R.I.P., Myron Cohen

R.I.P., Myron Cohen

By Patrick F. Cannon

Myron Cohen (1902-1986) was a well known comedian from the 1950s until his death in 1986. He was best known for his dialect jokes, primarily done in a Yiddish accent, but with a sprinkling in Italian and Irish dialects too. They were done affectionately, and were really short stories rather than the typical one-liners of the time. Before becoming a full time entertainer, he had sold fabrics to the New York garment industry, and said his story telling set him apart from his competitors. (Only Billy Chrystal today reminds me of him.)

            He appeared fairly regularly on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, and later on both Jack Paar’s and Johnny Carson’s Tonight shows. I remember three of his short stories in particular, and I’ll try to do them justice here, but of course his delivery and accents added much to them. (By the way, I don’t recall that he thought his sex life was so fascinating that anyone would want to spend an hour listening to its gory details. Why this has become the norm with comedians today escapes me.)

                                                Stage Delicatessen

Sam was a waiter at New York’s legendary Stage Delicatessen. His boss, the manager (maître de is perhaps too fancy a word for that place), was named Max. They had both been there for some 25 years, and had never said a kind word to each other. Their feuds were legendary, and indeed the customers thought their constant bickering was part of the delicatessen’s essential ambiance.

            Then one day at closing, Max took Sam aside and said: “Sam, I know we haven’t always gotten along {a massive understatement}, but I know you’re a hard worker with loyal customers, so effective immediately, I’m giving you a raise.” To say that Sam was thunderstruck would be an understatement. He was actually almost struck dumb and could only reply with a very weak “thank you.”

            When he got home and told his wife, she was amazed and said maybe Max wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Anyway, Sam had a spring in his step the next morning when he arrived at work. He went to the back room to put on his white jacket and apron. Max entered, walked over to him and said “Sam, you’re fired!” “Fired,” the stunned Sam replied, “yesterday you praised me and gave me a raise. How can you fire me?”

            Max smilingly replied: “You should lose a better job!”

                                                Watch Out!

 O’Hara was a motorman on New York streetcars when such things still existed. He had been assigned to a route in Queens for many years, but then got transferred to a route in lower Manhattan. Being a bachelor, he decided to move to an apartment in the lower east side, so he could be within walking distance of the street car barn.

            One day, he noticed his watch seemed to be losing a couple of minutes a day. Since an accurate watch was important in his job, and he had a day off, he decided to have it fixed. As it happened, he had noticed a shop down the street with a large watch in the window. Assuming it was a watch repair shop, he entered and went up to the counter. Behind it was an elderly man with a beard.

            “My watch is losing time,” says O’Hara, “and I wonder if you could adjust it?”

            “I don’t fix watches, I’m a mohel,” replies the bearded one.

            “What’s a mohel, for God’s sake?”

            “I circumcise little Jewish boys.”

            “But why do you have that big watch in the window if you don’t fix watches?

            “So, what do you want me to have in the window?”

Goldberg and the Pope

We’re back at the Stage Delicatessen. One table has for many years been set aside for a group of garment industry men who gather every week day for lunch. Not everyone comes every day; but on a typical day seven or eight show up. Two of them, Goldberg and Pearlstein, show up most days. They are both competitors and old friends. Over the years, Goldberg had become known as a name dropper. If you mentioned Frank Sinatra, for example, he would mention that he helped Frank get his first job singing in a club in Hoboken.  In fact, almost every time a lunch mate mentioned a famous person, it turns out that Goldberg knows him or her from somewhere.

            So one day his pal Pearlstein says to him that he knows someone he can’t possibly know. “I bet you don’t know the Pope!” Now, at the time, John XXIII was pope. Without batting an eyelash, Goldberg replies “Of course, I know the Pope. We’re pals from a long time ago.” A hush came over the table. After a pause, Perlstein challenges his old friend: “I’ll tell you what. Let’s take the wives to Rome on vacation. If you can prove you know the Pope, I’ll spring for the whole trip, but if you don’t, you pay!”

            To everyone’s amazement, Goldberg agrees. Two weeks later, the couples are in Rome, seeing the sites and eating lots of pasta. Goldberg tells his friend that in two days the Pope will appear on his balcony in St. Peters Square to bless the multitude. “I’ll give you a pair of binoculars and when he appears, you’ll see me come out behind him.”

