his thoroughly earnest crooning.

He eventually emerged from the bathroom, wearing nothing but a towel, to find several girls (who’d escaped his notice before, apparently) sitting up in their sleeping bags, giggling. One told him she liked his voice. She said it sincerely, but he looked mortified. “You could hear me?” he asked, incredulous. I have no idea how he could not have known we could hear him. The whole dorm could.

From thereon out, his singing was far more subdued and infrequent, which was good for sleeping in but bad for my conscience. Annoying though it may have been, I felt awful for making him feel so self conscious about his shower singing. He also became a bit leery of me, suddenly thinking I was this super macho hetero dude because I was bringing over multiple girls to our room. Even I found this to be ridiculously funny, because the most exciting thing that happened that night was watching the “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Regardless of reality, he now saw me very differently, and we were never quite “cool” again.

Before this incident, however, Forever Plaid was in heavy rotation in my roommate’s repertoire. I’ve never seen the show or learned much about it; according to Wikipedia, it seems to be a proto-jukebox musical with an oddly dark premise. On the rare occasions where I hear/see it mentioned, I think of my freshman year roommate and how I accidentally crushed his fragile spirit with my irrepressible manliness.

Senior Moments at Junior High

My daughter’s kindergarten is part of a small school that does not yet have its own building. Their classrooms are wedged into one section of a junior high. This provides an interesting contrast every morning as I walk her to school. My daughter is still very excited about the idea of Big Kid School. She’s learning to read and making new friends and bringing books home from the library and even jazzed about cafeteria food.

And as she tells me about all the wonderful new things she loves and wants to shout out to the world, I must wade through a sea of junior high kids who hate life. They loiter in the schoolyard, the nearby sidewalks, the local delis, they give off a pungent scent of man, fuck this. And also hairspray.

Junior high was the absolute, rock-bottom worst. I have never met a single person who did not feel this way. (If you do, please, tell me about your magical native land of unicorns and leprechauns.) I don’t know how it was in your neck of the woods, but for me, the worst thing about junior high was how brutally different it was from elementary school, how there was absolutely no transition between the two. One day I was quoting Monty Python with impunity, the next…well, the next day I was still doing it, but now I was made fully aware of just how weird this was.

Seeing these junior high kids every morning is a painful reminder of this time and how awful it is for everyone. I feel immensely sorry for them, when I don’t want to throttle them for standing eight across right in front of the school’s only entrance, or running into traffic because they think it’s funny.

I feel like my junior high years were worse than most. Not really because of anything horrible that happened to me–on the continuum of junior high experiences, mine were at average horror levels–but because of the institutional gloom that hung over me then. The building I had to go to every day was my district’s huge, ancient schoolhouse, built in days of yore when my town was tiny and it only took one brick manse to house every single grade, K-12. As the district grew over the decades, new elementary and high school buildings were erected, leaving behind this funhouse to function as the junior high. You could not have picked a better place to emphasize just how awful this time is in everyone’s life.

It was constructed during an era where light and joy were considered luxuries. The hallways–particularly the ones where all the lockers were located–were incredibly dark. Decrepit lightbulbs hung from too-high ceilings, but when they were turned on they somehow managed to make the corridors darker, as if the photons they emitted were encrusted with soot. And the less said about the bathrooms, the better. It was soil fertile for mischief, where those inclined to evil could emerge from nowhere as you shuttled between classes, ruin your day, and quickly disappear into the shadows.

I caught onto to this very quickly, around the time some douche attempted to dump a Ziploc bag of pencil shavings on my head as I committed the crime of retrieving books from my locker. (I saw my would-be assailant coming from a mile away. In a ninja move I’m still proud of, I waited until he was extremely close and just about to tip the bag over, then reached up and tilted it back in his face.) So I made it my mission to spend as little time in the hallways as possible. I would carry as many books with me as I could stand, leave a class the nanosecond the bell rang, and speed to the next one. My friends called me Matt-Man, because they’d turn to talk to me when class was over and I’d be gone like The Dark Knight.

