Saturday, December 29, 2007

George and Rose in the 21st Century


George Helmstetter looked up at his wife. She was, as always, enjoying her Penne Vodka with a meticulous solemnity usually reserved for monks at chapel. George smiled inside, but outwardly showed no emotion and returned to his own dinner plate. They ate together in comfortable silence. After many years of marriage, their daily routine now bore all the precision of a Swiss time piece, perfectly crafted in form and function, and priceless.

After her fourth bite and swallow, Rose spoke of the weather, and George replied in kind. The second hand ticked effortlessly. She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with the linen napkin. The waiter, an unobserved ghost, refilled their water glasses then drifted off to other tables.

George remembered the first time he and Rose had sat down in this small Manhattan Trattoria. It had a different name then, maybe eight or nine owners ago. The war was over. The world was weary and peace sounded like permanence. He looked at Rose again, then back down at his dinner. Maybe next time he would order the Risotto and clams.

George was handsome in his youth. The young girls of Heidelberg would attest to that with easy smiles and secret kisses behind their father's shops, back in the days when Hitler was just another ambitious politician. Germany still lay wounded then, its pride fractured from the first world war. His father, assigned to the German Sixth Army, had died in the trenches at Vimy Ridge. George was only one month old. His mother never fully recovered from her loss. "Mutti", he would say, "You must let Oppa go and move on with your life." She would only shake her head. "Hurry along Georgius, or you will be late for your lessons." She will never love another man, he thought to himself as he grabbed his violin case. What a waste of life not to have love in it. Mutti watched with soft eyes as Georgius ran out of his father's house, late for his lessons again.

When he was thirteen, his mother told him a fabulous story. "Your Aunt Hildegarde is a Princess and your great, great, great Uncle Maximilian Joseph, was once King of all Bavaria. We don't talk much of this in these times. Many blame our family for the great war, but we had little to do with its beginning or its end. Your father, God rest his soul, would never allow the word Prince or Princess to be spoken in our house. Nicht während Ich bin lebendig, he would say. I should not even tell you this, Georgius. Someday, we will sit with Aunt Hildegarde and you will properly learn your heritage." George smiled inside as he remembered again his mother's words. Rose mentioned the Frosts would be arriving for cocktails at seven, as usual. He nodded, as usual.

George thought back to the last time he saw his mother alive. George had just turned twenty-one and was looking forward to completing his studies at Heidelberg University. One evening, George returned home to find a strange man in the house with his mother.

"Georgius, this is Herr Ferdinand, your cousin from England. You remember playing with him at Modena when we travelled there? You were very young. He is here to take you to England for a vacation. I have packed a bag for you." George saw both fire and fear in his mother's eyes.

"Mutti, I have my studies to complete. I can not vacation now."

"Your studies are at an end. Hitler will take us to war soon. All young men will drafted into service. I lost your father to war, I will not lose you. Now you must go and go at once." Mutti suddenly looked formidable, not to be denied.

George pleaded, "Mother, please do not do this. I must stay with you. Germany is my home and I must defend my home if war should come."

"You would disobey your mother and die in some filthy trench in France? War comes because Hitler brings war upon us. We have learned nothing from the great war, fachkundig nichts. Now go, Georgius, and promise me you will write. Finish your studies in London. You can stay with Ferdinand there, is that not so, Cousin Ferdinand?" Mutti managed a weak smile.

"George, there is plenty of room in our home. Come join us. I have a friend at Oxford. We will speak to him about your studies." Herr Ferdinand smiled warmly as he patted George on the shoulder.

It was clear all had been decided well in advance. George hugged his mother tightly for a long time, then he softly kissed her on top of her head. He hadn't realized how much taller he had grown these past few years.

"I shall do this out of love for you, Mutti. But you must promise me you will stay safe until I return." They stood there, holding each other as his father's clock ticked loudly in the next room, George's heart racing twice as fast, and Ferdinand standing by the door, watching the road. As soon as darkness fell and was deep in all the shadows, George and Ferdinand left Heidelberg, by train bound for Switzerland

"How is your Penne this evening?" George said to Rose, his voice barely a whisper.
"Al dente, but I don't mind. We should mention to the waiter, however." Rose briefly looked up, her dark hair in colored denial of her own advancing age. George gingerly poked a fork at his food as the silence settled in around them, like snow.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Your Friendly Neighborhood Lawn Gestapo

We live in a strange neighborhood, one of perfectly manicured lawns and repeated routines. Our dead end street is full of retirees. I've known a retired couple for many years and they travel from one golf course to another, sport excellent tans, get their skin cancers removed with tidy regularity, and throw wonderful pool parties. They define the word "retired" for me. If you have enough cash to quit your job, travel to Africa, Egypt, and China for excellent rounds of golf- you have earned your retirement stripes. When someone comments about how lovely your yard looks, you can usually reply, "Oh, we have people for that."

My retired neighbors have a different approach. Their golf clubs are neatly stored away in the attic. They don't have foreign nationals clipping their hedges. They don't have Manny mowing their lawn. My retired neighbors are doing it themselves. Each front yard requires a full-time effort. My neighbors have replaced their old jobs with a new one - maintaining a perfect lawn and neighborhood.

I noticed something unusual not long after we moved here in February of 2005. It was Monday night and Tuesday was trash day. I put a few plastic bags of garbage out by the street. The next morning, there were remnants of my trash all over my yard. Raccoons, I thought.

The following week, the same result, except the trashmen, who collect on our street in loud, crashing fanfare at 5 a.m., were late. I left the house at 7 a.m. to drive Sweetie Angel to school. The trip takes about 15 minutes. When we left, the plastic garbage bags were intact. When I arrived home, the bags had been ripped open and trash spread across my lawn. I was shocked. Rabid raccoons, I wondered? The neighbor's Collie sat in their front yard - cute, innocent dog. Couldn't have been the Collie- no way.

The following week, my bags were trashed again. There sat the Collie. Across the street, Herr Stripedlawn smiled and waved to me. Another retiree. He walked over and introduced himself:

Herr Stripe: You may want to put your plastic bags in a container.
New Renter: I was planning on buying some this week. I'm really getting tired of cleaning up after the raccoons.
Herr Stripe: It isn't raccoons. It is that Collie over there. The neighbor lets
him out in the morning.

New Renter: That's weird. I only see that Collie on trash days.
Herr Stripe: Isn't that something? *grin*

The neighbor was sending his dog out to feed on my trash bags? Let's take this to an even more disturbing place. The man letting the dog out doesn't live there. It's his mother's Collie. Imagine waking up every Tuesday at 5 a.m., getting dressed, walking over to your mother's house before the garbage people get there, then letting her dog out to feast on your neighbor's trash. Are you in need of serious counseling? Sure you are.

When I told Waterbunny about this, she didn't believe me. "You're the most paranoid man I have ever met." she exclaimed, all Doctor Phil-like.

The following week, I looked for that dog every morning. No Collie anywhere. The next Tuesday morning, there was my trash scattered across my driveway, and there was Collie sitting in her front yard. I got the point. I drank the kool aid. I bought sturdy trash containers - with hinged locking lids and little wheels on the bottom. My containers are the nicest in the neighborhood.

After a few weeks, I began to notice something else. My neighbors had their trash at the curb by 9 p.m. Monday night. OK, that is fine, they are retired, maybe they go to bed early. But the next morning, after the 5 a.m. departure of our sanitation engineers, many trash cans had been quickly retrieved and spirited away. By 7 a.m., half the cans in the neighborhood were pulled back. By 9 a.m., my containers were the only ones still at the curb. I mentioned this to Waterbunny one evening while talking to her on the phone. She lived in Fort Worth, Texas at the time.

Rooster (me): Babe, there is some sort of competition in the neighborhood.
Waterbunny: Oh really? What?
Rooster (me): See who can get their trash cans back from the curb fastest. Or maybe the goal is to see who will be the last slovenly deadbeat to leave his empty cans out there - or maybe it is a retirees beat the renters game. Either way, it is freaking weird. People are running out of their houses at 5:30 a.m. to get their empty cans off the street.
Dr. Phil (wb): You are the most neurotic man I have ever known.

Waterbunny came to visit. On trash morning, we went out to breakfast. The engineers were just arriving for their collection. We returned an hour later. Half the block had rescued their empties from the curb. Within the hour, my containers were the only ones left. Waterbunny began to believe.

Waterbunny: I think you are right about your neighbors. They are obsessed with getting their trash cans back from the curb. It looks like a competition. No one wants to be the last can standing.
Proud me: See, I'm not neurotic.
Dr. Phil (wb): I wouldn't go that far.

