Movie Night

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(Note: Though corrected in the text version below, the podcast contains a factual error. My father performed the first kidney transplant in Illinois, not the first liver transplant. MmmK?)

My father was a vascular surgeon. And not one of those vascular surgeons you see working out of the back of a conversion van in a Walmart parking lot. He was fully legit. Whenever I visited Michael Reese Hospital, where he worked, all manner of people would stop me to say what a fine surgeon he was.1 He even performed the first kidney transplant in the state of Illinois, which I imagine was an especially huge deal for the guy that he operated on. That’s why I was surprised to learn from him only recently that he actually might have preferred to be a mathematician, but his father, who had toiled as a pharmacist at the whim of the Walgreen’s company through the dark days of the Depression, had determined his son would pursue a career in medicine. So that’s what he did. As a direct result, my dad was never one to strong-arm his kids to follow his footsteps. He did, however, think it was important to give us an idea of how he spent his days. This being decades before Bring Your Kids To Work Day, he devised his own unique way of cluing us is in.

This was also back in the days before the advent of VCRs, when the closest one could come to movies on-demand was to buy actual film reels through mail-order and screen them yourself. That’s just what my dad did, buying titles by Chaplin, Keaton, W.C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy from an outfit called Blackhawk Films. Once they arrived in their white cardboard boxes with the title stamped on the spine, my father would take advantage of the open floor plan in our 1969 town house to set up a film projector on the dining room table, hoist a screen in the adjacent living room, and create his very own home nickelodeon.

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Watching those films was peering directly into what seemed like an impossibly distant past through a large window in my house. I wondered why people looked so differently – so utterly black and white: their deathly pale faces, odd clothes, and, in the case of character actors like Eric Campbell and Ben Turpin, often frightening appearance. Was it evolution? Every detail made a huge impression, particularly because I was trying to make sense of my own reality in relation to these movies: wondering about my father’s time working in his father’s drug store as we watched W.C. Field’s The Pharmacist, and thinking of my maternal grandmother’s journey with her family from Poland as a young girl as we laughed at Chaplin’s The Immigrant. All the while the projector chugged away, wheezing its breath of hot machinery as dust motes danced before its flickering beam.2

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I don’t remember my father offering any preamble when he screened the first surgery film for us on one of our movie nights. He may have said something along the lines of “I thought you might be interested in this,” but all I recall distinctly is, after the film leader played out, instead of some sepia-toned title card sequence from Essenay or Hal Roach Studios, the screen was filled with a fairly tight shot of sterile linens and an exposed expanse of skin. Rubber-gloved hands appeared, drawing on the skin with a magic marker and then swabbing it with some dark liquid, as the zoom adjusted and the frame jostled a bit. And then the gloved hand returned with a scalpel. I slid from my chair and retreated under the dining room table as the incision was made.

From my father’s matter-of-fact demeanor, sitting there beside the whirring 16-mm machine, it seemed like this should be no big deal. But I was not just grossed out, I was horrified in the purest sense. It wasn’t just the surgery itself; there was something about the aesthetic of the film, a mixture of clinical seriousness and low-budget porno sleaze, that made it inescapably real. Which it was. And it seemed to last forever, though it couldn’t have been more than one reel. Once it was done, my father loaded on some vintage comedy, and I emerged from beneath the table to reclaim my seat, still a little woozy from the whole ordeal.

He shared a number of these films, and looking back I am struck by particular aspects of my reaction to them. I never wondered who the patients were, what happened to them after their surgeries, what were their hopes and dreams. Had they lived? I presumed so. But what did it matter? Like extras in other films, their stories faded into the background of the central action. Their personhood was subsumed to their being a surgery, and that may have been my father’s intention: to share a safe, dissociated perspective that made the gore less…gory. But I was simply overwhelmed by the visual assault. And while it was bad enough to see a tumor removed or an artery grafted, the real Citizen Kane of these films for me was the treatment of a blood clot that had distended someone’s abdomen so badly that it literally looked as if they had swallowed a basketball. I think that’s even how my father referred to it: a “basketball clot.” The sanguinary bonanza that lashed across the screen would have made even Quentin Tarrantino say, “Yeah, that’s a bit much.”

