Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Cranky Claus is Comin' to Town

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It's that most magical time of year again, when you wish the most magical time of year was over. Between rushing out to the mall, making sure your Christmas gifts delivered on time, and writing something personal but nonspecific on a grand total of 67 stupid Christmas cards this year, you're in that grouchy holiday mood.

You've had a visit from Cranky Claus!

You know who Cranky Claus is, don't you? He's that jolly old elf who makes the holiday season irritating! You don't remember the old children's poem, "A Visit from St. Crankus"?

His eyes were all bleary,
His nose red from drinkin'!
His cheeks, badly shaven;
His boots, they were stinkin'!


Doesn't ring a bell?

For those who aren't familiar with Cranky Claus, he wears a big red suit that's too small in the armpits and waist, and he's allergic to the red dye or something, because it always gives him a rash. He lives in a great big castle at the South Pole -- and don't think it isn't a pain to get all the way up here from there, with the traffic.

Mrs. Cranky Claus used to live down there with him until they got divorced and she took the Buick.

Cranky Claus has a fantastic workshop where hundreds of cute little elves work all year round, busily making gift certificates and bouquets of old flowers and boxes of Russell Stover chocolates, making sure to leave the price tag on -- and every year before Christmas, Cranky travels the world in a sleigh pulled by four and a half magical flying moose. Then Cranky stocks gas stations everywhere full of great last-minute gifts.

But that's not all Cranky does! Cranky Claus also visits each and every one of us for about two or three weeks before Christmas, planting the spirit of Yuletide irritability in all our hearts. In the teary eyes of every shrieking brat at an
overcrowded toy store, in the fine print of every exorbitant heating bill, in every old lady who cuts you off in traffic -- that's where you'll find the magic of Cranky Claus.

Perhaps a montage of short scenes would say it best:

--

SCENE: A typical Fall River home decorated for Christmas -- a huge tree in the front parlor, the good plastic on the couch, stockings hung by the space heater with care. Suddenly, there arises such a clatter! The space heater opens and out pops an overweight, scraggly elf. You can't tell this in print, but he reeks of menthol cigarettes.

CRANKY CLAUS. Ugh, my back...

(He stumps over to the Christmas tree. He touches one of the branches briefly, then crawls back into to the space heater -- just as Wayne enters the room.)

WAYNE. (inhaling) Boy! No substitute for that real-tree smell!

(All the needles immediately turn brown and drop to the floor.)

WAYNE. Oh, man...

CRANKY CLAUS. (his voice echoing through the pipes) Haw haw haw! Merrrrry Christmas!

--

SCENE: Wal-Mart. Wayne is waving a flyer in the face of a teenage cash register jockey while a Cabbage Patch Kid sits on the counter. A long line of disgruntled shoppers waits behind him.

WAYNE. But the flyer distinctly says the doll is half-price.

CASHIER. Flurgurbong.

WAYNE. (puzzled) Uh ... excuse me?

CASHIER. Flyer's wrong.

WAYNE. No, it says right here -- half price.

CASHIER. (reading flyer) "With purchase of Cabbage Patch DVD." Right there in the little print.

RANDOM SHOPPER. Just pay full price, ya cheapskate!

WAYNE. Then I'll take a Cabbage Patch DVD. If I don't get this, my kid will hate Christmas forever.

CASHIER. Numflistrulf.

WAYNE. (irritated) Excuse me?

CASHIER. Ain't in stock, like I said.

WAYNE. (sighing) Can I speak to the manager, please?

(Cashier waves somebody over -- it's Cranky Claus.)

WAYNE. Can you help me out?

CRANKY CLAUS. (thinks about it for a solid minute) No.

(There is a long pause, filled with the whines of bored children.)

CRANKY CLAUS. Haw haw haw! Merrrrrry Christmas!

--

SCENE: Wayne's kitchen. He's writing out Christmas cards while a Christmas goose roasts in the oven. His wife, Mildred, talks on the phone.

MILDRED. No, no, no -- it's no problem at all. We'll see you then.

(She hangs up the phone. Meanwhile, Cranky Claus emerges from a closet and sneaks over to the stove, where he casually turns up the heat.)

WAYNE. Who was that on the phone?

MILDRED. My mother. She's coming over for Christmas.

(A long pause.)

MILDRED. And she's staying with us until March.

WAYNE. Old bag...

(Mildred gives him the old hairy eyeball. Thick smoke begins to pour from the stove.)

