What I share won't come from after dark but rather the quiet before the light, warm morning kisses, and the cold grip of the day.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Noon Goons

From the Topeka Daily Capitol, February 2, 2003

Marjorie C. Selby, former Shawnee County auditor and financial administrator, will celebrate her 90th birthday as guest of honor at a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 11 in the penthouse at Brewster Place, 1205 S.W. 29th, in Topeka.

Mrs. Selby became a part-time cost accountant for the Shawnee County Road and Bridge Department in 1959. She later became the first secretary for the County Purchasing Department and assistant county auditor. She was appointed Shawnee County auditor and financial administrator in 1966. She retired from Shawnee County in 1983 after 24 years of service.

Marjorie Collat Selby was born Feb. 11, 1913, in San Antonio.  She married James F. Selby, an airline pilot and attorney, in California. They moved to a farm at Richland, southeast of Topeka, in 1952. Mr. Selby, a Shawnee County probation officer, died in 1966.

Their children and spouses are Robert and Martha, Naperville, Ill.; James and Leslie, Portland, Ore.; and Sharon and Wayne, Hackensack, Minn. Mrs. Selby has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.  The Topeka Civic Theater's Marge Selby Warehouse Workhouse Award is named in Mrs. Selby's honor. A lane of the parking lot north of the Shawnee County Courthouse also is named after her. She is a charter member of a group of Shawnee County employees who have met each week for lunch for more than 40 years.

Mrs. Selby requests no gifts, but cards would be welcomed.

This was a swell afternoon, unseasonably warm in northeastern Kansas for February.  Gauzy clouds filtered the brilliance of sun coming through all those windows giving the “penthouse” party room in her assisted living facility a cheery, shawdowless light.  Platters of cold-cuts and cheeses and fruit had been picked up from what passed for a deli in Topeka.  And, there was a big rectangle cake.  Our mother, dressed in one of her pretty, color coordinated outfits, stayed seated most of the time in a winged arm chair and, with characteristic charm and her beautiful smile, greeted guests, maybe forty or fifty, as they got off the elevator.  All sorts of people.  The three of us grown offspring, my brother’s wife, my partner and our daughter, nine at the time, had all journeyed to Topeka to unite and celebrate the day and appear as hosts.  Friends from mother’s various endeavors paid their respects, not in a maudlin way, but jocular and heartfelt.  County colleagues, neighbors from our days on the farm, teachers from her children’s schools (one lived in her same facility), civic leaders and politicians, her community theater chums, mingled easily.  My high school girlfriend brought her mother who still lived alone in the family farmhouse.  One elderly gal strode up and stuck out her hand to shake, gripped me like a sailor, and said, “Hi! I’m Alice Jones! I’m ninety-six years old and I am a friend of your mothers!”  She was shouting, not because she was deaf, just full of beans.  Mother led, essentially, a healthy existence (though she smoked until she was seventy-two.)  Now, she was on the fragile side.  Nothing seemed fragile about Alice.

I noted, too, who wasn’t there.  Our father, of course, but he had died nearly forty years earlier.  The absence of one of our mother’s closest friends, Maxine, was glaring.  She had died recently of cancer.  A couple of decades younger, Maxine had been a single mom when they met, I don’t know when.  Marge became a kind of guardian angel, making sure she and her daughter were included in holiday events, pool parties, things like that.  Mother always remembered Maxine’s daughter’s birthday who had a funny nickname, like “Pooky”.  For many years, Maxine worked at a mental health facility for children.  It could be pretty harrowing.  Several times she would come over wearing a scarf wrapped around her head because a child had yanked out a fist full of hair.  Later, she would wear them, again, when she was going through her chemo.

Maxine met Virgil, an older widower, and stockbroker, and they married.  Now, they became a social threesome, as if Maxine was a kind of daughter, and Virgil, the good-hearted, blow-hard son-in-law.  My brother and sister and I lived thousands of miles from Topeka, all of us with our own lives.  Mother was just fine with that, turning down offers to move near one of us, preferring to stay put.  Of course, she always loved getting letters (I was the best at that) and visits (my brother) and phone calls (my sister.)

As Marge got older, Maxine and Virgil became her guardian angels, coming over to relax together around her apartment pool, taking her to events, even traveling together, sometimes to visit me where I was acting in a regional theater.  When one of us would come to Topeka to visit our mother, Virgil and Maxine would take us out to eat, often at their country club.  Once I brought my girlfriend, Patty, from New York, and while we were in the buffet line, Virgil grabbed her ass.  Patty told me about it later.  She was not amused.  After Maxine died, Virgil did his duty and escorted Marge to shows at the Topeka Civic Theater.  (Maxine had played the mother in “Gypsy” in one of their productions before she became too ill, fulfilling a lifelong goal.)  Mother, in her sense of duty to Maxine, allowed Virgil to carry on in this role, but, eventually, he married again, divorced soon after, and their obligation faded.

