Saturday, October 25, 2003

No more tricks, no more treats

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We are approaching the scariest day of the year, when monsters in eerie costume come out of hiding to ply their fiendish trade, stalking everyone nearby, baring their snaggle-teeth and demanding the one thing that will satisfy their hunger. Yes — it will soon be Election Day.

Halloween is also coming up.

I had almost forgotten about that holiday until recently. My wife and I were driving home one evening. It was the stroke of midnight, and ours was the only car on the road in downtown Fall River. Right outside Government Center — a creepy enough place during the day — we saw a guy in brown pants and a red and green striped sweater out for a stroll. Somewhere, a wolf bayed at the moon, or perhaps it was a pit bull.

“Ugh — that poor guy’s face looks all mauled,” my wife said.

“And he’s got knives for fingers,” I said.

He looked just like Freddy Krueger from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher flicks. As we passed him, I saw he was Freddy Krueger.

We drove along in silence for a second.

“Uh,” I said.

“Must be coming from the Asylum of Horror,” my wife said.

“Or the Factory of Terror.”

“Or the Dunkin’ Donuts.”

We hit a red light at the corner of North Main and Bedford. Behind us, in the rearview mirror, Freddy Krueger slowly approached, inexorably, shuffling along by the Citizens-Union Savings Bank.

I hit the power door locks.

For a minute there I was reminded of when I was a kid, and how much time fun Halloween could be.

The entire month of October was often consumed with intrigue as I planned elaborate costumes, stole ideas from friends, memorized maps of the neighborhood. In the weeks beforehand, my school friends would ask the eternal question:

“Who are you going as?”

“It’s whom,” I’d say. “And I wouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition like that.”

Which answered their question, actually — no matter what costume I wore, I would be going as a total geek.

I was a vampire for several years in a row, until I discovered an old beige trench coat in my parents’ closet. That year, I was the only pre-teen who was planning to dress like TV detective Columbo.

So other people would get the joke, I ended up modifying the costume at the last minute very slightly — actually, not at all — and telling people I was supposed to be a hobo. Unsurprisingly, they bought it.

My sister, Christine, and I never trick-or-treated at random houses. We were always afraid of kid-snatchers, poisoned candy, witches living in tenements made completely of sugar — you name it.

More to the point, over the years, our family had perfected a trick-or-treating route that resulted in the best-quality hauls per house visited, without the unnecessary expense of calories by walking everywhere.

First, my mom drove us to the relatives’ houses. They were always good for Sweet Tarts, fun-size Snickers or Three Musketeers, and Tootsie Rolls. In return, I had to endure pinches on the cheek and pointed questions about my outfit.

“Hey, look! It’s Little Humphrey Bogart!”

“I’m Detective Columbo.”

“Who?”

“I mean, a hobo.”

“Oh, yeah. I see it. Take some candy!”

Then, after visiting the relatives, we always stopped by the candy mother lode, conveniently close to my cousin’s house — the home of Deacon Camara.

For those who never knew the man, Deacon Manuel Camara was one of the nicest, gentlest men I had the pleasure of meeting. I didn’t know him that well, unfortunately. I saw him only a few times a year, but he made a lasting impression.

Besides being the only deacon or priest in Fall River who tweaked the noses of children before giving them Holy Communion, Deacon Camara opened his house to kids on Halloween. It was the essence of a well-known secret — he and his wife were tucked away on a small, dark street, but there would be plenty of kids running in and out of their house with full-size candy bars trailing behind them.

He and his wife would call us inside to his living room, to where several tables were set up with every variety of candy imaginable: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Baby Ruths, Butterfingers, Gummi Bears, lollipops, 100 Grands. My sister and I would stand in awe, unable to make sense of all the sugar.

“Take whatever you like,” he’d say, eyes twinkling like rock candy. We’d pick out a few chocolate bars, careful not to be greedy, and thank him before leaving.

At home, we’d sift through our piles at eat ourselves sick, unable to sleep because of the sugar high, and planning our costumes for the next year, when we’d visit Deacon Camara’s again.

But now I’m much older, and Deacon Camara has passed away, sadly. The last time I went trick-or-treating was in my freshman year of college. Dressed in a blue bathrobe and a fedora (“I’m Indiana Jones”) I visited a couple of rooms in my dorm and was rewarded with a piece of junk mail, a sample packet of Tide laundry detergent, and a little more than 50 cents.