At some point my dad stopped these screenings. While my brother, who is nearly five years older than I, insists he found them fascinating, I don’t remember anyone offering any follow-up questions about patient health history or suturing technique after the shows. And none of us pursued medicine as a career. To my father’s credit he always supported whatever struck our fancy in the way of a vocation, perhaps honoring his own bypassed wish to play with numbers instead of viscera. Indeed, on reflection, I think he shared something special when he screened all those films, both the slapstick and the surgeries. And I think it worth noting that once I had kids of my own, I got my own copies of those great comedies (in my case on DVD) and sat everyone down in the living room to share the delights of Chaplin and Fields and Keaton. Right away they loudly complained that the films were in creepy black and white. I wanted to shout back at them, “You want creepy? How would you like to see a bowel resected?” Kids these days, amirite?

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FOOTNOTES:

1For a time my siblings and I spent some time every Saturday morning at the hospital while my father did his rounds, since he had custody on the weekends after my parent’s divorce. He would drop us off in the surgeon’s lounge with some toys and coloring books. I remember staring at the oil paintings of unknown surgeons on the walls. On a table by the door below a suggestion box were two electric urns, one of coffee and one of hot chocolate. Since we regularly drained the hot chocolate, the hospital removed that urn. We then stuffed the suggestion box with requests in crayon to bring back the hot chocolate. The next week the suggestion box was gone. When we got bored in the lounge we would play in the surgeon’s locker room, until one day I was locked in one of the lockers. It’s a testament to what a big shot my father was that they didn’t kick us out, but when my mother got wind of the fact we were regularly left unsupervised, she put an end to the practice.

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2Even though we exclusively watched comedies during these movie nights, I will never be as scared of a movie as I was of The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case. In it, the duo set out to prove Laurel is the heir to a great fortune, but find themselves in the spooky scene of a murder at an old rambling mansion one stormy night. There are some truly frightening visuals, but none as bizarre and just plain fucked up as when they are bid goodnight by the butler.

History, Mystery

 NOTICE: THIS WEEK WE OFFER YOU THE OPTION OF ENJOYING THE ENTRY AS A PODCAST. OR YOU CAN JUST READ. OR FOLLOW ALONG AS YOU LISTEN. YOUR CHOICE. I’M NOT THE BOSS OF YOU.

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WARNING!

While offered ostensibly free of charge, the following does ask of you the ultimate price: your precious time. Needless to say, there will be no refunds. By reading this you agree to waive all claims against the author and his descendants. Life is full of choices and you’re making yours. Consider yourself warned.

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Now, there is no one kind of history. It’s sort of like Snapple in that way. For our purposes, I have narrowed modern history down to five basic types: personal, military, sexual, browser, and purchase. To save time, I’m going to set the others aside for now and just focus on personal history. These are the things, at least in my case, that put the lie to the concept of the Butterfly Effect, where even the smallest action can impact events on the other side of the world, or some such bullshit. Let’s be honest: nothing was changed by the fact that I did magic for kids birthday parties back in the ’70s. Nothing. And thank Heaven for it. I don’t need the guilt. For me, Personal History is just a dumb, thoughtless house guest who creates a huge fucking mess and over-stays his welcome. But, as frustrating as he may be, I can’t get mad at him. I know it’s pointless. Personal History could give a shit. He is who he is: a blundering, callous dip-shit who staggers around the living room, wildly swinging a pair of metal nunchucks when everyone else just wants to sit quietly and talk. And later, after he passes out and the last person is sent on their way to the hospital, broken and bleeding, it’s not the scar or the inventory of scars that matter. It’s the story of the scars. Or at least the story we want everyone to remember. So we embellish the truth out of sheer embarrassment.