Old habits die hard. While walking with my daughter in the morning, once I neared the school’s block, the one with a million loitering newly-minted teens, I would begin to speed up. I’d find any tiny crevice between two kids, even if I had to turn sideways to fit. Anything that would to get me to my destination a little faster, just like I did in my junior high days. Only instead of lugging six classes’ worth of books, this time I was towing a four-year-old who wants to know why I’m running.

It took me a few weeks to notice I was doing this, and understand why I was doing it. One morning, I stopped myself and made a conscious effort to take it slow. In doing so, I realized most of these junior high kids were tiny and, although almost uniformly annoying, not in the least bit terrifying. It made me mad at my young self. Was I afraid of kids like these? If so, what was wrong with me? I bet I could pick up any of them by the scruffs of their necks. Hell, I could pick up two, one in each hand. It took every ounce of willpower I had to not do just that.

I have a habit of walking way faster than I need to in general. When strolling with others, I will constantly find myself half a block ahead of my companions. A few weeks ago, I was visiting New Orleans for the first time in years, and me and a friend took a stroll through the French Quarter. “Why are you rushing?” my friend asked. I had no conscious idea I was doing this, but something within me says that walking too slow is a dangerous move.

It’s partially due to years of urban living, but I have to think that the junior high experience is a factor as well. My innate impulse to get places faster goes back to the days when I was convinced that I was a shark who had to keep moving forward or perish, or at least get a head full of pencil shavings. In the post-junior high years, friends would say I stomped. I wanted to protest otherwise, but the frequency with which I wear through shoes backs them up. I also blame this on the days when I felt I had to scale the stairs of this horrible building as quickly as possibly, two steps at a time, three if I could manage it. Since then, I haven’t been able to step lightly, even if I try.

Of course, if someone had told me Don’t be afraid of these wimps; they’re just as fucked up as you right now when I was in junior high, that would’ve done me no bit of good. No amount of reasoning would have changed my idea of what was VERY IMPORTANT when I was 13. Just like when I tell my daughter that it’s not worth throwing a fit because I told her she can’t have candy for breakfast, or because the cable On Demand is broken and won’t allow her to watch Adventure Time. Some things you can’t be talked out of; you simply have to live through them and laugh them off later.

Or keep running for the rest of your life. You know, whichever.

Choose Your Own Traumatic Adventure

Sometimes I use this site to write about painful memories. I find it’s cheaper than therapy and less habit forming than medication (though just barely). That’s not to put down anybody who needs either (or both) of those things to deal with whatever requires dealing with in their lives. I just find that tapping it out on a computer works best for me. Writing is the medium in which I express myself the best. If I could sculpt or paint or interpretive dance better than I can write, I’d do it one of those ways. But I don’t, so here we are.

For a long time, I exclusively wrote funny-ha-ha stuff here (or tried to, anyway). Whenever I considered writing about Deep Things, I feared coming across as one of those precious kids you’d hear in freshman composition class, pouring out their soul about the ordeal of having a vaguely distant father, because my trauma is SO important, the WORLD needs to hear about it and share my pain.

I can’t say when or why I changed my mind about that, really, but at some point I discovered that this site gives me the means to lay those memories out and defang them by transmogrifying a tale of woe into a humorous anecdote. Or at the very least, finding some humor to extract from it, usually at my own expense.

I’ve come to believe that in most instances of non-physical trauma, how much damage you suffer from it is largely up to you. Yes, horrible people can say horrible things to make you feel horrible, especially when you’re a kid and don’t quite know how to handle it. But we all grow up (unless you live in Williamsburg), and at some point in your life you have a choice. You can hang on to the pain forever and let it eat at you like an untreated wound, or you can slough it off in some way–such as, say, writing about it–and let the spot heal.

I’ve chosen the latter. In examining many of these incidents with the remove of time, the thing I find the most funny is the one thing I could have changed–namely, how I reacted to them and held on to the anger for way too long, thus giving a lot of power to people and things that didn’t really deserve it.

[I also now take a kind of perverse pleasure in careening wildly between straight-up silly posts and serious ones on Scratchbomb. Like this site has become my personal episode of M*A*S*H and I am Hawkeye. One second I’m wearing an arrow through my head and the next I’m standing over a dead soldier muttering, “When will the killing end?!”]