So I’ll buy the candy this year to eat with my wife after no kids visit our apartment, and we’ll carve a jack-o-lantern that will get collapsed and moldy after a week. But I’ll do all that because of the memories, not because I feel like celebrating. No — Halloween stopped being mine long ago.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

One potato, two potato, three potato—Jesus, I'll never get enough potatoes at this rate

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A couple of months ago, I wrote about what a nice place Canada is. About three people with zero sense of humor offered to send me there, and the horse I rode in on. One guy told me that America is cooler because we have more toys: “We have 12 aircraft carriers, Canada has zero.”

I suppose he’s right about America having neater toys, if all you care about is big boats that go boom.

That said, I put it to you that America is way behind Canada in terms of a different kind of scientific advancement: potato chip flavor technology.

Wandering through the chips aisle at Stop & Shop, you wouldn’t think we were deprived of anything in America, would you? We’ve got, like, a thousand kinds of chips: plain nachos, cheese nachos, ranch nachos, lime-flavored nachos, sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, barbecue, pretzels of every shape, creed and color, poofy things made of unidentifiable substances, chips made of pita bread, chips both domestic and imported, and Fritos shaped like ladles, wood shavings or corkscrews.

And now, Lay’s has come out with a “new” flavor, available in your local supermarket: dill pickle.

I brought some to work the other day. My co-workers’ jaws hung agape at the sight. It was as if Marco Polo returned from the Orient to Europe with a fax machine instead of noodles.

One of them hit the bag repeatedly with a stick until it popped open. Using simple hand gestures, pointing from the bag to my mouth, I explained that these were for eating.

“But what strange manner of chip could this be?” one asked.

“Forsooth, I have never tasted the like,” said another, crumbs sticking to her chin.

I told them that Canadians have had pickle-flavored chips for centuries.

Visit Canada sometime and step into one of their grocery stores — like the Eh & P or Canadian Tire. It’s like traveling to another dimension, one where all your favorite foods have been compressed and concentrated into potent flavor powder.

Do you love the taste of gravy fries, but don’t have the two hours or so it takes to assemble them? Canadian potato chips come in gravy fries flavor.

Or, how many times has this happened to you: you’d really like to cook up some bacon — except it’s three-thirty in the morning, you haven’t had any bacon in the house for years, and you’re too embarrassed and/or drunk to make your way to the grocery store just to buy bacon. It probably happens far too often. If you were in Canada, you could buy bacon-flavored potato chips. They smell and taste exactly like bacon.

Or, have you ever wanted to make barbecued chicken, but your chickens simply refuse to stand still long enough to be barbecued? Any Canadian grocery store worth its salt sells barbecued chicken-flavored chips.

Have you ever had a hankering for mussels sauteed with capers and garlic, served over angel hair pasta and topped by a light white wine and lemon sauce, with a bottle of crisp, dry Chardonnay, finished off with a mellow cigar and romantic after-dinner conversation? Canadian potato chip scientists are working on it.

The variety of chip flavors one finds in Canada boggles the imagination: chips that taste like buffalo wings, freshly ground black pepper, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs with the works, sour cream with, for God’s sake, clams. There’s the “all-dressed” chips, flavored with all of the above. The only flavor they don’t have is Unsatisfying Chip Flavor.

My personal favorite flavor of Canadian chips is, by far, ketchup. Lay’s makes them in Canada, and no, I cannot eat just one. I have several connections in and around the Toronto area, and even some in the Midwest United States, who ship me supplies of ketchup chips. I plant secret coded messages in this column (SEND KETCHUP CHIPS NOW) whenever I need a shipment from my suppliers.

The deliciousness is hard to explain with language. The thin slivers are covered in a bold red seasoning that leaves your fingers — and clothes, if you’re a slob like me — stained for days afterward. They taste exactly like ketchup. It’s a technological marvel.

Some people also think they’re disgusting. As if ketchup has no business being on potatoes! What the hell do you usually put on french fries — Cool Whip? And no, it doesn’t work if you squirt ketchup on plain chips. That’s just silly.

Ever since I was young, I’ve wondered why Lay’s sold ketchup chips in Canada, but not in southern New England. Is there a chance that ketchup chips will come to Fall River?

To find out, I called the toll-free number on the back of a bag of Lay’s dill pickle chips.

After a few minutes of wrangling with Frito-Lay’s automated phone line, I received the answer to all my questions:

“We’re sorry if you’re having trouble finding one of our products. Local preferences often determine what chips and package sizes are available.”

In other words: tough noogies, America.

But the robotic voice said my course of action should be to contact a store manager, or a local Frito-Lay representative, to ask for ketchup chips.

“Look up ‘Frito-Lay’ in your phone book!” the voice chirped.

Don’t bother looking — there’s no Frito-Lay in the phone book. I even checked under “Lay, Frito,” but no dice.