***

My memory is mainly made up of reruns and movie scenes, and scored by songs of people I’ve never met. How is it that all the emotional gesticulation of these complete strangers can be so dear to me, and at the same time I can be such an asshole to the people who deserve so much better? Perhaps it’s the need to invent what I would like to think of as my history. Something that is noble and perfect, like a story I would work out with action figures on the living room floor. And I assume the best about these celebrity strangers who I have forced into my history. The less I know about their real lives the better. Because I know the truth is that they have their own untidy histories, their own archeological garbage that I would even care to acknowledge. Interestingly, I always struggled with history in school: the cold dates and strange names set apart only by roman numerals. Perhaps I would have done better to cast it all with sitcom stars in my head, reinventing the War of the Roses as a bloodier Battle of the Network Stars.

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I was lying alone on my mother’s bed one afternoon when I was about four, supposedly napping, but instead I quietly considered the landscape of my hands, the maps of my palms, and the limits of my reach. Then, quite suddenly and for no reason I can still make out from this distance, I became acutely aware that time was passing. Where once there had been a Now forever became a steep, slippery hill between Was and Could Be. I was seized with a sick, sinking feeling I would later recognize on a playground swing set, when, dropping back toward the Earth from the apex of my journey skyward, I felt a terrible emptiness in my groin. There on my mother’s bed I was blasting inexorably through my own history. One second tripped over the next in a panicked rush forward. I knew right away that I would one day die. And more horribly I knew my parents would die, and the useless knowledge was a fire hydrant that had been wrenched open and my tiny hands couldn’t hope to hold back the torrent of time.

And you could kiss my ass if you thought I was napping after that.

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***

I know it’s common sense to avoid politics in polite conversation, but this is not a conversation. You may well have been yelling obscenities at me this whole time, but I can’t hear you. So, since this is so one-sided, I will go ahead and admit that I cried bitterly when Richard Nixon won reelection in 1972. From the mood in our home it seemed the worst of all possible outcomes, a nail decisively driven into the coffin the nation was building for the Future. It was terrible. There I was, five days after my seventh birthday, and it seemed like the game was over. For the first time American History crossed the path of my personal history, and he looked as sinister as a child molester. What else could I do but weep?

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If M. Gandhi Were Mayor of Chicago, 1873

Oh, you fat sacred cow,
stockyard refugee,
don’t you see there are laws
I must follow,
rules to this game?

Here is your golden daughter,
clinging to my ceremonial sash,
causing traffic: breathless horses
and wheels stuck in icy mud.

I don’t care, you mute beast!
Don’t expect the key to this city.
Take away your sad eyes.

It could have been you
in the barn
that night.

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Credit Where Credit is Due
(podcast soundtrack in order of appearance)

“Ultimate” and “Freak Show Revenge” by Louis Schefano
“Palimpsest” by Roger Eno
“Jean Harlow” by Leadbelly
“Bird Dreaming” by Brian Eno
“Matter of Time” by The Low Anthem
“America’s Economic Plight” by Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner
“Oh Death Where is Thy Sting?” by Rev J.M. Gates
Former President Richard Nixon’s wit
“Our Song” by Joe Henry
“Water in the Moonlight” by Blind Tom Bethune (played by John Davis)

Special thanks to Wendy and Amelia Sheridan for their wise feedback on the podcast production. They saved you a lot of misery.

My Magical Life, Part I

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They aren’t required to register like sex offenders. In fact, you pass them on the street every day and never know it. Some hold public office and others may be beloved celebrities. You may well even be related to one. After all, once reformed, there is nothing specific to set them apart, no tattoo or scar. It’s just something they did. Shit happens. I know, because I myself was once a magician.