            On the given day, Pearlstein joins the huge crowd waiting for the Pope to appear. He trains his binoculars on the balcony. The double doors open and the portly Pope steps out. Then, just behind him, who should appear but Goldberg. Pearlstein’s jaw drops in disbelief. He is transfixed, but he feels someone pulling on his sleeve. Next to him is an elderly man, who says to him: “I can’t see too well anymore. Could you please tell me who is that man standing on the balcony with Goldberg?”

#####

Copyright (sort of) 2017, 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

Don’t Do It!

Don’t Do It!

By Patrick F. Cannon

Writing about the Disney Corporation’s difficulties with the State of Florida over its new sex education law got me to thinking about my own experiences growing up. When I tell you that my first eight grades were spent in Roman Catholic schools in the 1940s and 50s, it should give you a hint.

            “Sex Education” as a subject did not exist. This now strikes me as strange, as the Church seemed to encourage its married members to be as fruitful as possible. It is well to remember that Catholic schools were run by nuns, who themselves had taken a vow of chastity. To most of them, the mere mention of sex seemed sinful. I do recall being told that it was mortal sin to touch one’s private parts for pleasure. I forget whether it was your hand or your penis which would fall off!

            The late Peter Ustinov, the actor (and so much more) told a story of going to an assembly at his boy’s boarding school, where the headmaster tried manfully to educate his charges about sex. He muttered and stuttered, and finally told them: “just don’t do it!”

              I went on to a public high school in McKeesport, PA, and the subject was covered in a mandatory course in Sophomore year called “Health.” It was taught by the school’s football coach. He would instruct the students to read a chapter, and answer to the questions at the end. Then, if you were on the football team, as I was that year, you would go the back of the classroom, where coach would diagram plays on a blackboard. Since football was almost a religion in Western Pennsylvania, no one thought this odd. There was a chapter on reproduction, which described the subject in vague terms. Needless to say, it wasn’t illustrated. At least, the stork wasn’t mentioned as a delivery system.

            Somehow, I figured it out for myself, as those did who had a similar education. However, I do think sex education should be mandatory in our schools. The question – and this is the nub of the Florida controversy – is how much and when. Is the third grade too soon to tell the kiddies about the seemingly endless ways humans express their sexuality? I believe it is. Children that age are still three or four years from the earliest stirrings of puberty, which is time enough to  raise these issues.

            I’ve heard it said that teaching the variety of sexual expression to young minds may somehow encourage them to imagine that they themselves may be gay, or bisexual, or transgender. I’m not sure there’s any evidence that that’s the case. I do know that it can all be very confusing to an immature mind. Eventually, we all need to know these things, if only to learn tolerance of those who once were shunned and even prosecuted for their sexual orientation.

            And not only sexual orientation, but race, religion, class and national origin. Ideally, these would be taught at home, but why do I get the impression that today’s parents are ill-equipped to do so? Religion? Some these days seem to preach intolerance instead. And even those that don’t see fewer and fewer people in their pews on Sunday.

            So, my idea, for what it’s worth, is that Junior High or Middle School is time enough to begin properly educating young people about sex in all it’s glories and pitfalls. Let’s let the little kids live in ignorant bliss.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon  

Mind Your Own Business!

Mind Your Own Business!

By Patrick F. Cannon

I’m not going to go into the details of the Florida law about what can and cannot be taught about sex to little kiddies in their schools, but whether or not the Disney corporation should have gone public with their objection to it.

            My answer is “no.”  Why would a corporation that owns more than 200 companies that reach into the pockets of almost every American, alienate a significant percentage of its customers and its stockholders by taking a position they may or may not agree with?  Maybe they should make a cartoon called “Mickey Talks Sex.” Or, maybe “Goofy Comes Out!”

            More and more, public corporations are giving in to pressure from some of their employees and customers to take positions – mostly, it must be said, “woke” ones – on public policy matters. I suppose Disney, in the business of amusing children, now thinks it should take a role in deciding how they’re educated about sex. Initially mute on the bill, Disney CEO Bob Chapek eventually gave in to pressure from members of the Disney family and affiliated companies to express opposition to the bill. As a result, and in obvious retaliation, the Florida legislature has stripped Disney of its special quasi-governmental status.

            I frankly don’t know enough about the bill to take an informed position. But I do know that public corporations like Disney should mind their own business, unless a proposed law or regulation directly affects it. For example, if the Florida legislature were to propose a special tax for amusement parks that other businesses didn’t have to pay, that would be a legitimate reason to scream bloody murder. And General Motors would be within its rights to weigh in on fuel consumption or pollution limits. But why would they take a position on school prayer?