I’ve done all I can do. There is a clear and present Potato-Chip-Flavor Technology Gap between our two nations, people. If we don’t move to close it now, we’ll be playing catch-up with the Canadians for years to come.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

For sale: 2 bed, 1 1/2 crater moon plot, hardwoods throughout

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I’m going to go out on a limb here: I don’t like junk mail. Don’t like it, I say! It’s no use trying to change my mind! But I received a junk e-mail the other day that I was actually glad to have received. It opened my eyes to the wondrous world of extraterrestrial real estate sales.

The subject line of the e-mail in question caught my eye: “1 Acre of Land on the Moon $29.99.”

Just for contrast, and for those unfamiliar with real estate prices, an acre of Earth land can often cost twice as much — sometimes more.

The message noted that sales of moon land have been going strong for 22 years. Two former presidents own property on the moon, “as do several hundred celebrities.”

I usually delete junk mail as soon as I can. I don’t want to buy any spy equipment. I don’t want free vacations anywhere. I can see nude pictures of Britney Spears any time I care to, for free, by shutting my eyes and concentrating for a few glorious moments.

Offers for cheap lunar property, on the other hand, don’t come along every day. And even though I just moved to a new apartment and it’s such a drag packing everything together again, my wife and I are still keeping our options open, provided the planet is in a good neighborhood with decent public schools. So I did some research.

Attempts to contact local real estate agents regarding moon land sales were not successful.

Classified advertisements in this and other newspapers were woefully inadequate, containing only listings within a fraction of a light-year-radius of Fall River.

However! The Internet turns out to be the place for people looking to homestead in outer space. There are several Web sites devoted to astro-realty.

One of them, MoonEstates.com, was a wealth of information. They’re an “authorized reseller” of moon property through the Lunar Embassy — which, as it turns out, is in Rio Vista, Calif.

Yes. California.

Heh-heh-heh...

Like I was saying, Earth’s self-appointed lunar ambassador is a gentleman named Dennis M. Hope. In the Earth Year 1980, Mr. Hope filed a declaration with the United States, the United Nations and the USSR, claiming ownership of every planetary body in the solar system, except Earth and the Sun. He claims to have found a legal loophole in several international treaties regarding other planets. See, the international community has essentially decided that no government can claim ownership of other planets — but it says nothing about regular people. So, as I understand it, Mr. Hope drew up some paperwork telling various world governments that he now owns those celestial bodies.

What the United States, the United Nations and the USSR had to say about this, we can only imagine.

True: Mr. Hope also calls himself The Head Cheese.

He’s got a lot of real estate for sale. Not only can you buy a plot on the moon, but he’s selling off land on Mars and Venus, too, for the same scandalously low price. Operators are standing by!

For $29.99, you get a deed, a “constitution” (it doesn’t say which), a property map, mineral rights to your new land, and a copy of Head Cheese Hope’s original declaration of ownership.

Every sale comes with a “30-day money-back guarantee.” If during that time you find your neighbors are hostile, or the land has inadequate driveway space, or you get a better deal in a less tony suburb just outside the galaxy, the Head Cheese will refund your money.

Like in the Old West, an outer space homesteader must be a hardy survivor type. “Apart from the laws of the Head Cheese, currently no law exists” in outer space, according to the Web site. The “laws of the Head Cheese” are not explained, but I’ll guess that at least one of them involves keeping off the grass.

I know what you’re thinking. What if astronauts land on your property? Can you put up signs to discourage them? “No Soliciting,” perhaps, or “Beware of the Dog”?

Sadly, no — NASA has the right to explore any planet it chooses. “But,” the Web site adds, “if someone chooses to build a house, or drill for minerals or water on your property, that’s a different matter altogether.”

Before you load up the station wagon to do a few interplanetary drive-bys of the neighborhood, you should know a few things about these properties.

The moon has no air, for instance — inadequate ventilation, a real estate agent might say. It also has lousy access to major highways and shopping centers.

The average surface temperature of Mars ranges from a summery 80 degrees to a brisk –100 degrees each day. Violent windstorms frequently engulf the entire planet. And one Martian year takes 687 Earth days, which is a long time between Christmases.

Venus is a bit more tropical, with an average temperature of 890 degrees. The Venusian atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide, which is good news for gardeners. But the planet is swathed in a thick cloud of concentrated sulfuric acid vapor that constantly rains, making the natives rather touchy. In Realtor’s parlance, Venus is a fixer-upper.

It would be a trek from my interplanetary apartment to Fall River for work. Still, if I don’t take advantage of these low mortgage rates, I’d be a lunatic.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Unnatural

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So at the time I’m writing this, the Boston Red Sox are down two games in their series against the Oakland A’s. Things are looking very grim indeed, baseball fans. I know a little bit about losing games in the postseason myself, being a former Little Leaguer. I was famous for my losing.

