Friday, October 17, 2014

Ten Days in Madrid

Ten Days in Madrid

I was fortunate to get a plane ticket to Madrid for ten days, in the company of my daughter who works for Boeing.

My daughter left from Seattle and I left from Los Angeles. We arranged to meet in Madrid at the B & B at 5 Calle Los Estudios, only a few blocks from the La Latina subway station.

I took the subway from the airport, rather than a cab. A cab would have been 25 to 30 Euros. The subway was only 5 Euros.

I navigated successfully, making two changes, finally getting on the Green Line to La Latina, which is a sort of Left Bank neighborhood, site of the famed La Rastra flea market.

I greeted my daughter, entered the B & B, cleaned up from the journey, and then we headed to the street for a coffee, café con leche.

I enjoyed being in Spain. I spoke Spanish to everyone. They were glad to hear me say it. I was very glad to understand them. There is something about the Castilian dialect that is music to my ears.

La Latina is a densely crowded district. There was a constant stream of local people walking in every direction past the café. Walking and talking.

I observed the man sitting in the lottery booth, hardly bigger than an old phone booth. It is the world’s dullest job, I thought.

I introduced myself by name to waiter, which is not the custom, but it is my custom, and we struck up a conversation. He was a handsome young man and muy agradable.

He welcomed us to Madrid and we felt relaxed and grateful to be there.

More about Madrid

I have so much more to say about my journey, but pressing financial obligations require my presence at work this week, so I will have to postpone this composition.

I can add this small piece about the Iberian people -----

Local Iberian shaman hosts American visitor at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

A bit of history. It was the Phoenicians and ancient Greeks who discovered and settled Iberia many centuries before the time of Christ. Ready to greet these visitors when they came ashore were the Neolithic Iberian tribes with their druids and masks.

Later the Romans came to conquer, to build roads and viaducts and cities, to unify this vast province, and to impose the Latin language on the local people.

Over time the Iberians became assimilated to Roman culture, and the Latin language developed a local dialect which became the precursor to Spanish.

The Roman Empire crumbled and the Visigoths invaded and took over and founded a Christian kingdom which ruled Iberia for some centuries.

In the 700s, the Arab/Moslems crossed over from Africa and swept the Visigothic rulers aside, ruling Iberia, or parts of it, for 700 years. They did not enforce a conversion to Islam, but it helped you get ahead in the world, if you crossed over from being Christian.

Then Isabella and Ferdinand drove the Moslems out of Spain and back to Africa. Many people found it convenient to convert back to Jesus -- "convenient" in quotes.

Then these monarchs, our beloved Isabella and Ferdinand, funded the expeditions of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

No matter what you think of the Admiral and his voyages, it is good to place him in a historical context. It is good to remember that the Iberian people have always lived in Spain, having been invaded and conquered more than once.

But this old fool still dances in the Plaza.

More News.

I am back in Santa Barbara. The punishing drought continues and the garden is suffering. We pray and hope for rain.

Reading Dickens.

I am reading Bleak House. I am halfway through this masterpiece, but the plot is eluding my understanding. I must stop the reading and consult an Internet source, some sort of Wikipedia cheat sheet on the story. Normally I let Dickens write as he pleases, but this time I need a crutch.

All is Well

All is well on the home front. Good health, good family, good friends. We’re beginning to make Thanksgiving and Christmas plans.

Until Next Time,


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

We’ll get to the Latin part in a minute, but first the news.

Independence for Scotland and other places.

Mexico is independent from the US -- for all the good it does them. They're stuck with us, and we are stuck with them, forever.

Wisely, the Scots realized they shared in island with Britain and there's no changing that.


People have too much stuff or they are too attached to the stuff they have. You see, it’s not really the amount of stuff you have, it’s how you manage it. Here are some guidelines for judging your own pile of stuff.

--- 1. Do you know what you have?

--- 2. Do you know where it is?

--- 3. Can you retrieve this object without tearing the whole pile apart?

If you can honestly answer yes to all three questions, then you do not have too much stuff. It’s not the amount, it’s the management that counts. You could be running a complete home museum and be doing all right, because you’re in charge.

Attachment is another topic. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have, but it does matter how fiercely you clutch at it with your greedy fingers. Can you let it go? If you can let it go, then you can keep it. But if you can’t let it go, it will eventually harm you.