            Private companies are a different matter. Their owners can say whatever they wish — at their own risk, of course. A good example is Bill Penzey of Penzey’s Spices. A progressive’s progressive, Penzey uses his regular customer newsletter and other media to heap abuse on Republicans. As I recall, he started this when Donald Trump was running for president and upped the ante when he was elected. While I was inclined to agree with him on Trump, he soon began painting all Republicans with the same brush, and continues to do so. Indeed, in honor of Martin Luther King Day this year, he proclaimed “Republicans are Racists” weekend!

            Has he lost customers because of his stance? Yes, he has. Obviously, Republicans can get their spices elsewhere, and mostly do. But it seems that Democrats and progressives have decided to put more spice in their lives, so he claims his business has actually increased. Go figure!

            Anyway, if I were running a public company, I would require all employees to sign something like this as a condition of employment:

            “The Acme Horseshoe Company is in the business of making the best horseshoes available on the market. It is dedicated to providing a quality product to the world’s horses, farriers, owners and trainers. It takes no position on matters of public policy, unless they directly affects its core business. This does not mean that its employees may not do so – in fact, it encourages its employees to express their opinions on matters that affect them and their communities, as long as they do not associate the Acme Horseshoe Company with them. To do so is cause for immediate termination.”  

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon       

Boy, That Was a Close Shave!

Boy, That Was a Close Shave!

While I was shaving the other day, and musing on the true meaning of life, it suddenly occurred to me that I was performing a task I had performed approximately 25,000 times before. So struck was I by this, that I decided that my faithful readers would have to wait a bit longer to find out what their existence really meant.

            There is evidence, although a bit sketchy if you ask me, that men began shaving about 100,000 years ago. Well, shaving might not be an exact description. It seems the cave men would remove unwanted facial hair by plucking it out with used calm shells. In more recent times, women have been known to pluck out unruly hair from their eyebrows in a similar manner. Indeed, in the 1930s they often plucked all the hair from their eyebrows, then painted on a more acceptable version with something called (still) an eyebrow pencil. Some very bizarre effects were obtained, but that’s fashion for you.

It wasn’t until about 3,000 B.C. that something resembling a razor appeared, in Egypt of course. Thin pieces of  sharpened copper apparently did the job. Surviving images often show men with spade-like chin whiskers, but otherwise smooth of face. By the time the Greeks came along, as shown in surviving sculptures and urns, the fashion seems to have gone back and forth between the smooth-shaven and the full bearded. When the Romans entered the stage, beards seem to have gone completely out of fashion.

One of the reasons seems to have been that they had mastered steel-making. In addition to sword and knife blades for hacking away at those pesky barbarians and dispatching unwanted emperors, they could now sharpen and hone a blade that made shaving bearable. This technology also made scissors more useful for cutting one’s hair, which made short hair fashionable for the first time.

For hundreds of years thereafter, whether one had a beard or not, or long or short hair, was – for the rich, at least – a matter of taste and fashion. Long hair, no beard? No hair, but luxuriant beard? Bald, but bewigged? The Rasputin look? All were available. Eventually, the foldable straight razor became the implement of choice, whether wielded by the gentleman himself of his barber.

(As an aside, it was once common for men to go regularly to their barber for a shave. No doubt you’re familiar with the ditty: “shave and a haircut, two bits.” Now rare, the ritual involved wrapping the customer’s face in hot towels, then lathering his face with soap, often using the customer’s personal shaving mug. Using a very sharp straight razor, the barber would sweep the customer’s face clean of the offending beard, then finish the ritual off with a fine and fragrant after-shave lotion. At an upscale shop, a shave and haircut might now cost $100 or more.)

When I first started shaving some 70 years ago, I used an electric machine. As my beard became a bit tougher, I switched to a blade razor. It was a Gillette, which then and now dominates the business. It was started by King Gillette, not to be confused with King Canute. To him, we owe the invention of the safety razor. The blade of choice by the time I started was the double-edged Gillette Blue Blade. In keeping with the time-honored American practice of making its products obsolete on a regular basis, they eventually introduced the Super Blue Blade, followed by the Platinum Blade (actually stainless steel).     

Having exhausted the possibilities of the double-edged blade, they then began selling cartridge razors and blades. Their latest iteration, the Gillette Labs Exfoliating Razor, not only slices away your beard with five blades, but gets rid of your foliates! The cheapest cost per blade is about $3.50.  Since I’m not afflicted with foliates, I get similar 5-blade cartridges from Harry’s for less than $2.00 each. They do a good job, and I kind of like the name.