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Gangly Limbs Contorted, We Move Forward

A few weekends ago, I was at my mother’s house and saw 500 Days of Summer for the first time. I found it alternately enjoyable and infuriating (just a tad too twee at times for my taste, like much indie-ish film fare), but stuck with it the whole way. The one scene that stuck with me was where the main characters are at a park, and Joseph Gordon Levitt starts doodling on Zooey Deschanel’s arm with a pen. It stuck with me because the pen he was using was the exact same one my father used for his crossword puzzles. A black Pilot with a thin plastic yellow top on the cap. I realized all at once that I was once surrounded by these pens, and that I hadn’t seen one since he died, to the point that I’d thought Pilot stopped production on them because he accounted for a large percentage of their sales. (They managed to soldier along without him, it turns out.)

My father had tons of these black pens, and their red brethren. When he did a New York Times crossword puzzle, he would write a letter in each space with his black pen in this italic, almost calligraphic script, where each character would have at least one open space. For instance, a “T” would have a very wide, outlined vertical base, topped by a flat horizontal line. At some point in the puzzle completion process, he would fill in these empty spaces with the red pen.

I’m not sure why he did this, if it was something he imitated or came up with his own. I’m not sure at what point in the puzzle completion process he would fill in each black letter with red–was it when he was sure of an answer, or just when he remembered to do it? Just a few of many questions it never occurred to me to ask when I might have been able to get answers.

This is the time of year when I think about my father. It’s also the time of year when I seem to be forcibly reminded of him by random encounters. I don’t think it’s anything cosmic, really; when you’re attuned to something, you’re bound to notice it more than usual, like when you first learn a word and suddenly it seems to appear in everything you read.

Last week on a lunch break–a rare one where I actually left the office–I found myself along a stretch of Sixth Avenue where I hardly ever go anymore. On my way back to the office, I passed by the Waverly Diner. My dad loved this place, and would all but demand we eat there when we would meet for lunch while I was going to NYU. Maybe because it was the kind of old school diner that’s harder and harder to find in the city, waiters in uniforms, cramped booths with coat racks, the ability to make decent stuffed mushrooms. He also had a soft spot for the Cafe Edison off of Times Square; much for the same reasons, I imagine. It’s a diner tucked away into a hotel lobby that you could never find unless you knew it was there.

Unfortunately, when I passed the Waverly, its windows were all taped up with pale beige butcher’s paper. I thought the place was closed, and my heart sank. As it turned out, the Waverly was simply being renovated. I stole a quick peek through the half-cracked front door. There was nothing inside but large, idle tools and sheetrock dust. That was almost worse than it being gone forever. More than once over the past few years, I’ve had this thought that I should go have lunch there on my father’s behalf. Now I can’t, even when the Waverly opens, because it will not be the Waverly he loved. Realizing this filled me with a very deep sense of failure.

And almost simultaneously, I experienced another event that filled me with–well, not pride. Maybe more like Bart Simpson’s “Not-Shame” he briefly felt for Homer. A while ago, I bought the entire Monty Python series on DVD because Amazon had it on sale for a criminally cheap amount. It arrived and sat atop my cable box for months, because I realized I’d burnt myself out these shows a long time ago and had no burning desire to watch them again, which was a depressing revelation (though not nearly as depressing as it would have been if I’d paid full price).

Then, a week or two ago, The Kid (cannot call her The Baby anymore, sadly) noticed the box set and its colorful illustrations, and said out of nowhere, “I wanna watch that!” I tried to dissuade her at first. Obviously, an almost-kindergarten-aged kid isn’t going to understand the vast majority of Monty Python’s humor, and there’s some bits you’d prefer they not understand. But I wasn’t all that much older than her when I saw Monty Python for the first time, thanks to my dad’s religious watching of it on PBS. (Not that I really got most of what I saw either.)

So I made a few judicious choices. I showed her some of the Terry Gilliam cartoons, which she loved as much as I did when I was a kid. And I showed her the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, which she has now demanded to rewatch almost every day since. Her Nerdening is nearly complete, if it wasn’t already. Seeing Monty Python with her (even in bite-sized chunks) felt a lot like taking her to a ballgame, like seeing something I love through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time.