Fight the Virus!

Social media rewards impulsive, infantile behavior. Going viral is a medical metaphor -- an indication of disease and infection. It describes rampant & reckless behavior -- I would be appalled if anything I posted went viral....... I pause, consider, and think before I hit the post button on Facebook. I try to write something that might be interesting to other people. I do a little bragging about my personal accomplishments. I might respond to your political comment with a contrary view...... Fight the virus!

I finished reading David Copperfield.

Seriously, I never thought much of Dora, his “Little Blossom,” his child-wife, but after a while I began to realize that it didn’t matter what I thought, but it did matter how David felt. He loved her most completely -- amend that – David loved Dora almost 99 percent completely, but the missing parts were easy to discover – the lack of a mutual interest, the lack of a common purpose.

No, I didn’t care for Dora too much at first, but I began coming around to an increasing affection for her because of her candor. She knew what she was like. She admitted her shortcomings -- that she was childish emotionally and incapable of domestic management. She never fooled David or lied to him. She was, in her way, a most reliable companion.

And she died. Well, it’s a novel. People die. We knew it was going to be Agnes all along. Agnes and David would spend their lives together and raise a happy family in the end.

Everyone being disposed of, Uriah Heep in prison, Micawbr finding that pecuniary bliss that eluded him for more than 800 pages, and Mr. Peggoty rescuing his niece Emily from a shameful life, the book did end quite happily.

The Periodic Table of Elements.

For a chemist, this image is a work of great beauty and harmony. It sings. It’s who we are. It is the tide and the moon and the sun. It is the garden. It is the attraction of one thing to another – what we call bonding.

There are patterns, there are tendencies, there are potentialities, and there are certainties that are not quite divine.

I might need to take a course in chemistry -- I have really over-done it in “learn-by-yourself.” The limitation of being self-taught is you are left un-credentialed and idiosyncratic. I might take one of those free Internet courses offered by major universities. Then I might find some practical application of this knowledge.

High School

I could not attend the 50th reunion of my high school class at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Illinois. My daughter was married two weeks ago and the choice was clear – weddings matter much more than reunions.

So I sent them this – very short – reminiscence.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Carl Pendola sat behind me in 1-A freshman year. It was alphabetical.

Fr. McPartlin taught us religion. He was going to prove the existence of God. I hardly thought that was necessary, but I was amused by the way he flourished Latin phrases of irrefutable logic.

Alan Marn was teased and mocked for his effeminate posture. He reacted with supreme disdain.

A year later, we had Mr. Rogan and Mr. Lamont. I had hoped to be friends with them.

Mr. Roach taught us chemistry, he was slightly absent and rumpled. I enjoyed his class quite a bit.

Father Clifford taught us Latin senior year. He recited Virgil with dramatic intensity. I enjoyed it so much that I took two more years of Latin at college.

I became a good friend of Mrs. Serwich, because I liked her joyful smile and I because I was sent there so often for disciplinary infractions.

I may have set a school record for consecutive days in Jug my senior year. What happened is that I refused to memorize the poem. Correct recital of the poem merited dismissal from Jug. I refused. I sat there day after day, and week after week. They didn't care. I could have sat there until hell froze over. I would still be sitting there fifty years later, but I finally realized that I had lost and the Jesuits had won again. I meekly recited the poem and I was dismissed. They were kind enough not to rub it in.

I see that Frederick Thulin will attend the reunion. I remember that he was accepted at Michigan State with the intention to study Arabic. He said that Arabic was the most useless subject that he might learn. Will you please ask him how that worked out?

My regards and best wishes to everyone.

I live in Santa Barbara and count each day a blessing.

Your classmate,

Fred Owens

All My Energy

I wrote this little memoir, summing up all my energy into making it an agreeable message to my classmates. In truth, high school was a four-year-long nightmare, boring and brutal. I have not set foot on that campus in 50 years -- except for a short visit 30 years ago when I inquired at the front desk if Fr. Beall might come and talk with me. He was the Ass't Principal and Disciplinarian during my tenure. I liked him. In a pathetic search for friendship and approval, I actually broke rules at school in order that I might be sent to his office..... But when I came to visit years later, he was busy doing something -- so the receptionist said, or gone for the day, or whatever.....

Well, that’s enough for now.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is Fred Owens

My writing blog is Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
35 West Main St Suite B #391
Ventura CA 93001

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Food Comes from the Grocery Store

This week’s edition is about food and farm labor, but first a little bit about Charles Dickens

David Copperfield

I have quit the Robert Sund School. He always said boil it down, throw it out, and less is better....... Now I am learning from Charles Dickens. Many of his novels are over 800 pages long, and they're good. Dickens repeats himself a lot -- that's part of his style. He's like the anti-Hemingway. He's like the opposite of Elmore Leonard. You gotta read at least 300 pages before David Copperfield even gets started. The first 300 pages are sort of a warm-up and lay of the land. I am at page 450 now -- it's starting to move and get serious......

Being influenced by Dickens, if I write a short piece now, and if I like it, I make it much longer.

Tannic Acid

I work with plants. Plants are made from chemicals. One of those chemicals is tannic acid -- found in grape skins and oaken wood. Tannic acid occurs naturally and you can eat it or drink it. You could drink one gallon of tannic acid and not die. But if you're that stupid you might also drive your car into a tree at 50 mph to see if the air bags worked.

Anyway, it's out there in nature. Also you can buy a pound or a ton of tannic acid from a chemical supply company and use it for a variety of projects.

It quickly gets very technical. I did a drawing by hand of the tannic acid compound. Using your hand is a powerful reinforcement of learning, so now I feel at home with this chemical.

Today I'm learning about vanillin -- the chemical which is the essence of vanilla flavor. You can get it from nature, in which case it comes with hundreds of little smidgeons of other compounds and that gives natural vanilla extract a fuller and more complex flavor. Or you can cook up a gallon or a hundred gallons of vanillin in your lab and use it to flavor food. That's legal. It won't kill you. It doesn't taste as good as natural vanilla, but it's a lot cheaper.

Mesa Harmony Garden in Santa Barbara

I have worked at community gardens quite often. They depend on volunteer labor. Planners consistently overestimate the supply of volunteer labor. They begin projects with a burst of enthusiasm and discover a weed-choked mess several months later.

The garden where I volunteer has wisely learned from those experiences. We use volunteer labor on a sustainable basis. We have lots of wonderful ideas and things we like to do, but we talk ourselves out of it. I serve on the board of this garden, and I have been known to say, "I'm not willing to do any work on this. I might do a little bit of work, but not much."

My fellow board members often agree with that assessment. You might say we are lazy. We have designed an orchard of fruit trees, choosing projects that require the least labor -- that gives us time to sit in the shade and enjoy the view.

And money. I am opposed to any project that will cost money. In order to get money we have to do fundraising and that is an irksome task. "But we could spend a little money on that. Yeah, that might be okay."

Conserving labor and money generates harmony. Since we are not over-worked or over-spent, we enjoy ourselves more and do not squabble. This is the best way to run a community garden.

I should say that I do not speak for the garden board, just for myself.

The Drought in California

The drought in California is a problem most people notice. They know it hasn't rained in a long time. It is possible to gain the attention of the average Californian concerning this problem and they might be willing to do something about it, such as curtailing certain habits.

This is how human beings handle problems -- they deal with the problems that are right in front of them........ And any sound environmental policy should incorporate that powerful motive. We ought to reward short-term thinking because that's what we are good at. Human beings are incredibly adaptable and capable of quick changes when under pressure. We are fast learners.

But long-term thinking -- we're not too good at that. Climate change 30 years from now -- snooore, boore. We're not equipped to deal with that scenario. We're not built that way. It's not natural. Expecting people to behave contrary to their nature is close to stupid. Won't happen. Waste of time.

I forgot to save for my retirement and you expect me to worry about climate change? I have a hard time thinking about next month.

But go ahead, give us the warning -- it goes something like this:

O ye prophets of doom!

Perdition looms!

The seas will rise and swallow the earth!

Strange, violent creatures will eat our flesh! ..... etc, etc

I propose simpler environmental policies. If you like monarch butterflies, plant milkweed. If you like honey bees, install a hive in your back yard. If you like chickens running free, get some. If you're concerned about the drought, use less water. Don't litter……. You can add some sensible gov’t regulations to this -- to nudge and encourage what we agree is good behavior.