Think back to the summer of 1984. I was a pathologically shy, 7-year-old mouse of a kid whose hobbies included rereading our Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia set morning, noon and night. Despite all my best efforts at memorization, my memory is spotty at best. For instance, I can probably name every country in Europe — yes, including the little ones like San Marino, Monaco, Andorra and Luxembourg — but not every capital in Europe.

So being an appalling nerd, I was pathetic at team sports, and was invariably picked last, even after young bowlegged girls with chronic asthma. I was also short for my age, with little legs. I’ve since sprouted. Given a foot-high stepladder, I now stand a towering six-foot-six.

My parents sought to rectify this situation. My dad asked me one day if I wanted to join Little League.

“You want to be on a baseball team?” he asked. “It’ll be fun.”

“Um-mumml,” I said. My mouth was full of Froot Loops at the time.

Days later, I found myself a member of the Columbus Park League. This seemed fairly exciting — I figured correctly that I’d have to end up on one of the teams. And so I did: The Jets!

Correction: the fast, exciting Jets! A team capable of supersonic speed, perhaps! Supersonic speed being, naturally, 1,087 feet per second, according to Funk & Wagnalls.

The coaches gave me a uniform, pipsqueak size. I was thrilled when I came home and unwrapped it. The Jet colors were blue and gold — not yellow, but gold! More important was my jersey number, which cruel fate had seen fit to give me: No. 1.

So I had a team and a uniform. The next thing I needed was some concept of how to play baseball.

I had no idea how to play the game, and the Funk & Wagnalls was mercilessly vague.

My dad watched his share of Red Sox games, and so did I, but being Portuguese his game was soccer. One thing we both knew was that it was bad form to kick the baseball, and bouncing it off your head was not likely to work.

My coaches, whose names I forget, drilled us Jets for what seemed like days. Ah, the camaraderie! It was like boot camp — the drills drew us Jets closer, and the coaches became a common enemy to both revere and rebel against. I can hear my teammates’ little voices now, calling through a sea of years: “You stink, kid!”

We played many games against teams like the Bombers, the Comets, and other sky-related terminology. I played two positions: deep, deep, deep left field, where no toddler could possibly hit a ball, and designated hitter, where I could sit sullenly on the bench and not harm anyone.

I discovered early on in my career that I couldn’t possibly hit my way on base. I swung early. I swung minutes too late. Only after several games did I figure out that not swinging could count as a strike. My coaches had the patience of angels.

But since I couldn’t hit the ball, I could get on first base if I was hit with the ball. What a discovery! I soon grew excellent at leaning into pitches, and my left side became bruised to a pulp. When my ribs became sore, I threw my left arm into the ball instead.

After winning games, us Jets went for ice cream, piled in the bed of one of the coaches’ pickup truck. I sulked quietly. My hat once flew off on Hanover Street. We circled the block to retrieve it. It had been run over several times, but still serviceable.

During a game at Ruggles Park, I sat in the dugout, keeping the bench from running away. Behind me were two older kids — real compulsive-drooler, sloping-cranium types.

“That number 1 kid sucks,” one said, right into my ear.

“I don’t know why they even let him play,” the other said.

I didn’t know, either. I began to cry, ready to crawl into a hole. One of them, or possibly both, poked me through the fence. My coach told them both to scram, and I worshipped him for it.

After one game, I overheard from some of the other Jets that we were going to be in the championship against The Comets. The Jets had made the postseason. I was mystified. I thought we stunk.

My parents and older sister came to the game at Ruggles Park. They were excited for me. I wanted it over with. I missed my encyclopedias, and all the practice time was taking me away from the television.

After a few innings riding the pine, my turn at bat came. My coach stuck an enormous helmet on my head, over this mop of my hair, and I strode to home plate.

The Comet pitcher was tall and cross-eyed. Already working on his psychological techniques in middle school, he stared me down in the triangular crossfire of his vision. I wondered if that made him pitch better somehow, and looked for my family in the crowd. My helmet was sinking onto my head, so I held my bat with one hand while I adjusted it.

And before I knew it, a pitch flew at me at lightning speed. It made contact with my outstretched bat — a hit! — and bounced harmlessly foul. Stee-rike one!

It was the one and only time my bat made contact with a ball all season.

The rest of the game was a blur — The Jets lost due to a bad call, somebody said, but what could you expect when the home-plate umpire was the father of that cross-eyed pitcher? I went home, ready to bury my uniform in the back yard and never speak of that summer again. But I’ll never forget all those memories.

Believe me — I’ve tried.
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