Historically, women have used similar razors to shave their legs, underarms, and what has come to be known as the “bikini line.”  It seems to me that shaving one’s private parts is fraught with danger, but I’m told that even some men do it. I find this hard to believe, but then I’ve never understood tattoos or body-piercing either. Apparently neither God nor Mother Nature (or simple biology) can be trusted to get things right.

Finally, I tried to grow a beard once. I discovered that my beard was heavier on the left side of my face than the right, resulting in a strange lopsided effect. I do admire a fine beard, and have friends who sport them. If you wish to see beards a plenty, as well as tattoos and interesting body piercings, you would do well to walk the streets of Wicker Park, Bucktown and Logan Square in Chicago. That is the domain of the hipster. The women will look much the same, except (mostly) for the beards.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon               

Pots to Go Missing In

Pots to Go Missing In

By Patrick F. Cannon

My friend Jerry McManus, who lives in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood, mentioned at breakfast the other day that the pothole season is now well underway. Depending on the severity of the Winter, and the freeze/thaw cycle, it can start as early as March in the Chicago area. Added to Mother Nature’s depredations, highway departments spread copious amounts of salt on the roads at the merest suggestion of snow or ice, exacerbating the problem.

            Coincidentally, later that day I passed a crew filling potholes on a side street. There was a truck filled with blacktop and a three-man crew. One man filled the hole with a shovel of material, another tamped it down, and the third watched with interest. If necessary, another shovel full was added, and so on. With luck, and not too much traffic, the patch could be expected to last a full week. On busier streets, or if a politician lives there, the crew may also have a road roller, which does a better job of tamping down the blacktop. These patches could last as long as a month!

            In the days before most cars had alloy wheels, which do without hub caps, it was quite common to see stray hub caps in the vicinity of a particularly deep pothole. This was a boon for the intrepid scrap-metal pickers, who cruise the streets and alleys of Chicago and nearby suburbs to fill their pickups with the thrown away of our throw-away culture. Often, the hub caps would end up at specialized used hub-cap shops, where you could buy a replacement for your missing cap; it might even be the same one you lost.

            I remember one year on North Avenue in Chicago, from roughly Austin Boulevard to  Cicero Avenue, when the potholes were so bad that you thought you were going through a slalom course. Even then, they were arranged so you couldn’t miss them all, so you just tried to avoid the axle breakers. Soon after, that and other stretches of the street were resurfaced.

            (By the way, potholes should not be confused with sinkholes, which occur when the ground beneath the surface is eaten away, sometimes by a water leak, or the collapse of an underground aquifer. These happen often in Florida. I recall one occasion when a whole collection of vintage Corvettes was swallowed up by a giant collapse. Potholes,, by contrast, rarely swallow more than one vehicle.)

            Here’s a conspiracy theory for you. There is an evil cabal that includes politicians, highway departments, union bosses, concrete and blacktop suppliers, and contractors who have a vested interest in building roads that look spiffy when built, but will crumble and fail on a regular schedule. This, when some of the roads the Romans built are still in use?

            We have sent men to the Moon, and explored the far reaches of space. Most of us walk around with phones that have more computing power than whole rooms of computers had just 25 years ago. But we can’t build roads and streets that last longer than 10 years?

            I am reminded of a 1951 movie, The Man in the White Suit, which starred Alec Guinness as a Cambridge-educated chemist who invents a fabric that is both indestructible and repels dirt. He is hailed as a genius, until it occurs to the woolen-mill owners and their unionized work forces that the new fabric will eventually put them out of business and jobs. Management and labor join forces to put a stop to Guinness and his job-killing invention.

            But then, fate takes a hand. Suddenly, the fabric begins to dissolve in the rain, exposing a flaw in the inventor’s formula. The wool industry is saved and can resume fleecing the public! But the final scene has poor Alec pouring over his formula. Suddenly, a smile appears. He has found a flaw in the formula that can  be fixed!

            Is there an Alec Guinness of roadbuilders out there? If there is, he better watch his back.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

Pots to Go Missing In

Pots to Go Missing In

By Patrick F. Cannon

My friend Jerry McManus, who lives in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood, mentioned at breakfast the other day that the pothole season is now well underway. Depending on the severity of the Winter, and the freeze/thaw cycle, it can start as early as March in the Chicago area. Added to Mother Nature’s depredations, highway departments spread copious amounts of salt on the roads at the merest suggestion of snow or ice, exacerbating the problem.