WAYNE. I mean ... swell.

(Their daughter Brunhilda enters, tearing wrapping paper off the Cabbage Patch Doll.)

WAYNE. Broonie, that was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas! How did you find that?

BRUNHILDA. (bawling at the doll) But I awready got this one!

CRANKY CLAUS. Haw haw haw! Merrrrrry Christmas!

--

SCENE: Wayne's driveway. A beautiful blanket of pure white snow covers everything with a glorious Christmassy glow. Wayne, huffing and puffing, leans on a shovel and warms his hands. He's just shoveled out his driveway.

(There's a red and green snowplow heading his way. At the wheel: Cranky Claus.)

CRANKY CLAUS. Vroom vroom!

(A load of filthy snow pours around Wayne's boots, sliding messily into his driveway. He turns purple and flings his shovel away.)

WAYNE. @#$%!

(He turns around to see Brunhilda, stuck up to her scarf in snow with the doll.)

BRUNHILDA. You said bad words.

CRANKY CLAUS. (toots his horn and waves) Merrrrrry Christmas!
Haw haw haw!

--

Remember: the next time the holidays got you down, thank Cranky Claus for spreading some Yuletide aggravation. And be sure to leave him a plate of bologna sandwiches and a cup of Sanka. It's Cranky's favorite.

Sing it all together!

He sees you when you're grouchy,
He knows when you're ticked off!
He knows that this crummy weather
Will give you a nasty cough!
So!
You better watch out, better not smile!
Better not go to the mall for a little while!
Cranky Claus is comin' to town...

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Nostalgic for high school, for some godawful reason

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In 1994, I graduated from B.M.C. Durfee High School -- which is to say, I got out of there while the getting was good. Back in those happy-go-lucky years, heroin and pegged jeans were out; crack and flannel were in. The place was accredited -- gang fights actually meant something in those days.

And me? I was a moody little twerp. My complexion could be politely described as volcanic. I had no girlfriend and had the athletic polish of, let's say, a three-legged rhinoceros with an inner-ear infection.

I'm still a moody, graceless twerp, but I've since covered most of my face with a beard and I have a wife.

Some kids spent most of their high school years complaining about Durfee, and then spent the last year regretting having to leave it. I was glad to go. Durfee was a crummy building with too many dark corners and fleas infesting the carpets. It's true -- a hygiene-obsessed French teacher, now sadly deceased, told my class about the little guys. They'd leave tiny red welts on her arms and ankles, she said.

The French term for "flea," by the way, is "la puce."

I look back at my Durfee years, and all I see is mind-numbing routine punctuated by episodes of embarrassment. I refuse to get sentimental about it.

So why am I disappointed that I didn't have a 10-year reunion this year?

It's true. We're pretty much done with 2004, and I had no reunion.

None at all.

Not even a little one.

It's sad.

I'm not heartbroken -- just disappointed.

I wasn't all psyched to attend it or anything, but it would have been an interesting thing to do, if only to see what other people made of themselves. Who got fat. Who got skinny. Who lived a nightmare. Who got rich.

Since leaving, my life has been a blast. I want to make sure other people turned out OK, also.

I probably didn't miss much, not having a reunion. It would have been a night of awkward conversation and awkward food. In my imagination, I see cocktail weenies wrapped in dough and watery booze at a cash bar. Not an open bar -- cash. I see jokey comments about my beard ("No, it's not drawn on.") and my living arrangements ("Yes, I still live in Fall River, now kindly drop dead.").

Worse, for the sake of brevity I'd have to distill 10 wonderful, complicated years into a few phrases like this, and be thoroughly depressed at how it sounds: "After school, I went to college. Four years later, I got married. No kids yet, mercifully. Also, I went to college a second time -- first time didn't take, ha ha. Somewhere in all that, I found me a job. Then, I got this letter inviting me to the reunion, so here I am."

To tell you the truth, I suspected for a while that there'd be no 10-year reunion. My wife had the same feeling -- being cynics, we had this hunch that it would turn out badly.

An illustrative incident at Durfee shows what I mean. During my time, every year there had a mural painted in its memory on one of the walls. A little while after I graduated, something happened to the 1994 one -- some jerk defaced it with racial
slurs, I think. This was fixed by covering the mural in thick black paint.

I remember seeing it once, a year or so later. There were all these colorful murals, and one large, featureless black square in the middle of them. It sure as hell seemed like there was a lesson to be learned there.