Human beings, so highly adaptable, are also capable of cooperation -- as long as you don't push it too far. They will join together to solve a larger problem – you can easily get a hundred volunteers to fill sand bags and staunch the flood. That’s the short-term, but you can’t count on these same volunteers to come back the next day after the flood has passed – they’re gonna go home and mend their own fences.

Oh yeah, California is about to pass a statewide ban against plastic grocery bags. I know that some of my friends are advanced people, motivated to serve the higher good. They can foresee problems that I have not noticed. They told me there was a whirlpool of garbage a ways out there in the ocean, and if I use plastic bags at the grocery store, I will choke a fish. Okay, I will take this on faith and stop using the plastic bags..... But don't use me up. I will take a few things on faith -- only a few.

I work on an organic farm – a small market garden and greenhouse -- not because I believe that the use of artificial herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers is harmful to the earth. No. I work at an organic farm, because they pay me and because it smells good. I have no quarrel with conventional agriculture.

Food comes from the Grocery Store

You know where food comes from? The grocery store. That's where I get my food. And they get if from farmers who grow it. We have a lot of food in America and it doesn't cost very much. Most of our agriculture is mechanized and done on a large scale because most of us don't want to be farmers. We buy our food at the store because that is what we like to do.

There's a few of us who enjoy getting our hands in the dirt. And there's a large number of us who talk about the wonders of rural life and simple farm-folk. But it's talk. Only talk. You can't build a sustainable policy based on talk. We buy our food at the store and we don't want to pay very much for it. Any sustainable policy needs to be built on that fact. The rest is just air.

It's been a phony message since Thomas Jefferson praised the yeoman farmer. Thomas Jefferson never did a lick of field work in his life. It was talk and you can't build a better policy based on talk.

Okay, that’s enough for now,

Thank you very much,

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is Fred Owens

My writing blog is Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
35 West Main St Suite B #391
Ventura CA 93001

Saturday, August 30, 2014


I lived in Kansas for a few months in 1976. My working hypothesis was that all the earth is beautiful, so why be seduced by pretty snow-covered mountains.............. that was my working hypothesis. The truth is that our car broke down in Kansas and we ran out of money. So we found work -- it's a good place if you can find work -- then we rented an apartment in back of the Swedish bakery and just lived there. That does not diminish the working hypothesis in any way. All the earth is beautiful. Sunflowers in Kansas are just as beautiful as California sunsets....... But they did have a lot of Lutherans in that little town. They were open-minded people -- don't get me wrong -- open-minded and fair in their judgment ..... It just wasn't a lot of fun. I believe they failed to see the humor in it -- it being "life in this universe."

Bob Dole – his last name rhymes with Droll. He was from Kansas. I met him once and I found out that he had a sense of humor and a dry wit. Meeting him was almost like being in Kansas and it only took a few minutes – you didn’t have to really go there like I did.

I still believe my working hypothesis – that all the earth is beautiful. Most of the people who live in Kansas like it there because it is beautiful and they can see that beauty. Some of them leave and come to places like California, in search of adventure and ocean breezes, but you know what Dorothy said -- Dorothy the evanescent goddess of Kansas – she said there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home …….. and she woke up.

You might take issue with Bob Dole on this or that question, but you would never challenge Dorothy.

Gardening News

I am working for Oscar at the greenhouse in Goleta. I go there twice a week. He grows tomato seedlings and other vegetable starts which are sold at the Farmers Market. I am the Production Manager in this operation. I am also the entire production staff. Most of the work involves taking little tomato seedlings in little pots and transplanting them into bigger pots. Also watering everything. Seedlings need daily attention. That’s what I do for Oscar.

The greenhouses are located at Elwood Canyon Farm which is an organic market garden of several acres. There is an abundance of natural beauty at this site and we enjoy the wildlife and the singing of birds while we are at work.

The farm is only one-mile from the ocean and it’s all flat ground, so the cooling breezes come in. Usually by 11 a.m. we begin to feel an onshore breeze coming in.

So it doesn’t get too hot there, but even so, I schedule the harder work for first thing in the morning. This is called “horticultural strategy involving the sustainability of labor resources.” I should write a paper on this and get funded, but I have the unfortunate habit of boiling it down to a few paragraphs and nobody will pay for that.