            Coincidentally, later that day I passed a crew filling potholes on a side street. There was a truck filled with blacktop and a three-man crew. One man filled the hole with a shovel of material, another tamped it down, and the third watched with interest. If necessary, another shovel full was added, and so on. With luck, and not too much traffic, the patch could be expected to last a full week. On busier streets, or if a politician lives there, the crew may also have a road roller, which does a better job of tamping down the blacktop. These patches could last as long as a month!

            In the days before most cars had alloy wheels, which do without hub caps, it was quite common to see stray hub caps in the vicinity of a particularly deep pothole. This was a boon for the intrepid scrap-metal pickers, who cruise the streets and alleys of Chicago and nearby suburbs to fill their pickups with the thrown away of our throw-away culture. Often, the hub caps would end up at specialized used hub-cap shops, where you could buy a replacement for your missing cap; it might even be the same one you lost.

            I remember one year on North Avenue in Chicago, from roughly Austin Boulevard to  Cicero Avenue, when the potholes were so bad that you thought you were going through a slalom course. Even then, they were arranged so you couldn’t miss them all, so you just tried to avoid the axle breakers. Soon after, that and other stretches of the street were resurfaced.

            (By the way, potholes should not be confused with sinkholes, which occur when the ground beneath the surface is eaten away, sometimes by a water leak, or the collapse of an underground aquifer. These happen often in Florida. I recall one occasion when a whole collection of vintage Corvettes was swallowed up by a giant collapse. Potholes,, by contrast, rarely swallow more than vehicle.)

            Here’s a conspiracy theory for you. There is an evil cabal that includes politicians, highway departments, union bosses, concrete and blacktop suppliers, and contractors who have a vested interest in building roads that look spiffy when built, but will crumble and fail on a regular schedule. This, when some of the roads the Romans built are still in use?

            We have sent men to the Moon, and explored the far reaches of space. Most of us walk around with phones that have more computing power than whole rooms of computers had just 25 years ago. But we can’t build roads and streets that last longer than 10 years?

            I am reminded of a 1951 movie, The Man in the White Suit, which starred Alec Guinness as a Cambridge-educated chemist who invents a fabric that is both indestructible and repels dirt. He is hailed as a genius, until it occurs to the woolen-mill owners and their unionized work forces that the new fabric will eventually put them out of business and jobs. Management and labor join forces to put a stop to Guinness and his job-killing invention.

            But then, fate takes a hand. Suddenly, the fabric begins to dissolve in the rain, exposing a flaw in the inventor’s formula. The wool industry is saved and can resume fleecing the public! But the final scene has poor Alec pouring over his formula. Suddenly, a smile appears. He has found a flaw in the formula that can  be fixed!

            Is there an Alec Guinness of roadbuilders out there? If there is, he better watch his back.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

The Giddy-up is Gone

The Giddy-up is Gone

By Patrick F. Cannon

(Horse racing was once America’s favorite spectator sport. Now, it’s one of the least attended. So, if you are in the majority who are indifferent to the sport, I’ll forgive you for not reading this week’s essay.)

There are sufficient people who care about thoroughbred horse racing to keep it viable in states like Kentucky, New York, Arkansas, Florida and California. In Illinois, not so much.

            Arlington International – once the crown jewel of Illinois racing, and the most beautiful track in the United States – has been closed, and its sale to the Chicago Bears is pending. To be honest, the racing there in  recent years has been third-rate at best. It was owned by Churchill Downs, Inc. (CDI), which for years had lobbied our dysfunctional legislature for a law that would permit slot machines and other forms of gambling at the track, as was the case in some the states listed above. When they finally did so, CDI had already bought a controlling interest in the nearby Rivers Casino, which they decided was more profitable. So, goodbye Arlington.    

            The only track left in the Chicago area is Hawthorne, located in Cicero/Stickney. While in no way elegant, it’s serviceable, and does have plans to add gambling as a way to boost purses. That should substantially increase purses in the long term; in the short term, purses will increase somewhat because Hawthorn will no longer have to share off-track and other revenues with Arlington. But the real problem is that Hawthorne – as the only track in the Chicago area – will have to allot racing days to harness racing as well as thoroughbreds. To be fair, I’m sure the harness folks feel the same!