Anyway, as 2004 wore on and there was no 1994 reunion notice in the paper, I brought the matter to my wife's attention.

"You'd think one of those 'joiner people' would put something together," I told her. "There were all kinds of goody-goody society types in our class who lived for this stuff."

My wife said, "Would you want to organize it?"

"Not a chance in hell, thanks. I just want to go incognito, so I can see how other people are doing without having to explain my own boring life story over and over," I said. "Organizing it is a headache for somebody else."

She shrugged and grinned. "There you go," she said.

In case you're wondering, senior class presidents are often in charge of doing the reunion organizing. My senior class president was football star Marc Megna. Last I heard, Marc was playing football in Montreal and getting work as a model, and I heard he's good at both. Incidentally, a photograph of him, shirtless and flexing, once made the rounds of this newsroom. It soon became wrinkled and drool-stained as the women got hold of it and used it to fan themselves.

I don't blame Marc Megna for not organizing a reunion. Not even a little. If I had that guy's abs, I'd be busy doing something positive with them, too. Instead, I have an ab. One big, round ab.

At one point in my research, I found a phone number online for the Durfee Alumni Association, thinking I would find the person in charge and ask if somebody was going to get on the ball about my reunion. I was connected to a very strange, cryptic answering machine. I left my name and number, and never got a message in return. Thanks!

But several months ago, about the time I resigned myself to never having a 10-year reunion, to missing out on this rite of adulthood, an odd thing happened.

Without meaning to, I started to hear information about people I knew from Durfee. Mainly by coincidence, many people I knew then found me. Sometimes I found them. I even started to see a few people around the city, but I didn't get to speak to them -- nevertheless, I got a glimpse of how they're doing.

It started to satisfy my curiosity, without having to wear a tie and suck in my ab.

I don't want to be presumptuous and use their names here, but I do want to pass along what little I have, in case you're disappointed about not having a real reunion, too. Grab a cocktail weenie.

One woman I knew now works for the town of Tiverton. Another woman I knew e-mailed me out of the blue and told me she's now working for the New Bedford school system. I read once in this newspaper that a guy I was in marching band with became a firefighter. I saw a former basketball player walking down the street in a suit and tie, leaving a bank. Another woman, I spotted in a CVS with a baby. A guy I was very good friends with entered the priesthood. I looked up other people online and found artists and politicians and criminals and employees of corporate America.

I wonder if any of them remember about the fleas -- les puces terribles. It's just as well if they don't.

If you're curious: I went to college. Four years later, I got married. Then I went back to college. Somewhere in there, I found this job. Then I started to get curious about the past, so here I am.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Summer sausage in winter

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There are certain sights, sounds and smells that put me in that fine Yuletide frame of mind. That pleasant sting in my nose when snow's on the way, for instance. When Stop & Shop starts stocking egg nog. Those houses on President Avenue and Second Street whose owners are wonderfully insane when it comes to stringing up the lights.

Another thing that gets me all Christmassy, every time: the sight and smell of meat, cheese and crackers in tidy little wooden boxes. Yes. I defy you to name a mail-order gourmet sausage company that says "Christmas" more than Hickory Farms.

For all I know, Hickory Farms may sell gift packs of beefy junk food during other seasons. I don't know. Frankly, I don't want to know. The idea of flip-flopping outside one sweltering August afternoon, sweat-browed in shorts and a T-shirt, to find that a box of pork has been sitting in a blazing patch of sun near my mailbox for hours -- I'd rather not think of it.

So to me, Hickory Farms is only a Christmastime thing. The mall kiosks look so great duded-up for the holidays, and the gift boxes are a time-honored way to fulfill your Christmas obligation to that person in your life whose hobbies you can't remember but who you're pretty certain eats food.

I vividly recall one Christmas season spent in my college dorm in Boston. I was a freshman spending his first months away from the nest. My friends and I were hanging out in the hallway, bored, as usual -- so like any ennuye college freshmen, we collectively decided to channel our energy toward positive activities like drinking beer. Did I say "drinking beer"? I meant "crocheting lap blankets for the elderly."

Anyway, at some point, some girl I'll call Trixie came by with a Hickory Farms gift box featuring a delightful assortment of cheeses, nuts, candy and sausage. It had come from one of her more thoughtful relatives who had unfortunately forgotten that Trixie was a lifelong militant vegetarian.

