I am coffee, a most unrelentingly potent and seductive elixir. I have been one of mankind’s greatest possessions since at least the fourteenth century. Pope Clement VIII, sometime during either the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, encouraged Catholics to start drinking me. Some people don’t particularly enjoy me but most people find me quite enticing. I can be drunk plain, black and unsweetened, or with milk, sugar, as well as a wide variety of other flavorings. People often enjoy me with alcoholic beverages too. I often have a large amount of caffeine in me so many people tend to have drastic problems when they drink me. My smell is exceptionally intoxicating. I fit in equally well at all kinds of occasions, ranging from the casual to the formal, happy and sad, work and play. I’m sort of an introduction to adulthood for most people. You don’t usually see very many children or teenagers imbibing me. Some countries, such as England, prefer tea, but the people who enjoy me simply can’t get enough of me. They literally start each and every single morning of their lives with me, as if my presence is somehow unavoidably mandatory. Some people can’t handle me well. I’ve been known to give them problems ranging from headaches to insomnia. Often, though, they’re quite willing to make the sacrifice in order to enjoy me. I’m like any drug, or addictive compulsive behavior. If someone neglects to watch his step with me I can take complete control, akin to a Faustian bargain, of his life. In a way you could even say I’m sort of like a liquid Satan. I’m found everywhere. I can’t be avoided. I give all kinds of short-term enjoyment, and promise even more. There’s an inevitable catch though. I can’t be trusted.
Sheldn Fatrack and Ralph Fensterblau, both long-time employees at the Acme Gadget Company, decided on day to have a bit of a party to introduce their wives, Mabel and Harriet, to each other. It struck them as quite a nice idea at the time. What they didn’t know, though, was that quite a strange surprise awaited them all. The party was at Sheldn’s and Mabel’s house in Lindenhurst. The Fensterblaus got into their car to make the five minute drive from Copiague, little suspecting that they were about to stumble upon a precise replica of their home. Their acquaintances’ house, like theirs, was a brown and white low ranch, with a 75′ by 100′ yard. The inside had exactly the same paint and decorations, the same television set, basement and attic. There was even the same novelty picture, in their basement, of an overweight naked redneck couple.
“Harriet, honey,” whispered Ralph, “Do you see what I see? Something’s awfully seriously wrong around here.”
All Harriet could say was a simple “Be quiet and pretend not to have noticed anything. Maybe we’ve just walked into another dimension again.”
Throughout the entire afternoon and evening they wandered about this exact duplicate of their own lives, checking out the same books on the same shelves, the same food in the same refrigerator. After a while they even started enjoying it in some offbeat way. They casually let the Fatracks give them a guided tour of the house, pretending never to have seen any of it before. They asked how many bathrooms and bedrooms there were, and all sorts of other typical questions, knowing perfectly well what the answers would be. All the while they made references to old television shows like “The Outer Limits”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone” without giving their hosts the satisfaction of an explanation. In the end they all had such a nice time. Of course they’ve never recuperated from the shock but at least they know that perhaps due to some clerical error in the functioning of the universe, they don’t have to say that there’s absolutely no place whatsoever like home.
Assuming my imaginary friend is still alive today, he’s probably quite an even much wiser and imaginative fellow now than he was then. As a kid I lived in a neighborhood in Jackson Heights where a third of the families spoke only Italian and another third spoke only Spanish. My friend used to drive me crazy by rambling on at me constantly in Spanish and Italian. He was a good guy but he could be quite the wise ass. I’m sure he’s probably about the same now in many ways, a perfect gentleman with a colorful twist. I hope for his sake he didn’t fall in with the wrong imaginary crowd, drinking, partying and carousing until all hours of the night. Maybe he ended up shacking up with some imaginary floozy whom he met at an imaginary singles bar. Perhaps they formed an imaginary band and have spent the entire time since then cruising up and down Route 81 on an old broken down imaginary Greyhound bus, playing Grateful Dead and Dylan songs in exchange for chump change at imaginary saloons, greasy spoons and dives. I’ll bet they dress and behave quite stylishly. If I ever get a chance to meet him again in person, would he even be willing to talk to me or might I strike him as too much of a square?