            When I first went racing in 1957, there were six tracks in the area: Washington Park in Homewood; Arlington Park in Arlington Heights (both then owned by the Lindheimer family; Hawthorne (owned for more than 100 years by the Carey family); Sportsman’s Park in Cicero; Maywood Park in (you guessed it!) Maywood, and Balmoral Park (once called Lincoln Fields) in far south-suburban Crete.   

            After Washington Park burned down in 1977, and was not rebuilt, only Arlington raced thoroughbreds exclusively; the others, except for Maywood (standardbreds only), alternated both thoroughbred and standardbred (trotters and pacers) dates. Historically, both breeds could run at one or another almost the entire year.

            Maywood went bankrupt and was demolished in 2019 to make way for an Amazon distribution center! Sportsman’s Park faced the wrecking ball in 2009, after an abortive experiment as a horse and car racing facility. Balmoral became a horse show facility, but is now closed.

            Hawthorne, now the lone survivor, reopened for thoroughbreds last weekend. Purses will be up, which is good news for the horsemen. But when the standardbreds take over in later June, they will have to move their horses out of the Chicago area until September 23. Owners and trainers who race in Kentucky, New York, Florida, Maryland, or California don’t ever have to leave those states. The only other racetrack in Illinois, Fairmont Park, is nearly 300 miles away and offers live racing only three days a week and for paltry purses.

            I think a new track dedicated only to harness racing in the Chicago area would be a boon to the industry, particularly if it also offered other forms of gambling and ran at night. A modest facility holding 5,000 fans and providing additional gambling might even be financially feasible! Hawthorne could then run thoroughbreds most of the year, with purses competitive with all but the top tier tracks like Keeneland, Belmont, Saratoga, Oaklawn and Del Mar.

            Finally, it might revive a once thriving Illinois breeding industry. Lack of opportunities and low purses, among other reasons, have reduced mares bred in Illinois from 1,285 in 2001 to 105 in 2020. Kentucky of course leads the list with 16,727 mares bred last year. Illinois doesn’t even appear in the top ten.

            As it happens, a revival in Illinois would come at a time of positive trends in racing. Fatality rates at most tracks are falling; and for the first time, there will be a national body responsible for uniform medication enforcement, instead of confused state-by-state regulations. Starting in July, the United States Anti-Doping Agency – the folks who finally caught Lance Armstrong – should largely put a stop to the few bad actors who have given horse racing a shady reputation.

            Before I close, I should mention that the Kentucky Derby is only a month away. So far, there is no strong favorite. I’m inclined to favor Epicenter, the Louisiana Derby winner, but if Forbidden Kingdom wins Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby convincingly, I might just change my mind.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

Summer Memories

Summer Memories

By Patrick F. Cannon

Just got back from visiting my son and other relatives in Florida. When I left Tampa on Sunday, it was sunny and in the upper 70s. It was sunny in Chicago too, but in the low 30s. Of course, all I had was a light jacket!

            I had a Coke on the plane, and was reminded of Cokes of the past. After late-summer pre-season football practice, in a day when coaches were heartless brutes!, nothing tasted better than a cold Coke. Ditto after a pickup game of baseball in the local school yard. In those days – I’m talking the early 1950s – just about every neighborhood had a “Mom and Pop” grocery/candy store. Soft drinks, or Pop as we called it (it was soda to others), were dispensed from a red cooler, which used floating ice to keep the drinks cold.

            Although the cooler had “Coca Cola” boldly emblazoned on the side, other brands were available. On some occasions, a Mission Orange, Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer or Nehi Grape Soda might hit the spot, but nothing beat a Coke when you were hot, sweaty and parched. You would reach into the cooler, grab a bottle, and open it on the cooler’s built-in opener. If you were really thirsty, the entire six ounces would disappear in a single gulp.

            All of this pleasure and relief cost 5 cents. In fact, a Coke cost 5 cents from 1889 to 1959. That would be about 45 cents today. The average price now – you get twice as much in the can or bottle – is about 75 cents. Which brings me to Pepsi-Cola. When I was a kid, it cost the same, but you got twice as much for your money. I confess I was lured by this when extreme thirst wasn’t the main issue. And  who can forget cruising the alleys to see if any rich folks had thrown away empties, which were worth 2 cents when you returned them (5 cents for a quart bottle!).

            At one time, more than 80 percent of the soft drink vending machines in this country were owned by Coke bottlers. You world travelers will know that it’s sold around the world. Coke and its various brands still have almost 50 percent of the US market.