Trixie held out a 14-ounce summer sausage. "Anybody want this tube of dead pig flesh?" she said.

I waved her over. "Let's have it, kid," I said, and I ran it under my nose like a fine Cuban cigar. Then I cracked it open and bit off a piece. It was deliciously smoky.

The next day, I was still trying to finish off the entire Hickory Farms sausage myself. I had no refrigerator, so I'd left a gnawed stub of it on my desk by an open window, which kept it cool -- or at least not hot.

The day after that, one of my roommates said, "You should probably throw that thing out." He was leaning over me at the time -- I was on my back on the floor, holding my bloated, aching stomach in one hand and a few ounces of ragged summer sausage in the other. Sleigh bells rang in my head from all the sodium.

"Mustard," I croaked. "If I just ... had ... more mustard ..."

"Don't be a hero," he said. "Hand over the summer sausage."

Long story short, we threw it away. But that cherished Christmas memory has not spoiled yet.

I visited the Hickory Farms store in the Swansea Mall recently. It's full of Beef Sticks and Smoky Bars -- those are blocks of cheese with a grill pattern smoked into them, like the back of Tía Maria's legs after sitting on the patio furniture. I also
went online to the Hickory Farms Web site -- all research so I could spread the word to you, friends. Use this information to give someone you love a Christmas memory, like mine, that they'll never forget.

There are dozens of gift packs to choose from, for every budget and for every taste.

There's the forehead-slapper Beef 'N Cheese pack for $29.99, sort of the Big Mac of Hickory Farms packages. I had taken notes on what's in this one -- but I lost them. So the contents of the Beef 'N Cheese will have to remain a mystery.

Is there somebody you wish would take a hike? Why not give him the Hickory Farms Backpacker? It contains all the necessities one needs when hiking among wild, hungry animals: "Enjoy our 14 oz Beef Stick Summer Sausage, 6 oz Smoked Gouda, 4 oz each
Chedd'r, Chedam and Smoky Bar, 2 oz Tangy Bacon Cheese Spread, 3 oz Sweet-Hot Mustard and Strawberry Bon Bons." The Tangy Bacon Cheese Spread can also be used as pitch to repair ruptured kayaks.

Hickory Farms also supplies a subtle way of insulting that special person in your life who's a compulsive liar -- get him a Crock! It comes with cheese in it, I believe.

To send another kind of hidden message, for $25.99 there's the Hickory Farms "Most Elegant Nutmeat." Please supply your own joke here.

There are so many choices, it's hard to decide what exactly to buy. So why not buy pretty much every goddam thing Hickory Farms sells in one box for a whopping $119.99? It's The Diplomat, or the Hickory Farms Gout 'N a Box.

"This gift is called The Diplomat because it pleases a lot of palates! With a 3 lb Beef Stick Summer Sausage" -- you read that correctly -- "12 oz each of Heritage Swiss and Country Cheddar Cheese Spread Crocks, 14 oz each American Classic Summer and Smoky Mesquite Sausages, 2.25 lb Smoky Bar, 10 oz Mild Cheddar Horn, 9 oz Mission Jack, 7 oz each Edam and New York Style Cheddar Cheeses, 6 oz Smoked Gouda, 6.5 oz Apple Pie Cheddar, 16 oz Holiday Collection of Deluxe Mixed Nuts, 6.25 oz each Sweet Hot and Honey Mustards, 4.4 oz Water Crackers, etc." By "etc.," they mean a gift certificate good for $5 off at the emergency room of your choice.

Besides gift boxes, Hickory Farms also sells entire dinners -- the perfect gift for anybody who's lousy at making dinner. Imagine the look on Grandma's face when she opens the gamy-smelling present that's been under the tree for a few days, and finds it's a 6-pound Precooked Frenched Pork Loin. Not tempted? What if I told you it was on sale? It's reduced (for reasons unknown) from $95.95 to just $67.15.

By far the nicest gift Hickory Farms has to offer would be the charmingly tactless "This Lil Piggy" gift basket. It comes with a Beef Stick, cheese, mustard and yes -- ham. Also, it has a cute cutting board shaped like a pig, so you can relive the experience of a knife slicing into pork over and over again.

It's educational, too -- use the cutting board as a sort of map to figure out where on the pig the ham came from.

Any one of these gifts and more would make your holiday bright. And with all that cheese and processed meat, it'll be the gift that keeps on giving, at least for a day or two afterward.
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