It was the sixth grade and my friend Phillip McCane was about the coolest kid I knew – handsome, self-assured, and accomplished.1 To top it off he was already making money as a magician. He even had business cards printed with his stage name, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” So when he pulled out a mail order magic catalog one morning at school, I eagerly pushed aside my self-guided work on pie-shape fractions (Thank you, Maria Montessori!) and began to devour the pages. comictricks2resize-500x794 Now, I had long coveted the chazerie I saw on the back covers of Marvel comic books and hawked on WGN Channel 9 by TV Magic’s Marshall Brodien2, but the stuff in this catalog was on a whole other level. Sure, there were some simple novelty gags: disappearing ink and the old cup and ball trick. But as I flipped through I discovered wands that made flowers bloom, canes that vanished in a cloud of silk scarves, and a golden chalice that would miraculously fill with liquid of any color in the rainbow, over and over again. There were even full-sized stage rigs involving levitation, multiplication, and death-defying escape. Aside from these breathlessly described offerings, there was a a host of magical accoutrement – flash paper, “life-like” fake thumb tips, paper flowers, and magic books. I wanted it all. And why not? The descriptions promised easy-to-follow instructions and instant success. Within minutes I would be conjuring like Houdini. I quivered with anticipation of my future fame.

I placed an order under Phillip’s guidance as soon as I could. I’d start simple with some close-up illusions (if I was going to do this right I would need to use the correct terminology, as every serious magician knows that “tricks” are for whores and Halloween). He put me down for some multiplying balls, the Miracle Coin, and the old standby, interlocking silver rings. Once they arrived I set to work, only to make a bitter realization: “instant success,” my ass, this crap was hard! I lacked dexterity, I lacked finesse. I had no patter. There was clearly a long road ahead. Normally this would be enough for me to dump everything on the floor and head directly to the nearest TV for succor. But instead, perhaps for the first time in my life, I applied myself with some seriousness.3

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It wasn’t long before I was obsessive about the whole thing.4 I dug out a magic set I had ignored from a previous birthday (no doubt in favor of some less demanding superhero action figures) and mined what I felt was the most impressive material. I also began to bone up on the master practitioners, learning that Houdini got his name from the great 19th Century French conjurer, Robert Houdin, and that early magic practice had religious roots with Hindu fakirs. You know, shit no one else my age cared about. Hell, it should have been a red flag that one of the top names in the business at the time was the bucktoothed and bedazzled Doug Henning, who touted his show as a metaphor for Transcendentalism. Oy vey. doug_henning But let’s remember that at the heart of it all was the allure of being amazing. What could be more interesting than someone who could do something you couldn’t explain? My father and mother were both remarkably encouraging, no doubt delighted that I showed interest in something that didn’t involve a cathode ray tube. So they indulged me. My mother schlepped me all the way to the source of one of the best catalogs, a stock-crowded storefront on Chicago’s north side called Magic, Inc. Closer to home was the terrific magic counter at Marshall Field’s.5 I can still picture the poor bastard who manned it: heavyset and dour, his thinning hair heavily Brylcreemed above a sweaty face that sat behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. He clearly hated kids and was constantly admonishing some brat to not touch the merchandise. But he lit up when demonstrating the wares for even the smallest crowd. Looking back, I imagine he was someone who never made the big time, so rather than subject himself to the kid’s party circuit, he fell back on the steady work that Field’s provided him. In other words, I was blissfully unaware that I was looking at what could well have been my future if I continued down this path.

Resolute, my short-term goal was clear: like Phillip, I wanted to turn magic into cash. After making some additional acquisitions and putting in a bit more practice, I figured I had a solid 20 minutes of material. I could pad that with some patter and audience interaction and – abra-ca-fucking-dabra – I was good to go. My act well in hand, I needed a professional name. “The Magician” was definitive, but seemed a little obvious. So I landed on the very next thing that came to my head, “The Wizard.” I felt it had a whiff of the exotic. Taking another cue from Philip, I  had it printed on business cards and then worked up a flyer that I hung in the front hall of my school. It was now just a matter of time.

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Note the hand-corrected typo in the address.

A few weeks later someone called our house asking for me. It was a mother who had been referred by the already engaged Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Was I available for her son’s birthday party the following week? Oh, yes? We worked out the terms and I wrote down the details. Hanging up the phone my head almost exploded with the realization that I was going pro.