The newspaper quoted above got the award wrong.  It was the “Marge Selby Workhorse” award, not workhouse, which sounds Dickensian.  And, the name of the lunch group was left out:  “The Noon Goons,” a core of gals, 8 to 10, who, indeed, met every Wednesday.  They even had a special Goon lapel pin, some bobble one had found and distributed.  They each took turns choosing a Topeka restaurant.  It was a great way to break up a ho-hum week, or a stressful one, smack dab in the middle like that.  When we kids came to visit, if it happened to fall on a Wednesday, we would be invited as an “honorary Goon” for the day.  I loved going out with the goons, who were as witty as any Algonquin Round Table gathering.  They would drive the poor servers nuts, always asked for separate checks.  After 40 years most places were used to it and appreciated the business.  Once, I noticed how little they were tipping for their $6 or $7 lunches and multiple refills, and chided mother afterwards.  From then on, being the worthy women they were, they would pony up.

Let’s talk about that for a minute.  The women.  All, near the same age with a few younger gals of the same ilk who had been brought into the fold, were career civil servants or bureaucrats and, shamefully, underpaid.  Our mother, as noted in the announcement, rose into an executive position in the county government, in charge of all finances and budgets.  She knew damn well a man at her level, in her position, would have been paid a hell of a lot more.  It chapped her ass.  They were among the first of their generation to be out of the house, joining the workforce as two-income families.  Yes, some had no ambition to do more than what they did.  Marion, one of the younger ones, went back to college while she worked fulltime, got a masters degree in something, and a better job, eventually.  Mostly, it was a march to the pension, small as it may be.  These were frugal, content, and silent women.  Except on Wednesdays.  Anyway, some of these gals, some of the survivors, also came to Marge’s party.

Again, not to be maudlin, but just to let you know, this was to be our mother’s last birthday.  She died that November in a hospice facility.  “It was a good day and a good time,” my sister wrote in a recent email about that party.  “Mom was very ‘royal’, quite gracious and on top of things, and enjoyed every minute of it.  I know all of us enjoyed it and enjoyed her enjoying it.”

Anon, James

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Guy Walks Into a Bar

I miss going into bars.  I am not recovering.  They’re just not my habitat any longer.  Perhaps, it’s clear time I don’t have.  Or, stamina.  To touch a line from Will Rogers, I never entered a bar I didn’t like.  There were a few that didn’t like me, where no one wanted to know my name.  I was too dressed up, not dressed well enough, or I represented the kind of scrutiny patrons were there to escape.  You can tell pretty quickly if you’re simply being left to finish your drink, or they’d rather you didn’t.  I popped into an Irish pub in Santa Monica and imprudently asked for a “black and tan”.  In a cliché take, everyone stopped.  The bartender with a brogue said, “You mean a half and half.”  I was not clued into the cultural reference of the British constabulary sent into Ireland in the 20’s nicknamed the Black and Tans. This is rare, however, as most establishments are truly public houses, be they a seedy, side street bucket of blood or a legendary literary haunt.  You can step inside.

                                                         Three Bars

The snow fell a couple of days before Christmas but had worn out leaving everything dank.  The dark sky, the puddles, the streets of the working class neighborhood, all the same shiny charcoal, reflected the holiday colors of stop lights at intersections.  A nondescript bar, its door recessed into the building’s corner, seemed to be a good spot to thaw.  Inside it was just as grey as it was out.  A single string of blinking lights looped over some bottles, a couple of commercial neon’s, and a few dim hanging bulbs provided the sole illumination.  A man, his forearms around his drink like parentheses, sat at the bar.  A pallid, thick couple, heads close, occupied a table.  I put my ass on a stool and looked around for the bartender who was just coming through a door of an idle kitchen or a storeroom.  He was tall, gaunt, with slick-backed hair the color of cigarette smoke.  He poured my Jack on the rocks and leaned near the register to gaze out the windows at the silent street.  Ella sang of mistletoe, Bing of white, and Elvis of blue. I suckled my drink and waved for another.  I was getting warm.  Other than the murmur of the couple, no one spoke.  The bartender took up my cash, hit the keys of the register like an organist, and the bells rang.

Who mourns a middle-aged bartender who asphyxiated on his own vomit?  I do, I guess.  I mourn because every time I remember Fanelli’s Cafe at the corner of Prince and Mercer, a place more like my living room than a bar, the image of his last gasps has to be cleared away.   He used to be “on the stick” there – Larry - jovial, efficient, pleasant and gruff, as much of a fixture as the carved and spindled cherry wood bar with its splotchy beveled mirror.  The barroom, among the few NYC bars you can imagine with spittoons on the floor, fills with artists, families, women in black, and guys who shanghaied enough change cleaning windshields on Houston Street to score a drink. Bentwood chairs wobble and squeak on the old wood floor, cracks of laughter ricochet off the tin ceiling, the crumbling brick walls, and the unchecked downtown light expresses the time of day through the hoop high glass windows.

I’m trying to think of a smaller bar than Harry’s in Venice. Maybe the Blue Bar off the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel.  Find the narrow double doors down an alley passage, step into a wood paneled room, windows onto the Grand Canal, a bar with six stools, a handful of tables covered in butter yellow linen.  It feels like a salon on a small yacht.  Off season, midday, if we weren’t the only two in there, I can’t recall.  Intending to have a Bellini, invented there, I saw a bowl of lemons sitting on the zinc near a hand cranked juicer.  Olive oil, vinegar, fruit in Italy has colors that bring me to tears.  The barman squeezes juice of two lemons, adds it to bulbous glass pitcher with a flip of sugar, a pour of whiskey, some chunks of ice, swirls it in his hand like a brandy snifter, strains it into a straight sided glass.

Anon, James