And I also realized that the reason I don’t watch Monty Python anymore–other than the fact that I watched every single episode a katrillion times in high school–is that when I watch it, I hear my father imitating all the best lines. Long after my daughter had scampered out of the living room, I sat and watched the “Piranha Brothers” sketch for the first time in years, and all I could hear in my head was his mimicking of Michael Palin as an East End housewife (“Kids were different back then. They didn’t have their ‘eads filled up with all this Cartesian dualism…”) and John Cleese as Dinsdale Piranha’s paramour (“What’s more, he knew how to treat a female impersonator.”).

This morning, while waiting for the bus, I slipped in my iPod headphones and hit “shuffle.” I will swear on the holy book of your choice that the first two songs it spit out where these:

So there I’m standing at the bus stop, trying to hold it together, and I suddenly remember that my dad didn’t even like music. He owned one album of doo-wop songs; every other record in his collection was comedy, Tom Lehrer, George Carlin. He’d listen to classical music on WQXR while doing work, but it was all background to him. And I’m ready to lose it listening to an art form he didn’t even like.

It’s strange, almost unfair, to feel my father’s absence so profoundly when he took almost nothing seriously. It feels like an ironic curse, like a glutton having his mouth sewn shut. And yet, this time of year, I have this crushing weight on me of someone who was light as air. The only explanation I have for it is the way he died, and my role in that.

I wrote this last year, on the fifth anniversary of his death. Today, it’s six years, and I feel almost exactly the same way now as I did when I wrote it. I imagine I’ll feel the same way 20 years from now, 50 years from now, whenever. Which is to say, the absolute worst feeling a nerd like me can have: I know little about him and will, in all likelihood, never know more.

I can only grasp at pens and diners and hope that something of him–the best parts of him–lives on when my daughter laughs at John Cleese whipping his gangly legs down a London sidewalk. Six years later, I still feel like he looks in that sketch: Stoic, teeth gritted, barely in control of my extremities, but moving forward nonetheless.

Close Encounters of the Gen X Icon Kind

I’m leaving work, headphones jammed into my ears and a large box under my arm. I’m in that vague, annoyed space of not paying attention to much of anything, of wishing I was home already, and feeling like every step I have to expend to get there is a personal insult. It’s a little after 6pm. The early evening is a little windier and chillier than I anticipated. I wish I’d worn a jacket.

A few blocks up on Hudson Street, I spot a woman in a red tank top, revealing a few tattoos on her upper back and arms. I haven’t seen her face yet, and still she looks vaguely familiar, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. She must feel me looking at her, trying to figure this out, so she turns her head, in that I’m-not-trying-look-behind-me-but-I’m-totally-turning-my-head-so-I-can-see-this-person-peripherally. That’s when I figure out that this person is Janeane Garofalo.

In the span of nanoseconds, this revelation brings to mind a few distinct memories from my misspent youth. The first is that, during my college years, I had the habit of running into random celebrities in the streets of Manhattan and somehow scaring them to death.

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My Encounter with the Wondrous Hypercolor Tapestry

I hate to be one of Those People, but New York City ain’t what she used to be. Then again, she never was. In New York, the old is constantly being subsumed by the new. The pace can range from light speed to glacial, but nothing can last. Complaining about this is almost as old as the city itself. I bet Peter Stuyvesant bitched when they started building houses above Canal Street.

There is one thing that has disappeared from New York in my lifetime, however, and I do think the city is worse off for it. That is the Weird Little Shop, which has virtually no chance of surviving in the NYC of the 21st century, where real estate is at such a premium it can no longer accommodate the eccentric dreams of kooks who somehow luck into retail space.

By Weird Little Shop, I don’t mean a place that specializes in one curious niche, because those still exist in droves. And I don’t mean a thrift store, either, because there are still plenty of those, too. And a thrift store usually has some kind of focus and organization. What I mean is the kind of hovel that had zero focus and sold whatever the hell it felt like. Not a single thought or deed was spared to appealing to anything but the proprietor’s whim.

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Pointless Nostalgia Video: British Airways

In the late 1980s, British Airways began trying to bust into the crowded American airline market. Initially, they tried to do this with a cutesy, more American approach, as in this ad where people come together to form a face that winks for some reason. Presumably, this was meant to demonstrate British Airways’ friendliness. However, something about the way it was assembled and filmed made it seem more foreign than welcoming, like a higher class version of a Mentos commercial.