But the most amazing act of repetition is the caring for the lawns. Across the street, Herr Stripedlawn mows in a single direction to the street. Then he turns off the mower, empties the mower bag into trash can. He drags the mower back up the hill and begins the next strip, same as before. He has to make perfect straight lawn lines. His 1/8th acre front yard takes all afternoon to mow. Every week, from early April till late November, we observe the same pattern of behavior. His lawn definitely has a pattern too.

The retiree to my left has a riding mulcher. He cuts and mulches his grass several times a week. He drives the mower more than his own car. On the property to my right, Mr. Collie, has a vacuum on his riding mower. He vacuums his lawn like a carpet.

I told my friend (and landlord) I would mow our front yard if he would mow the back acreage. I bought a used push mower for 40 dollars. It takes 45 minutes to mow my lawn when I fly at it. I always fly at it. Dust and smoke and grass take to the sky like a demolition derby in a drought. I've gotten 3 years out of that lawn mower for a cost of 13.33 dollars per year- not including gas.
When I pull my mower out of the garage, all my neighbors disappear inside their homes until the dust clears. Oh yeah, I'm the Marquis De Sade of lawn care.

Other than their lawn obsession, their trash can obsession, and their snow removal obsession, they are nice people to talk to, to trade carrot cakes with, and to smile and wave at.

This Autumn, my work kept me away from the yard. Besides, I like to wait until all the leaves have fallen off the trees before I rake. Autumn was late this year. I barely noticed that my retired neighbors were on the prowl, vacuuming, raking, and mulching their leaves with intense determination. I barely noticed at all.

Last year, Mr. Mulcher told me not to bother to rake. He drove his favorite mulching vehicle all over our yard. That took care of the problem. Our leaves were mulched up within minutes. This year, I was hoping for a repeat performance. The leaves piled up in my yard as I waited. They blew over into his yard. They blew over onto the striped lawn. There were a lot of windy days.

Day after day the retirees tried to control the ever-increasing leaf pollution. Rakes, vacuums, and mulching mowers were overhwelmed. My leaves had become a danger to the neighborhood. The community was on the brink of destruction. Something had to be done. Finally, Herr Stripedlawn stopped me in my driveway.

Herr Stripe: I hope you don't mind me asking. Who is responsible for raking the leaves in your yard?
Non-Raker: I don't really know. I guess my landlord is. One of us usually gets around to it.
Herr Stripe: They are blowing all over the neighborhood.
Non-Raker: Last year, the guy next door mulched them for me. I thought..
Herr Stripe: He didn't tell you but last year he broke his mower on your leaves. It was out of commission for 12 days. He was very upset that he had to pay to get it fixed.
Non-Raker: He never said a word to me about it.
Herr Stripe: I know. You really need to rake them. The last tenant was a real creep, but at least she raked her leaves.
Shamed me: I will try to get to them this weekend.
Herr Stripe: Thanks. I don't mean to complain.

If they didn't mean to complain, they wouldn't complain.

On Saturday morning, before I left for work, I spent an hour raking leaves. Made nice piles. Got about half the front yard finished. After work, we drove to a birthday party on Long Island. Gold Coast. Great Neck. Folks there have oodles of cash. Women at the party were wearing 5-carat Tiffany diamond rings. Swanky neighborhood all around. And darned leaves were everywhere. Leaves in the yards, in the street, in the gutters and no one was doing a damned thing about it! There wasn't a vacuum truck in sight. Incorrigible rich people. "There must be no retirees living here!", I exclaimed.

This raises an interesting point. Who decided that perfectly cared-for lawns meant anything at all? It made me wonder about my own retirement one day. I think I will volunteer my time at the hospital or a homeless shelter. I think I want my yard to look like the yards in Great Neck- full of unraked leaves, homes that look lived in and not on display. I want to live where yard chores are "something to get around to", not something to obsess over and to insult my neighbors about. I want to live in a land without the lawn gestapo. Not that I'm complaining, not at all.

Now, if I lived in one of those big mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and 1000 people a day were touring my property, I'd have those neat stripes in my lawn. All my leaves would be cleaned up. We'd have people for that.

Thank goodness it snowed yesterday. All my leaves have disappeared. Problem solved.

The Coyote Lyric Video