Reading the Manual

My daughter is getting married next Saturday, so I had to buy new shoes and a new coat. The new coat is linen. It will wrinkle after one hour, but it’s the first hour that counts, and the linen is lightweight and comfortable plus it looks smashing…. By the second hour no one will notice the coat, or me.

A man plunges ahead never seeking instruction or direction. A man plunges ahead because he is a pathfinder and a pioneer. He will find his way and discover new things.

And yet there are those rare instances when it is better to read the manual.

Your daughter’s wedding is such an occasion. And the manual is Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy. You study this essential film and you adopt the posture and the attitude. You dress appropriately and the words will come to you without rehearsal. Things may be go wrong and you might be the only one to notice that. But you have a peerless guide to walk through it with you.

Wedding Poem

Wedding Day...
Merry Love...
Heavenly Kisses
Sweet forever
Yes and Yes
Always and Always.
Starting on Monday.
Tuesday was
Terrific. We
like Wednesday.
Thursday is better.
Friday is fantastic.

You're Darn Tootin' !
Heavens to
Blessings and
Star Dust.
You and Me,
Baby. I
can't give you
anything but Love...
The Wandering Sea

The Wandering Sea
The North Star
Glistens. Orion
remembers the
morning. Venus
in the morning.
Mercury speeding.
Mars Glowing
Jupiter's Jamboree
Saturn is silent....
Neptune is the
Ocean of the
sea shells
and oysters
with pearls

Saturday, July 26, 2014


One day there was this guy working in a field, chopping weeds all day, hot work, tired and thirsty. He had a big field, chopping weeds day after day, and he got tired of it. There must be a better way, he thought. He's the guy who invented Round-Up....

But there are other ways to avoid the problem of chopping weeds all day. Like hiring poor people from 3rd world countries to do it for you......

Or you can keep chopping weeds but make it more fun with better pay, nice clean field bathrooms and shady rest areas.

Or you can plan your tillage and planting to avoid the worst of the weeds.

There's actually several ways to solve this problem. And none of them work too well.

None of them work too well, so we go back to the Bible and read that we are condemned to work by the sweat of our brows. And dream about gardens where there is no work to do at all. Besides the Bible you have several visions of paradise to work with, depending on your religious and cultural persuasion -- a favorite of mine is to imagine it was so much easier when we were all hunter-gatherers in small tribes wandering --- "the fish just jumped into the boat!" .... "the fruit fell off the tree" ..... "there were tasty roots in the meadow" ....

Penny Jennings, from her farm in Oregon, responded. "We're experiencing the weed issue here on the farm. But I refuse to pollute the land with Round-Up. Instead, we are putting about 5 inches of compost and bark mulch and planting plants that eventually will replace the weeds. But they are relentless. It may just be my fantasy...."

I wrote back to her -- "The key to understanding the weed problem is that nothing works. We face this hopeless moment and then we move on."

The Reaper.

Cyrus McCormick invented the mechanical reaper in 1837. It was soon widely adopted. You can make a nice nostalgic painting of happy workers reaping the grain with scythes and sickles, but a million farm boys and farm girls were pretty happy to be relieved of that labor when the mechanical reaper came along......

Round up and Reapers are some of the machines and chemicals that do the work for us --- you can say that's good or you can say that's awful -- it depends on who you talk to.

It Might Have Been Different

David Ben-Gurion attempted to enlist in the Turkish army at the beginning of World War I. He and the other Zionists hoped to form a Jewish regiment that would fight on the Turkish side. But their offer was rejected..... Imagine how different history would be if Ben Gurion had fought for the Turks. With Jewish help, the Turks would have defended Jerusalem and Damascus against the British invaders...... But no, the people of the Middle East consistently and stupidly reject the potential of Jewish "help." And what good does it do them? We in America had the good sense to welcome millions of Jewish immigrants - to our benefit.

A History of Hovels.

My life in a shack. I hope I never live in sub-standard housing again. I guess that's what I remember most about the Skagit Valley -- slum housing amid natural splendor........ Other people excelled in shack management -- you know, chop wood and carry water, all that lovely vision of back to the land.

Not me. My experience was blowing into a funky wet fire on my hands and knees, trying to get the fire going in some damp cabin...... You think I could even heat a wood stove -- lots of people did good at that. Not me.

And work. Menial manual labor. You think I might have picked up a marketable skill, like the friends I knew who became carpenters and boat builders and made decent money. Not this space case. Unskilled minimum-wage labor -- that was my specialty.

Loading the truck. I was good at that. Once me and Jim Smith unloaded an entire railroad box car full of surplus government cheese.

Once Singin' Dan and me dug a 200-foot long 18-inch deep ditch to put in a water line -- at least it wasn't raining when we did that.

And not forgetting the natural splendor of the Skagit Valley.

But other people did better, just fit into the landscape better. Years ago we camped beside Steve and Katy Philbrick on Illabot Creek. They lived in a warm and snug two-story tepee, with clean glass kerosene lanterns, sitting next to a carefully stacked and dried pile of alder wood.

They were cozy. We were cold and wet. And Steve and Katy still live up there. They moved out of the teepee, bought land, built a house, had children -- the whole nine yards.

What I'm saying is that the Skagit worked for them and I'm glad for their happiness, and I'm sure they had tears and tragedy along the way.

But it leads to my saying and this is it. "You don't pick the place. The place picks you."

You might want to live in some place very badly, but that doesn't mean it will work out. Then you end up somewhere else and things start to click -- and that's where you belong because that place picked you.

Santa Barbara. It's festival season in Santa Barbara. The Greek Festival is this weekend. Next weekend is the Fiesta -- celebrating Old Spanish Days with lots of parties and dress up and the grand equestrian parade with hundred of horses. I love the parade and seeing all the horses. There might be a few hundred thousand visitors and no place to park, but it's a lot of fun. and if you don't like parades and parties, you can always go to the beach.

Here's my toast Santa Barbara, Viva la Fiesta!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Fagin is Still with us

I finished reading Oliver Twist. It was such a good book and it helped me. I resent most writers and that’s not an attractive disposition. I compare myself to other writers and that’s odious. But Charles Dickens elevates me. Dickens has plenty of room on the cloud where he roosts, so I have joined him there.

I will keep going on this Year of Dickens, and the next one I will read is Nicholas Nickleby.

Fagin. Fagin is the most interesting character in Oliver Twist, and the most enjoyable although I cannot detect any redeeming virtues in his character. He is the Jew. The Jew walked. The Jew talked, The Jew stood up. The Jew sat down. The Jew. The Jew. The Jew. Dickens said “the Jew” at least 300 times in the book.

I can explain that. Fagin was a Jew, so that is what Dickens called him. You can read your own prejudices into that as many readers have done, or just sail right past it as I did. I mean, if someone called you a Jew, would you be insulted? I would not be insulted given such an appellation., although I might point out the contrary -- I am not a Jew.

But Fagin was more than interesting to me. There was more than the appeal of such a delightful villain, I even liked him and I could not understand the source of my affection until yesterday when I was transplanting tomatoes at the greenhouse where I work part-time. This is what I remembered:

Seymour. It was early April, 1972. I left my editorial position at a small magazine in Chicago. I flew to New York and went to visit Mark Mikolas and Judy Capurso in the West Village. They lived in a converted storefront down the street from the White Horse Tavern.

I decided to try my hand at living in Manhattan, Mark and Judy loaned me their couch for a couple of weeks with the understanding that I was to get established and fairly quickly.

Well, I didn’t give this a moment’s thought and I had no plan -- travelling lightly you might suppose -- I just figured something would work out.

Mark said I might want to talk with Seymour, he could fix me up with a gig.

“Who’s Seymour?”

Mark said you can find him at the White Horse Tavern and they told me who to look for. “He can fix you up with something,” Mark said a second time.

Seymour came into the tavern and there was no mistaking him. He was a cripple, probably polio, with gimpy legs and metal crutches. He had massive shoulders and a broad muscular chest. He heaved his crutches and legs along in a methodical way making dull thuds on the tavern’s planked floor.

He was neither old nor young. He had a huge, bushy black beard, coal black eyes and a balding head. I would say he had a twinkle in his eye and a merry look about him, but that was not so. He did have a smile, and it was friendly, but that was only one layer. There were hidden layers beneath that smile, there were deeper concerns in his eyes. You might read his face and you might be wrong in the reading.

Nevermind. Mark said he could fix me up. “Are you Seymour?”

“I am. How can I help you?”

“Let me tell what I need.”

We took a table. Seymour’s table. Where he sat. A cripple. He knew how many steps from the door to the table, and from the table to the bar and to the pay phone on the wall. Measured steps for his strong arms and weakly legs.

He unfurled his crutches and set them aside. I told him I had just come into town from Chicago and I needed something.

“You mean you want some kind of hustle.”

Seymour was the Jew. Of course he was. This was the West Village in 1972 and he was the Jew, the cripple, the hustler and he was going to do something for me. He was the Jew.

“I have some ideas for you. Do you want to hear them? Yes, good. You can make the most money running numbers, this is some hundreds of dollars in a day and it’s not a long day. Nobody knows you because you just got into town and you have a clean record. You look like a college student. If you were carrying the bag it would look like your lunch. You might do for a runner.”

“In Harlem?”

“Not just in Harlem, all over town, down to Wall Street. I could set you up on a cleaner route. A lot of respectable people play the numbers. You’d be surprised…… Can you keep your mouth shut? You don’t want to talk too much. You don’t want to know too much either. Just run the route and you’ll get paid. Sound interesting? ……. Okay, probably not ….. the numbers …. You don’t really want to know…… But I have another way, you could run a gypsy cab. You would have to put up some money for this gig. I can fix you up with an unlicensed cab for under a $1,000. You gotta pay to get into this racket. You could be a cab driver, you take drunks home at 3 a.m. You meet all kinds of people. The money is good. The cops won’t bother you. But you gotta know your neighborhoods.

You can establish a route, like from downtown to the Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem. You have to get to know people. They respect the right kind of white guy, and if they respect you, you can make a living. You won’t get ripped off. I know some people up there, so I can put in a word.

Nah, that won’t work…… Look, pardon me for saying this, but you strike me as kind of a lightweight.”

I heard all this. I was waiting for the catch. Seymour wasn’t doing me a favor – no warm-hearted smile, he was more matter of fact. So if he was offering me something, then what was he expecting from me? But honestly I was too dumb to worry about stuff like that.

“You might try selling balloons. It’s easy and you can make money. You’d be surprised. The money can be very good. I know a spot in Central Park, right across the street from the Plaza Hotel. The other vendors know me, so you can work there. If they don’t know you, they run you off, or steal your stuff, or let the cops hassle you. But I can talk to them. It’s not exactly legal, but it’s been going on for a long time and it’s lightweight.

I’ll meet you in the wholesale district where they sell toys. I’ll show you where to get the balloons and a pump and the other stuff -- it won’t cost you $50 bucks to get started.”

That was Seymour’s offer.

There was no catch. I met him in wholesale the next day. I bought the stuff. We went up to Central Park. On a beautiful spring day in Central Park in Manhattan you feel like you’re on top of the world.

We sold the balloons. Seymour worked the crowd. He was the cripple. He had a sense of humor – if it would help him make money. A spiel, a patter, and the mommas and poppas lined up with crying children to buy balloons. Seymour was like Santa Claus with a cash agenda.

“You talk with them, but not too much. You talk with them, give them a balloon, take their money and shut up. You don’t talk to them for free.

We sold a lot of balloons and the next day I was on my own. It was too much fun, spending the day in Central Park, sparking at pretty ladies, watching the horses and the carriages, watching the swells stroll out of the Plaza Hotel, eating hot dogs off the cart – and making money. Having fun and making money, thanks to Seymour.

I sold balloons in the park for two months, but you can’t ride in that good-time parade forever. After a while you get tired of smiling at small children and you want to throw rocks at them. I got a regular job. My friends fixed me up with a rent-control studio apartment on East 54th Street.

The funny thing is that I never saw Seymour again. There I was making a living in Manhattan and I owed him, only he never said so. There was no catch. So why did he do me this favor? I don’t know. He was the Jew. He was a small-time crook and but this was a mitzvah just the same.

Seymour was who he was. You could take it or leave it. He knew the prayer, Thank God I am not a Gentile, Thank God I am not a slave, Thank God I am not a woman.

He didn’t say the prayer but he knew it. He had no ironic affection for God. He knew who he was with the crutches and how people looked at him when he walked. That’s who he was and sometimes he did you a favor without calculating the interest.

In time I forgot about Seymour, but the memory came back to me yesterday while I was transplanting tomatoes. Fagin reminded me of Seymour and that’s why it resonated. Dickens never remotely hinted that Fagin had a good side, but I imputed a small amount of Seymour-style goodness into Fagin’s character and liked him for that.

You can do that with a generous author like Dickens. He gives you his characters, then you can play with them as you like.

Visiting Ballard, Anacortes and LaConner. I will be visiting my daughter in Ballard the week of July 17-23, also staying a couple of nights with Fred and Nora Winyard in Anacortes, and spending a little time in LaConner as well. I hope to see some old friends while I am there.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is Fred Owens

My writing blog is Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
35 West Main St Suite B #391
Ventura CA 93001

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Oliver Twist, also “Israel or ISIS”

Oliver Twist is an angelic sap, devoid of mischief and guile. I would not want to play with him. He might run home and tell on me. What you’re looking for in a friend is a co-conspirator, not a role model.

I’m half-way through this novel by Charles Dickens – I am disillusioned. I don’t care very much about young Oliver, but I will bring the book with me to the beach and soldier on.

My next Dickens novel might by Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit or Bleak House.

Nicholas Nickleby, being the one written after Oliver Twist, seems like a good choice.

Martin Chuzzlewit is funny, and since Oliver Twist is humorless, I might need a laugh.

Or Bleak House -- people say this is his best work, and I had been saving it for last, but why not now?

It’s summertime, beach reading season, in Southern California – all conditions point to a sublime experience, so it might be Bleak House.

Feel free to advise me on this choice.

I could write at much greater length about the novels of Charles Dickens, but I suspect not all of you are interested.

Israel or ISIS

Rather a dramatic change of topic, and yet it is what we are considering. Let me talk about having dinner with younger friends last week. They cheerfully admitted to a lack of news, as in not reading the news, not the newspaper or the Internet. It depressed them, so they avoided it.

You avoid bad news in order to be happy? How shallow. Happiness comes when you square up to the misery and cruelty of this world and still smile. I make a daily effort to be the good news, or at least part of it. And that makes me happy. But if there’s trouble, I want to hear about it, and hear about it right away. And people say, wrongly, that it does no good to hear about war in the Middle East because there is so little we can do about it.

Paying attention is doing something. Paying attention is no small thing. Read and learn about all the turmoil and all the calamities of all the people of the earth and make your heart big enough to be happy just the same.

And that brings me to this news item that I found on the Daily Beast. (Kids read news sites like the Daily Beast, if they read any news at all)

Israel or ISIS

Who has the toughest, most zealous, most determined military force in the Middle East? The Israelis. They’re not “weighing their options.” That is our luxury, not theirs.

We don’t defend Israel. It defends itself quite well. Israel has its boots on the ground right now and has no exit strategy.

You can find much fault with this society, but Israel does exist. And I will state, with my limited knowledge, that Israel might be just a hair less psychotic than the rampaging religious maniacs called ISIS. People might not feel free to say that out loud but it’s true.

Realizing this almost made me smile, because the ISIS is downright scary, and who can stop them? I will tell you who can stop ISIS – those same people you said don’t exist, the ones you will drive into the ocean. Now you will swallow your words because you will need their help.

And that would be a good thing, if people admitted, without actually having to come out and say so, that Israel is part of the solution to the future of the Middle East, not a peaceful and good future, but any future at all, because at this point, with all that war and fear of war, and martial intoxication, and the wild urges of young men to join in battle, any future at all is worth seeking and believing in, and this future will include Israel in some way, and it will not include ISIS.

That’s the choice. Those are the options. Israel or ISIS.

Thomas Friedman. Honestly, I should pass this on to Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, but he’s a clever man and will likely arrive at the same solution that I have just declared.

Not Forgetting Charles Dickens. This is why we read Charles Dickens on the beach, in the summer in sunny Southern California. Good books are not an escape at all. They are a part of what makes us alive, and that’s how we can be happy without hiding from the raging realities.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is Fred Owens

My writing blog is Frog Hospital

send mail to:

Fred Owens
35 West Main St Suite B #391
Ventura CA 93001