I’d say that I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction about the same, though for different reasons. Right now I’m reading Longfellow’s poem, “Evangeline” and Jane Austen’s novel, “Sense and Sensibility”. I’m also reading “The Story Of A Soul” by St. Therese of Lisieux. I’ve always been interested in novels and poems because they allow me to travel to other places and time frames. I can permit my imagination to get entirely out of control. A well written novel or poem also can teach interesting lessons about human nature. Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” are exceptionally good examples of this. One problem with Dostoyevsky, though, is that he tends to be exceptionally didactic. Reading something of his always makes me feel as if it’s written in the form of a thinly disguised theology and philosophy lecture.I’ve always enjoyed seeing how many different symbols I can see in various works of literature. Two of the most famous examples of symbolism in classic western literature are a bookworm character, who reads a story within the story, a convention begun by Cervantes in “Don Quijote”, and travel, begun by St. Augustine of Hippo in his “Confessions”. Among works of non-fiction, I especially enjoy biographies, and classic works of theology and philosophy. By now I’ve read very many biographies of a wide variety of famous people, including writers, politicians, musicians and saints. Although I only have thirteen credits in philosophy, and no college credits in theology, I’ve always had quite a voracious interest in those fields. As a lay Carmelite I’ve read all the Carmelite classics I’ve been able to find. Since I really like to get involved in a good debate about the culture war, reading these kinds of things keeps me well informed.
Mabel went away for the weekend. Ralph was used to these occasional excursions of hers. She was in the habit of visiting her family and friends for a few days at a time. He got up very early on Saturday morning, hoping to relax and to take advantage of all the welcome peace and quiet for a while. At around 8:00 a.m., however, there was quite an ominous knock upon his front door.
“Good morning, Mr. Fensterblau,” said the tall, ominous looking stranger.
Ralph didn’t know what to think. The anonymous man walked into the Fensterblau house without an invitation. He proceeded to demand that Ralph sit down, and that he, without question or comment, obey all instructions. All the doors of the house spontaneously locked.
“Mr. Fensterblau,” his visitor proceeded to explain, “I should like to talk with you for a few moments, please, my good man. My associates and I have been keeping very close track of you.”
Ralph, eager to put a stop to all the trouble, attempted to call the local policemen. When he went to call for help, he found that none of the phones was working. Understandably he was starting to get exceptionally anxious and frustrated.
“Mr. Fensterblau,” the stranger went on, “I shall have, unfortunately, to take you away with me permanently. I cannot, however, explain to you the exact circumstances that make your abduction unavoidably mandatory. Pack up your things at once and follow me very quietly please. I assure you it’s quite futile even so much as to try to disobey.”
When Mabel arrived home on Monday afternoon she was confronted by an ominously empty house. Ralph never got a chance to clean up before he left. All was left carelessly thrown around in disarray. None of the neighbors could account for his whereabouts. She spent the next few months trying to explain to their local police precinct, and Ralph’s workplace, the Acme Corporation, about all the trouble.
St. Gabriel’s, on 97th Street in East Elmhurst, was such an exceptionally good parish, including a school. The Sisters of Charity, De La Salle Christian Brothers, and lay faculty members ran quite a tight ship but they were entirely likable and fair too. One would think, logically, that nothing of any significance could possibly go wrong there. There was one incident when I was a kid, though, that boggles people’s minds to this very day. Sister Rose Eugene, my first grade teacher, was quite a tall, imposing looking lady. Back then the Sisters of Charity wore old fashioned black habits and bonnets, and Rosary beads as belts. To this very day I still remember my very first day at St. Gabriel’s, as a student of hers. We youngsters all got the shock of our lives when we first showed up on that otherwise fine September morning so long ago. My neighborhood friends and I all got off the Q 19 B, the local utility bus, and walked through the schoolyard in order to enter our new school. Uncontrollable shock and chaos set in the instant we first walked through the school’s doors. The children arrived for the first day of school to find that there were no desks in any of the classrooms. Being six years old at the time, we youngest kids didn’t know what to think. “Maybe Martians took them,” said Dale. Upon hearing such a claim, Jo Anne whined, “Oh shut up! Everybody knows Martians don’t even have butts so they can’t even sit anyway!” After the shock had all somewhat subsided, the principals, Sister Dolorita and Brother Andrew, got us all together for an assembly, so they could explain how to deal with our most unprecedented problem. They ended up deciding that they couldn’t let us stay unfortunately. Being kids, we were all so very happy to be allowed to go home. Our very first day at our new school ended up having to come a week late because of all the problems that were involved with finding new desks. To this very day no one has any idea what could possibly have happened. It wasn’t a result of anyone’s negligence and there was no criminal activity involved. It was just a weird quirk of fate. Even now my oldest friends and I still always talk about it, often wondering which of us may have perhaps been the guilty party.