            When I reached the legal age for consuming alcohol (and maybe a little before, to be honest), Coke was replaced by beer. What could be better than a cold one after mowing the lawn on a hot day; or after a raucous softball game at the family reunion; or a pick-up driveway basketball game? And, as long as it was cold, I didn’t much care what brand it was. To be honest, there wasn’t much difference to me between Bud, Schlitz, Miller’s, Meister Brau, or even the briefly fashionable Coors. When they were properly cold, they pretty much tasted the same (and still do).

            Nowadays, the beer aisles at your local liquor store offer a bewildering array of craft and foreign beers. Since my exercise is mostly indoors or on the golf course, they don’t interest me much. Nor do the similar aisles of soft drinks at the local super market. I do like to have some Coke and ginger ale in the fridge for guests, but usually only drink pop when I’m out to lunch. Ordering a Diet Coke with a burger makes me feel virtuous, even though it’s probably not really any better for you than the regular Coke.

            That leaves water, which is widely available and cheap (you do pay for it, but its cost is often hidden in your real estate taxes, or rent). I’ve been drinking Chicago water for most of my life,  It’s as tasty as the bottled stuff, and just as safe. When I worked for the City of Chicago, I toured the water treatment plant – it’s the world’s largest – and can assure you they do a great job. Oh, and the last bottle of store-bought water I had proclaimed in small print: “Sourced from municipal supplies.” You know, like Chicago.

            So, in the unlikely event I ever have to mow a lawn again, I’ll probably be happy with a cold glass of the old H2O.

Copyright 2022,  Patrick F. Cannon 

Let’s Tie One On!

Let’s Tie One On

By Patrick F. Cannon

Among the many rites of passage faced by we humans – birth, death, marriage, divorce, first haircut, first step, puberty, first shave, first sex, driver’s license, first job, etc. – none is so daunting as learning how to tie your own shoelaces. We go from someone else washing, dressing, feeding, and even transporting us, to being cruelly forced to do these tasks ourselves. Most, it must be said, are instinctual. Tying your own laces is another matter altogether.

            I recall my mother saying “your brother Pete can tie his shoelaces. Don’t you want to be like your brother?” Why would I want to emulate this holy terror, who did everything he could to make my life hell? Or: “you can’t start school if you can’t tie your shoelaces.” Again, a dubious incentive. But she must have found one that worked, maybe “no more Snickers for you!” At any rate, I did learn to do it, and still perform this simple task at least once a day. But why do we have to do it at all?  Where did the damn things come from anyway?

Well, in case you missed it, the latest issue of the Journal of Glacial Emanations had yet another report of a body of a prehistoric man spewed forth at the bottom of the famous glacier near the Swiss resort of Dorrmatt. On a normal day, they are more likely to find the odd mastodon bone or old Coke bottle.

            As you might expect, the fellow (they took a peek under the rags) had rather leathery skin, as you would expect from a cadaver more than 10,000 years old. A cursory examination suggested that his head had been bashed in with a blunt instrument. What caught my eye immediately were his feet. They were shod in a kind of shoe, held together with shoelaces!

            As far as is known, this may be the first recorded proof that the now ubiquitous shoelace is much older than previously thought. Heretofore, it was thought that the practice of running strings of hide through holes or eyelets was an invention of the Vikings, who, after all, lived in a rather harsh environment and needed to protect their feet against the cold. In those days, more sensible humans tended to live in warmer climes. The Greeks and Romans, for example, favored a sandal-like affair that did have lengths of fabric or hide that wrapped around their calves to hold their footwear in place.

            The shoelace as we now know it is a relatively recent invention, most shoes during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Georgian and Napoleonic eras having been either slip-ons or be-buckled (a word of my invention, please make note). It was only in the early 19th Century that Sir Thomas McCann, tired of having his pumps falling off as he chased the ladies at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London, came up with the ingenious idea of punching holes in his shoes and running a bit of string through the holes and tying off the ends! Eureka! No lass was ever safe again. (In fairness, it must be mentioned that there is a competing claim. It seems a chap named Isadore Florsheim came up with a similar idea in the 1830s, as way of keeping his shoes afoot when trudging through the muddy streets of Lower Manhattan in New York. And it wasn’t always just mud!).

            Over time, technological advances were made in shoes and shoelaces. The eyelets – the holes punched in the shoe to permit the entrance of the lace – are now reinforced with metal or plastic. And some frustrated but clever person invented the aglet, which is that metal or plastic tube that keep the lace ends from fraying and causing extreme consternation.