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FOOTNOTES

1Phillip was also the driving force behind what may well have been the only gang to roam the halls of Ancona Montessori: the Falcons. An homage to Fonzi’s eponymous gang on Happy Days, it consisted of Phillip, myself, Paul Farachi, Alex Gordon, and Herman Torry. While a short-lived endeavor, we lasted long enough to compose a self-laudatory poem that we recited during share time with the rest of the grouped fifth and sixth grade classes. I can still remember the lines, “The Falcons are cool./The Falcons are great./When we got to a party/We are very rarely late.” We may have been streetwise, tough and exclusionary, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have some semblance of manners. Membership was dissolved when parents of other kids complained. Go Back To Reading

sv0f6gv63ml4c4nd5ewlvc7f5livzi2Marshall Brodien loomed large in my childhood, not only as a nimble-fingered pitchman, but as Wizzo the Wizard on Bozo’s Circus, a role that relegated him to that most loathed segment of the population for me: clowns. But we will tackle that topic anon. Go Back To Reading

3Years earlier I had already given up the piano after not mastering it in the first lesson and had similar success with the study of ballet. That didn’t keep me from feeling it was unfair that I was left out of my siblings’ subsequent dance recital, which should give you some idea of how fucked up my conception of how life works is. Go Back To Reading

4As was the case with secret girl crushes a couple of years later. And then record collecting a couple of years after that. And now with my mortgage. Go Back To Reading

5This was back when there was almost an entire floor devoted to toys at Field’s. Among the wonders on display was an alcove of Steiff animals of all species and size, a robust offering of Corgi die cast cars, and a vast scale model landscape navigated by a mind-blowing electric train. If provided access to a time machine today, that floor would be my first stop. No fucking question. Go Back To Reading

Special thanks to Paul Farachi, Pamela Monk and Gabriel Sheridan for being fact-checking cuzes.

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My Thug Life

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I determined to lose my fight virginity when I was in the fourth grade. I was a “husky,”1 non-athletic boy with long hair,2 so if I felt I had something to prove, it was probably just to myself. There was a class tough named Chuckie who was a good three inches shorter than any boy in my grade. An unlikely bully on paper, he had an impressive Afro and exuded an air of “I-will-kick-your-ass-just-for-what’s-in-your-head” that was a big part of his reputation. “Chuckie’s gonna get you at 3:15” was not a phrase you wanted directed at you. So I avoided him, but I also admired him: his Capone confidence, his outsized cool. He certainly played a key role in the Culture of Fight3, but ultimately I think the imperative was really just part of being a boy of a certain age. A simple exchange was an opportunity to get the upper hand, whether through put-down or shove-down. And I was a fairly obvious target.

If I was going to fight it seemed wise to be methodical about it. Why leave such a thing to chance? Playing my cards right, I could select my opponent rather than wind up with someone stronger or handier than myself. I did the rundown: (A) It would have to be someone at the school, so the word would get around. (B) It had to be someone in my grade or higher, so it didn’t seem like I was picking on a younger kid. (C) It couldn’t be anyone exceedingly weak or debilitated. That could backfire badly. So I waited. As it turns out, I waited a while. This should have satisfied me, but I couldn’t help feeling inferior in the grand scheme of fourth grade things.

An opportunity presented itself on my front porch one afternoon. I was no doubt watching TV, perhaps a rerun of some long-forgotten sitcom like “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” or “The Farmer’s Daughter”. The doorbell rang and I ignored it. My brother came in a moment later and said that Charles Dickerson was asking if I wanted to play. While not exactly a close friend, Charles was a classmate and occasional playground companion. He had a distinct vocal twang that my siblings and I found funny. “Tim-ah-tee,” my brother mocked, “It’s that kid, Charles. He wants you to come out, Tim-ah-tee.”