So they went the other, more British route and made a commercial that showed how much better they were than everyone else. It featured a group of the stuffiest, stodgiest English actors ever giving performances that exuded the proper amount of staid attitude and catty bitchiness endemic to British businessmen.

The plot: There’s some hotshot in New York who “thinks he can tell us how to run things.” His rivals plot his downfall by forcing him to fly the red eye to London. “He’ll be hungry…and tired,” purrs one, sounding like John Heard as Caligula in I, Claudius. But their Machiavellian plot is thwarted by British Airways’ accommodating business class cabins. So when the young lion arrives in Ol’ Blighty, and one of his executioners queries, “Pleasant trip?”, his voice dripping with bile and sarcasm, Our Hero responds simply, “Yes, thank you.” The evil overlord’s face sags, realizing all at once that he’s been defeated.

This commercial–excuse me, advert–could only be more English if it was wearing a Man U jersey and chowing down on beans and toast. It made a very real, very deep impression on me as a young lad. Perhaps because I’d already been exposed to so much British TV via PBS. Between my dad’s love of Monty Python and my mom’s love of Masterpiece Theater, there was a lot of Anglophilia in my house growing up (despite my dad’s on-again, off-again Irish pride).

Watching it again as an adult, I’m impressed by the depth of performances by these wicked old hags who dream of luring their young rival to London “like a lamb to the slaughter.” It’s like a two minute version of House of Cards, with a triumvirate of Francis Urquharts.

Tax Season

My grandfather–my mother’s father–was a bookkeeper for J.P. Morgan. This was back in the days when even a brokerage house of that magnitude that needed enormous armies of men to perform its calculations, hunched over their desks with their sleeves rolled up and green eyeshades on. At least that’s how I assume it looked. I’m also imagining they were spurred on by a guy in a ringleader’s outfit and handlebar mustache cracking a whip. That’s probably inaccurate.

I don’t know if my grandfather was made for the job or the job made him. I do know that his house was filled with math. As a product of both his profession and The Great Depression, he constantly calculated how much money he spent and how much he saved. Every box and can of food in his pantry had notations on its price sticker to demonstrate how much money he’d truly spent on it after coupons and sales. His cars always had little notepads with logs of when he filled up the tank and the mileage at the time. I had one in the glove compartment a car I inherited from him, until some hellbound monster stole it.

I’m sure his job paid a decent wage for the era, but he also had six kids to feed and put through Catholic school. So one year, he thought up an idea to make some extra cash: He would do taxes for people in his Brooklyn neighborhood. There was really nowhere else in the area for people to go to for such a service. No accountants, no notaries, not even many banks. He saw a void and hoped to take advantage of it.

After some advance scouting, my grandfather managed to strike a deal with a laundromat at the corner of DeKalb and Onderdonk Avenues. They allowed him to set up shop on their premises, and he would kick a little something their way for the favor. So on evenings and weekends, my grandfather created his office space with a card table and a folding chair and waited for customers to roll in.

And they did roll in, in fact. There were no shortage of people who needed help with their taxes. Unfortunately, nearly all of them were of extremely humble origin. Cleaning ladies. Shift workers from nearby paper factories and small breweries. A guy who delivered flowers to the enormous number nearby cemeteries. People who made very little, who just wanted one less thing to worry about.

My grandfather found himself unable to ask these people for money. And if they offered, he turned it down. He did not make one cent with his tax experiment. In fact, thanks to his arrangement with the laundromat, it wound up costing him money.

To me, this is the true definition of charity: Not giving what you can afford, but giving what you can’t quite afford to someone who can afford it even less. My grandfather had six kids. He had every right to charge these people, no matter their circumstances. But he decided he could endure a little pain to alleviate someone else’s.

I try to keep this in mind when people ask me for favors that will put me out a little bit, or to contribute when I’m a little bit short on cash or time. I’m not nearly as generous as I should be, and I’m not proud of that. Still, I am grateful to have such an example on which to draw. Because if my grandfather could have given his time and money back then, chances are whatever situation I’m in right now, I can, too.