Julius and Ethel Weidermeyer were trying to get ready to deal with the news about his father’s death. The eighty year old grandfather had been ill with cancer for most of the past five years. When the inevitable finally came to pass, they made the one hundred and eighty five mile drive to his house in northeastern Pennsylvania in order to make the arrangements for his funeral, as well as to sort through all his belongings. When they arrived they were confronted with quite an adventure. They’d always known he was a notoriously sentimental character as well as a bit of a pack rat but their discovery was absolutely amazing. Going through his dad’s basement was like having a time machine. They found a bottomless pit of boxes, bags and cases of artifacts from literally the very beginning of his lifetime. He’d even saved souvenirs of people like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. His parents must have gotten all these things for him before he was even old enough to walk. As they went along they found clothes and memorabilia with all his old schools’ insignias on them. It appeared as if the old fellow had felt somehow unrelentingly compelled to save all sorts of relics of each successive era throughout his entire lifetime. The more they found the more awe smitten they were. “I just don’t get it!” gasped Ethel. “It’s not exactly as if there’s anything exceptionally valuable here. They’re all just very old pictures, records, clothes and things like that.” Eventually, though, they wised up to the fact that it was quite an interesting discovery. The more they thought it through, the more they recognized that there was quite an entire lifetime’s supply of profound history here. Besides its being a miniature lecture on all the history and pop culture of most of the twentieth century, it was also an indirect source of insight into all sorts of background about Mr. Weidermeyer, things they could never have otherwise found out. Over the course of his very long lifetime he’d told a lot of stories and seemed to have been quite knowledgeable about all sorts of offbeat things. It turns out, though, that he must truly have been quite devoted to all those long ago milestones. “I can imagine how Mom must have felt,” complained Julius. “He must have driven her out of her mind, nice though all this stuff is.” Anyone who wanted a lesson on things like the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict and Viet Nam could have the time of his life in such an environment. They could rake in an absolute mint, they thought, by charging admission for a guided tour. Soon they started having the time of their lives enjoying all the silliness of their adventure. Understandably they were sorry to have lost him. They would have really enjoyed talking to him about all these things. At his wake, they mentioned his treasure trove to all their family and his friends. It added quite a dimension of joy and relief to the otherwise somber occasion.
The woman in the middle of this picture is a middle aged harried wife and mother, about forty years old. Her attendance at the Memorial Day parade each year is quite legendary by now. She was born and raised in Amityville where she attended the local public schools. She and her husband, long time residents of Long Beach, are raising a family of three teenagers, two sons and a daughter, on his meager salary as a bank teller and hers as a schoolteacher. They’ve been married for practically twenty years. They’re very active in Republican politics as well as in their church, school and civic organizations. He’s a fourth degree member of his Knights of Columbus council and she’s involved with their ladies’ auxiliary. Neither of them smokes and they only drink a little at parties they occasionally attend, though they’re constantly drinking coffee. All her life she’s been both an avowed Deadhead and a die hard Yankee fan. She attended many Grateful Dead concerts throughout the country during her youth, and has never missed a Yankee game for as far back as she can remember. A bit of a neurotic and somewhat too far toward the superstitious side she wears a variety of specific kinds of clothing whenever they’re playing in order to make sure that her team has the very best chance of winning. Her parents both died several years ago and she’s only somewhat close to her extended family, mostly out of a sense of civility. They’ve deliberately hurt her entirely too deeply over the years to be worthy of any respect whatsoever but she feels a sense of obligation to play the game for the sake of her husband and kids. She broke her left leg in the fifth grade because of a roller skating accident and frequently uses her lifelong limp as a source of much humor on her good days, and sarcasm on bad days. Her students and all the other people at her and her husband’s jobs, and her kids’ friends, consider her quite an admirable character though she has a nasty temper at times and can be seriously impatient when frustrated. Her kids are good, suffering from only the average traditional adolescent troubles, and so far haven’t given her and her husband any reason to complain, though they’re extremely careless about their homework and study habits. Ultimately her life so far has been very good to her. She has all she could possibly want or need, considering all her hardships and disappointments. Hers has been a well rounded life, with quite a share of both joy and sorrow.