I went and stood in the doorway and said hi. Charles seemed embarrassed and awkward. He was about my height, but very skinny; his shaved head accentuated his long face and delicate features. Seeing him there on the steps, vulnerable and needing, something malignant inside me suggested I try to pick a fight. This was my chance. While I didn’t dislike Charles, his neediness kind of bugged me. It was something I didn’t like in myself, so seeing it in someone else was not only unattractive, but also an unwanted reminder of my own shortcomings. So the lesser angels of my nature took over. I taunted him, scolding him for showing up uninvited and bothering me, for saying my name so strangely. I may have even accused him of doing something to antagonize me, perhaps taking a step toward him in the hope it would spark some sort of tussle. But Charles, not surprisingly, just looked hurt and confused. He retreated down the stairs and walked away.

The utter failure of this attempt had a doubly negative impact: I still had no fight to brag of and I felt like a total asshole for what I did to poor Charles. I knew I would no doubt have reacted as he did if confronted in the same way, but I couldn’t exactly apologize for it. That would be even worse! Perhaps if I persevered in my quest for a fight I could at least gain his respect and awe. But how? He really seemed my best bet for a premeditated fight. Finally I gave up. I was only a year and change from moving to middle school. I would cut my losses, keep my head down and stay out of trouble: the classic short-timer strategy.

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And then one day at recess the worst possible scenario played out: right by the octagonal cement water fountain at the center of the school yard, I ran afoul of a mean girl. Flanked by a couple of her friends, she thrust her chin forward and she called me something or other, giving me a convincing shove. Why she wanted to test the mettle of the chubby long hair is still beyond me, but I was faced with the decision – fight or flight? Neither option seemed truly appealing. It was a lose-lose-lose scenario. Fighting a girl, even a trio, was not going to win me big points, and, more importantly, this girl was fucking mean. She meant business, or so it seemed to me. There could well be punching, hair pulling or worse. I would not fare well. But to run from her? The inescapable humiliation of the situation overwhelmed me.

And that’s when the scream escaped me. A hot set of claws raking my throat, it was a roar of rage and fear and impotence and pain and guilt. Out of my control, it blasted at the semi-circle of girls. Their expressions changed instantly, from confrontation to confusion, and they took a step back. This white boy was cray-zee. He had snapped. It was amazing. Their reaction shot a thrill through my being. This show of fear, while based on the relatively negative assessment that I was clearly insane, was still a power. It drove my scream across the playlot. Kids stopped what they were doing and looked. What the hell was this? Nothing like it had happened before. The girls continued their retreat, but I followed, my howl preceding me like a column of fire from a flame-thrower. They moved faster, stumbling a bit in an effort to get away. Finally I stood alone as the last thread of a screech faded. All eyes were on me. If I couldn’t be tough, I could at least be unstable. I saw instantly it had the same effect. I was no longer an easy mark. I was dangerous.4

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FOOTNOTES

1I have always hated shopping for clothes, but never more than when I was a kid and my mother was directed to a pair of Wrangler jeans in a “husky” size. The word not only has an odious sound (like a consumptive clearing his throat) but its clunky effort to avoid the word “fat” somehow made it even more demeaning. Go Back To Reading

2Once in an elevator an adult even asked me if I were a boy or a girl. No doubt this was a dig, suggesting that I get a haircut. Being a child I said nothing. Later I came across the perfect retort in one of my older brother’s underground comic books: one of the Freak Brothers is asked the same question and he screams back, “Why don’t you suck my dick and find out!” Go Back To Reading

3I didn’t grow up in the toughest of neighborhoods. This was Hyde Park/Kenwood, home of the University of Chicago. It was integrated, progressive and solidly middle-class. And Beulah Shoesmith Public School, while no North Shore academy, also wasn’t the stuff of The Blackboard Jungle. Whatever racial tension there may have been was pretty benign, all things considered. Once, as I walked home from school in the Spring of 1977, I was punched by a kid I didn’t know, who explained, “I saw Roots!” I couldn’t argue with that. I had seen it, too. As reparations go, he wasn’t thinking big. Go Back To Reading

4Those who know me have pointed out that I really only show my aggression as an adult when driving or talking on the phone with unfortunate customer service reps. I assume that this is because these situations are removed from direct confrontation, but also because it involves employing a beller of impotent rage. Some things never change.Go Back To Reading