            By the way, the most common knot for tying shoes is called the “granny knot.” I really have no idea why, nor do I much care.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

Really, I Did Know

Really, I Did Know

By Patrick F. Cannon

You could be forgiven for thinking, based on what you hear from the New York Times and many others, that children of past generations had never been taught that there was such a thing as slavery; or, if they were, that it might have been just a lifestyle choice.

            I just turned 84. Now, I can’t precisely recall how it was taught in the Roman Catholic grammar schools of Pittsburgh and Chicago, but I certainly got the impression that slavery was a bad thing, and that the Civil War was largely fought to eliminate it. Now, I don’t know what kids in Mississippi were taught, but I wouldn’t doubt that it was couched in a somewhat different way.

            In public high school in McKeesport, PA, the teaching of American history became a bit more sophisticated. Two things became clearer – much of the politics of the first half of the 19th Century in the United States revolved around what to do about slavery; and also how to remove the indigenous peoples from land the settlers wanted to land they didn’t. Maybe Mississippi extolled the South’s Jim Crow laws as enlightened, but Pennsylvania certainly did not.

            At Northwestern University, I took the usual lecture course in American history, which delved into these and other matters in more detail. While it explored the economic and social factors that led to the widespread use of slave labor in the south, it never confused reasons with excuses. Nor did is shy away from detailing the shameless way the country “solved” its indigenous peoples problem by penning them up in arid wastelands.

            Since then, I have read widely in American history. These issues and many more have been explored in detail in countless books by dedicated scholars (and some not quite so dedicated to the truth, one must admit). The point is: no one who cares to spend a little time studying American history can deny that slavery in particular hasn’t been extensively and truthfully studied and written about. But until recently, I was never personally told that whatever successes I might have had in my life were based upon the simple fact that I was white; and that I was a member of the “privileged” class.

            This is not to deny that privilege has played a role in the relative success of some of my fellow citizens. If you come from money, you certainly have a leg up. If daddy graduated from Harvard, and  became a major donor, few would deny that you might get a so-called “legacy” admission. It’s no accident that Harvard has the largest endowment of any university, last year reaching $53.2 billion. But that nest egg has permitted Harvard – and similar universities – to admit students who could not otherwise afford to attend. (By the way, Harvard admits slightly more women than men, and enrolls whites and non-whites in roughly equal percentages. In a recent class, blacks made up 14 percent, about the same as their percentage of the country’s population.)

            While everyone’s story is unique, most of us don’t come from inherited wealth. Let’s take mine. My father was born in 1906 on a small island off the West coast of Ireland. When he was two-years-old, his family emigrated to the United States, settling in the Pittsburg area. He had some college, but never graduated. He was variously a deputy sheriff, clerk in the county assessor’s office, elected councilman in Braddock, PA (where his family settled and where I was born), and manager of furnace company branches in Chicago and McKeesport, PA.

            He died in 1950, when I was 12-years-old. My mother soon ran through the modest insurance money, and we ended up living in public housing. I was never without a job during my high school years. I set pins in a bowling alley; worked in a grocery store; and bussed tables and cooked at a Pittsburgh amusement park. My mother died when I was 18. By then, I was working at a steel mill. I then moved to Chicago and lived with my sister.

            I did not get a legacy admission to Northwestern University. I worked during the day and attended school nights and weekends. I paid my own way, until I got drafted into the Army because I wasn’t  going to school full time. After I got out, I was “privileged” to get part of my costs paid under the G.I. Bill. After I graduated, I started a long career in marketing and public relations. Having a degree from Northwestern certainly helped me along the way, but I flatter myself that I succeeded based on my own work and talents. And I don’t think I  ever had a friend who’s success was due to family ties.

            I don’t feel in the least guilty for being white. Nor should I; nor should anyone who has not actively discriminated against another race, even if that person’s ancestors held slaves. By the way, you would be forgiven for thinking that American had invented slavery. In 1787, when the Constitution was written, slavery was legal in most European countries, and widespread in most of the rest of the world. If we should blame anyone for slavery in this country, it is the British, who not only introduced it here, but profited most from it. And we shouldn’t forget that Britain came very close to recognizing the Confederate States, primarily to protect the source of cotton for their mills and tobacco for their pipes.

            By the way, my family came to this country from Ireland because they saw no opportunity in a country exploited by the British for 200 years, and who let people die during the famine of the late 1840s. Now, nearly 175 years after the famine, a small number of Irish people still harbor the old hatred. But most have come to realize that living in the past is not the same as learning from it.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon