Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cover It With Chocolate And A Miracle Or Two

Every fall I go to a farm market and buy a big bag of hot cherry peppers to stuff.  It was my aunt's recipe, and for years, they were a staple for Wingman as he watched Sunday football games. The recipe is memorable for more than the burning sensation from the oil that stays on my hands for days after cutting and removing the seeds. Every time I make them, it takes me back to a candy company and an air traffic controller's strike.

I was working in retail for six years when my old candy buyer phoned me about a job opportunity in the wholesale field.  Two weeks after my only interview and armed with a Willie Loman suitcase, a road map and some samples, I was out selling chocolates.

I approached it in what I considered was a scientific way.  I would initially go to my biggest clients, and make subsequent visits to the smaller ones.  The first company I visited was an Italian food distributor in South Jersey, where I was ushered into the office of a guy my age who was a mustached Tony Soprano looking type. Without even shaking my hand, he proceeded to MF me and my company, shaking his cigar right in my face. I looked at him wide eyed, started shaking uncontrollably, and then broke out in huge racking sobs. He looked back at me bewildered since he had never made a vendor cry before, and then shuffled me into his car where we went to a diner for coffee. It turned out that that my predecessor had set up a bunch of small stores as distributors, and they in turn were passing their low costs to their friends/his customers so he couldn't compete. I skipped the scientific approach and went to every small coffee shop, pizza parlor and deli he complained about and told them that their distributorships were rescinded and that they had to buy from him.

He became putty in my hands and my best business friend.  When my company needed to dump inventory, I could count on him to buy all or most of what we were offering, and I always made great commissions on his account. Most of all, he taught me how to deal with men-Italian men-who had little or no respect for women in business by developing a thick skin and a backbone.

In early August of 1981, the Specialty Food Industry held its summer trade show in Chicago, and I went out early as the set-up person for our booth.  As I deplaned at O'Hare, there were news crews everywhere.  The air traffic controllers had staged a strike, and Ronald Reagan fired all of them.  As organized as the government planned it, only half of nation's flights would be available for the next week.

The show would be a bust.  Vendors couldn't get in to set up.  Planes of cargo were grounded. Buyers couldn't fly in.  On the opening Sunday, there were gaping holes where booths should have been, and aisles empty of buyers.

My distributor stopped by my empty booth and asked if I was going to the industry dinner that night.  My company was "frugal" in that regard, so I wasn't.  He said that since his parents couldn't get a plane-would I like to take one of the tickets as his guest? Of course I said yes.

When I arrived at the dinner, I found him standing in a line of men in shiny suits, waiting to shake hands or kiss the cheek of some guy.  At our turn, my distributor said, "Barbara, I want you to meet..." and I shook hands with a 40-something man with a gold pinky ring, who was in the olive oil business.  But his name jarred my memory, and I said "I KNOW THAT NAME" which of course, happened to be a very famous Mafia family name. As everyone around me gasped clutching their chests, he sarcastically asked how I knew that name. Men expected guns to be drawn.

But in fact, the previous Saturday, my aunt (of the cherry pepper fame) and uncle, had come to my parents house for a visit which always consisted of a lot of talking over coffee and an Entenmann's cake. They were tut-tutting how my 18 year old cousin was being wooed by a classmate with dozens and dozens of roses...begging her to go out with him. They were none too happy because his father was being indicted in something illegal...pizza boxes and oregano were mentioned.

So I asked Pinky Ring Guy if he had an 18 year old son. He said no, that his boys were older.  I replied that I heard that my cousin was going out with someone with the same last name.  He said he had nephew who was 18, and after comparing notes, jumped up from his chair and exclaimed "WE'RE PRACTICALLY RELATED! MY NEPHEW IS GOING OUT WITH YOUR COUSIN!!!" Everyone exhaled nervously, he made the guy who was supposed to sit next to him move down a chair, and I got the seat of honor.

My distributor looked at me in amazement. Or disgust. I forget which.

The next day at the very empty show, Pinky Ring Guy showed up with a guy from Boston.  That distributor, another guy in a shiny black suit who looked remarkably like the undertaker from "The Godfather" and who had never bough our candy, was being "encouraged" to buy a container of product from me.  Then he brought San Francisco.  Los Angeles.  Florida.  In total, we sold 12 CONTAINERS of candy, cookies and whatever else we had to business associates of my new "relative" at the worst attended show ever.

I must now talk a little about my boss.  He was not Italian-in fact he had escaped Austria by train with the Von Trapp family and came to America. He served in the US Army as a paratrooper during WW ll, and later as a war crimes interpreter with one of the Von Trapp sons.  He was a brilliant business man, but he had one small flaw.  When he got nervous, he would start scratching himself.  Down there. With the first container, he was pleased.  By the 12th container, his pants were practically in shreds.  He was a nervous wreck that I had created a candy show monster. At breakfast the next day, he questioned me as to whether Pinky Ring Guy was really a relative or had I slept with him to get those orders. I was indignant. He was relieved.

And he didn't pay me one dime of commissions on anything from that show.

The following year, right after Wingman and I got married, Pinky Ring Guy called me up and wanted to help us out with a home.  He took us to his brother's house-what even now I would say was a mansion. All I remember was that the pool in the back had a fountain, as well as the brother's company logo in imported Italian tiles embedded on the bottom.  The house was listed for $350,000 when the average price of homes back then was about $85,000.  So totally out of our price range that even Wingman was nervous about the motive.  They wanted to keep it in the family, so if we could make a nominal payment, the family would hold the mortgage, and then buy it back from us at a later date. Wingman was adamant that we were being set up, so I used my distributor friend to help me decline their most generous offer.

Some years and two career changes later; I attended another Specialty Food Show, and made it a point to look up my distributor.  He was there, looking thin, pale and very sickly.  It turned out that he had cancer, and not long after that show, I learned he passed.  His company is huge now and when I go shopping, just seeing everything with the bright yellow labels makes me smile and yet get a little sad.  If he were alive today, I wonder if he would be retired with kids and grandkids, or still shaking cigars in vendors' faces making them cry. Probably no to the latter. He helped me develop a backbone. I helped him become compassionate towards young people starting out in business.

My aunt is gone too. And my uncle.  He taught Wingman how to make great Italian bread.  She taught both of us how to cook her way which was good, basic Italian food. And right now, my eyes are tearing up.  Partially in remembering them and a lot of good family times.

And partially because I still have lingering bits of hot cherry pepper oil on my fingers when I wiped my eyes.  Man, my eyes really do burn, as my distributor would have said, like a MF.




Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Just Sit Right Back And You'll Hear A Tale, A Tale Of A Fateful Trip

Last Saturday, as most of the shore area was making preparations for Hurricane Hermine, I was at a friend's mother's funeral Mass. She lived a good long life, and the church was filled with a mix of family and friends. Afterwards, everyone mingled on the front steps, because after all, it's always at weddings and funerals that you get to catch up with the people you seldom see.There, I saw a couple I haven't talked to in over a decade. We met on a cruise ship in 2001, run by our mutual friend.  The cruise would be Wingman's and my first (and last) cruise together because of, what else-a hurricane.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

If You Believe In Forever, Then Life Is Just A One-night Stand

Today is the fourth anniversary of Wingman's death. Four years. 1461 days. Time has passed both like the speed of light yet like watching paint dry.

The night he died, I went to the hospital with a decaf coffee and a buttered Kaiser roll. Wingman had regained enough of his memory after brain surgery to remember commuting to NYC for his film editing job. The Kaiser roll was for "the bus".

He didn't know that we (his brother, our youngest son and myself) had arranged to have him moved to another hospital the following morning. He was sitting in a chair when I arrived-eating mashed potatoes with chocolate pudding that he said was gravy. Our conversation was comical because threads of his memory were coming back like Dumbledore's Pensieve. He talked about climbing a mountain in Canada. He said he spent the day playing Army in the back yard and complained that he had to be the German because his Jewish school friend refused to.

He wanted to go home. He demanded his clothes. He tried to get up because he wanted me to take him with me. I promised that I would go and get his clothes. He couldn't remember my name, but told his aide that I was "the bitch".

Another small part of his memory that had come back to him.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When A Man Loves A Woman

Like most young women, I dreamed about meeting my Prince Charming who would sweep me off my feet and marry me. Of course, he would propose with a diamond ring befitting his princess. I had mine all picked out. A heart-shaped diamond in a plain white gold band (because I wasn't savvy enough yet to want platinum).

When I met Wingman, my list of suit-wearing, corporate job holding requirements went right out the window because he was in a band. But that didn't stop me from wanting that ring.  As time went on and friend after friend got engaged and married, I got more and more agitated.  When was it going to happen to me?

Then he hit me with the bomb: he thought we should see other people because I wanted to settle down and he didn't. When he found out that I actually DID date someone, he wasn't real happy about it. And he did something quite amazing in the parking lot of the bar that he was playing at.  He proposed.

Not with a heart shaped diamond, but with a Burger King onion ring. He was "pretty sure" we could be a good couple.  It wasn't quite the romantic prose I had hoped for, so I did the only logical thing-I ate the onion ring. Which was actually a good thing, because the next day, he called to say that whatever he had said the night before I should forget because he couldn't remember it anyway.

Crap.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sittin In The Morning Sun, I'll Be Sittin When The Evening Comes

Back when the kids were in grade school, we took one of our very infrequent spring vacations to Florida.  Wingman was in charge of gassing up the car (yes, we drove) and packing his own suitcase.  I was responsible for packing: clothes for three boys, a cooler with lunches and snacks for the road, activities to keep them occupied so they didn't annoy us or kill each other, getting the homework assignments that they would miss and packing school supplies, ordering tickets for theme parks and coordinate travel plans with in-laws who would be meeting us there.

Did I mention packing for myself as well?

Friday, March 25, 2016

Back Of My Neck Getting Dirty And Gritty

I have this waking hours fantasy.  As I work in the yard, a deliciously handsome young man walks down the street.  He pauses in front of my house and I watch him surreptitiously through the flowers: White shorts, low white Cons, shirtless, with sun-bleached hair, a golden tan and washboard abs. He crosses the lawn.  I look up at him-his skin glistening with a faint sweat.  His eyes are green, flecked with gold and he has a small cleft in his chin as he smiles down at me.  He pushes a wisp of hair out of my face and asks "what can I do to make you happy?"

I reply: "Weed my garden."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Love Is Lovlier The Second Time Around

It started with a snide comment I made when I read that 66 year old Billy Joel was getting married for the fourth time on July 4th to his 33 year old girlfriend. "Really Billy? A woman four years older than your daughter?" It was followed-up by a half-hearted good luck wish for an old school chum who married his fourth bride (the third was only 6 years ago) two days before my birthday. I wrote that I just erased him from my short list of potential second husbands.

But the kicker was the black envelope with gold lettering that I received at Thanksgiving. It was to the fourth wedding of the man I met for the first time the same day as Wingman. Deja vous...we had been guests at his first wedding, (where he received, then re-gifted Tiffany wine glasses to us the following year at our wedding). We were at his second wedding where the bride shared the same first name as the previous Mrs. Somehow, we missed his third wedding and never learned if her name was the same. And now, finally this one which included those surprise words after my name: "AND GUEST".

2015 was a year for love. OK, probably no more than the past few years, but one where I was invited to three of my friends' children's weddings. They were lovely ceremonies and the receptions that followed were all gorgeous affairs in perfect weather (compared to Wingman and I who got married in a nor'easter). But like all young people, the brides and grooms had very little to do with anyone other that their friends. To now be invited to one where the bride and groom are my age and one where I know some of the crazy skeletons hanging in the groom's closet?  Unfathomable.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

One of the things that Wingman and I use to enjoy doing was cook...although we were not good cooks together.  I am a "follow the recipe to the tee" type of gal, while Wingman liked to experiment with ingredients.  Sometimes they were a hit, and other times, like honoring our Korean daughter-in-law with kimchee-stuffed Stromboli bread, left a lot to be desired.

When we first met, he was amazed by the type of magazines I subscribed to. I read Bon Apetit like most women read Cosmo, and Food and Wine was my Vogue bible. Wingman's first Christmas gift to me was a set of frying pans (and no, at 21, they were not well received). But the cooking magazines opened doors to amazing meals.

One summer weekend after our honeymoon in Italy, we went to a farm and picked our own basil to make a pesto pasta dinner for friends. They admitted that they stopped at Mickey D's for burgers before arriving since they had no idea what pesto was or if they would like it. Like them, there was a lot we needed to learn over time as well: like that duck was extremely fatty and that you should add water to the roasting pan while cooking.  A lot of smoke and a small fire one Easter Sunday had everyone shivering in the early spring weather while we tried to air out the house, screaming at each other "why didn't you know that???"