The Smoky Holidays. A Boyhood Mini-Memoir.

candle

One of the first things I remember about Christmas vacation as a schoolboy living in Southeast Minneapolis was the lingering sore throat and hacking cough that came from second hand smoke.

Everyone smoked back in the late Fifties and early Sixties.  My dad. My mom. My uncles and aunts. The neighbors. My older brother. If we’d had a dog, it would have probably lit up a Winston as well.

At school, of course, even though the teachers puffed away inside their sacrosanct lounge, at least the classrooms were free of tobacco fumes – instead we had the heady perfume of mimeograph fluid and chalk dust.  But once the winter vacation started I was cooped up at home, in a house full of smokers.

The adults gave each other gaily wrapped cartons of cigarettes for presents.  In fact, the tobacco companies printed special cartons that sported mistletoe and candy cane designs, as well as old Santa himself jovially gazing out in approval.  And my stocking inevitably contained packs of candy cigarettes, with brand names such as Marlboro and Kent boldly emblazoned right on them; they were sticks of pure sugar, with a red-dyed tip, that I kept dangling between my lips like Humphry Bogart.

Naturally all the windows and storm windows were shut and sealed tight against the bitter cold in our home.  There was nowhere for tobacco smoke to go except into our clothes, hair and lungs.  When the aunts and uncles and cousins came over for spritz cookies and mugs of coffee I could see the layers of tobacco smoke languidly drifting through the living room and dining room like atmospheric fog in a Universal studios horror film.

When it got too bad my mother would light a bayberry candle.  This was universally believed to ‘eat’ the smoke up. To this day I associate the scent of bayberry with nicotine.

By Christmas Eve my throat was as raw as hamburger.  I coughed and hawked up spittle like an old man.

My parent’s diagnosis was bronchitis, so after opening presents Christmas Day I was put to bed with Vicks Vaporub slathered over my chest, and an electric steam humidifier hissing 24/7 in my room; it fogged up the windows completely, so all I could see was an opaque landscape that hinted at bare elm branches and blurry shapes mysteriously gliding along the sidewalks.

When no one was around I’d open both the window and the storm window in my room to gasp some fresh air – until I heard my mother coming up the stairs with my Campbell’s chicken noodle soup; then I’d slam them both shut and lay back, hoping she would also bring me some of the brandied plum pudding we got from relatives in England each year.

Willy nilly, I was sent back to school as soon as it started again, and my ‘bronchitis’ would clear up immediately.

Finally, in 1964, the Surgeon General came out with his report on smoking.  My mother and all the aunts gave it up immediately.  My dad and his brothers were harder to convince.  But now smoking was banished from the house.  My dad had to go out on the front porch, even if it were blizzarding, if he wanted to have a Salem.

And I was never troubled with holiday ‘bronchitis’ again.

 

 

 

Tim Holst at the Movies.

Holst

Tim Holst, my friend and colleague in clown alley during the 1972 season on the Ringling Blue Unit, was not enamored of the movies. He preferred live theater, even a good singspiel, rather than the soft seats and softer material of the silver screen.

He slept through most of the first Star Wars movie. He spent most of his time out in the lobby, flirting with a pert young candy counter gal, during 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, almost sacrilegiously, he did not laugh himself hoarse during a revival of Chaplin’s Modern Times that we attended at an art house in Greenwich Village. He said the print was too scratchy.

While the show was in California that season Woody Allen’s movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex etc., came out to clamorous publicity. As professional funsters, Holst and I were curious as to what Allen would do with a clinical sex book as his movie script. We paid our dollar-fifty apiece and sat back to observe. About twenty minutes into the film, when mad scientist John Carradine has created a giant mammary gland that is rampaging through the countryside drowning people with breast milk, I heard Holst begin to rumble like Krakatoa getting ready to explode.

“Let’s get outta here” he said gruffly a minute later, as he rose and stalked out. I meekly followed behind.

But Holst was not content to merely desert the movie theater. He wanted his buck-fifty back. So he asked the cashier for the manager.

A greasy little fellow, in yellow shirt and polyester plaid pants, ambled over to us as we stood waiting by the arcade games.  His manner was brisk and business-like; it was apparent we were not the first patrons to ask for a refund.

“What can I do for you gentlemen?” he asked, making ‘gentlemen’ sound like a racial slur of some kind.

“That’s the most repulsive and insulting movie I have ever seen” began Holst, “and I and my friend here want our money refunded immediately!”

“No can do, my friend” he responded immediately, pointing up to a marquee near the ticket booth that read “NO REFUNDS AFTER THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF THE MOVIE.”

“How can you show stuff like that to the public and expect them to sit still?” Holst then asked, his brow beetling portentously.

The manager gave a broad shrug, as if to say ‘youse pays yer money and youse takes yer chances’, but all he said in return was “Sorry. Company policy. I can’t issue you a refund.”

“Then we want 2 new tickets to see something else” Holst said quietly, pointing at a nearby poster advertising John Wayne in The Cowboys.

“We don’t do that here” he answered, looking at his watch impatiently; the way he was dressed I guessed he had a second job as a caddy at Lakeside Golf Club and was going to miss a tee time.

In makeup and costume I was a fearless buffoon, but in my civvies I was still just a pimply teenager who didn’t like confrontation. Holst, on the other hand, relished a showdown. I plucked at his sleeve to indicate we’d better tuck in our tails and beat it, but he was having none of it.

“So you’re not going to make good, eh?” Holst asked ominously.
“Nothing I can do” replied the manager, who then turned his back on us abruptly and went back into his office, right next to the Men’s Room.

“Let’s get outta here” I finally managed to squeak.

Holst waved me aside and walked over to the candy counter. He gazed at the assortment of goodies a moment, then made his order:  2 buckets of buttered popcorn, 2 large Cokes, 2 boxes of Jordan Almonds, 2 boxes of Raisinets, and 2 boxes of Black Crow licorice gum drops. When his order was all arrayed in a cardboard tray he picked it up and walked directly to the exit, without paying.

“Hey!” yelled the girl behind the counter in indignation, “you gotta pay for that stuff!”

“Tell the manager ‘thank you’” said Holst cheerfully as he stepped outside. I hurried after him.

“Quick, Tork, get a cab!” he whispered to me. I hailed a taxi and we skedaddled with our sugary loot before the manager could call the cops on us.

We feasted on our ill-gotten gains all the way back to the arena. I wanted to tell everybody in clown alley about how ‘we’ had showed that blankity-blank theater manager a thing or two, but Holst told me to shut up about it. Once his temper cooled off, he began to regret his hasty larceny. So he made a decision.

As far as I know, he never went to the movies again.

Costume Changing at the Circus.

donfoote

The mad dash to change into a show costume during a performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus during the 1971 season was like nothing else I have ever experienced. A combination of marathon, avalanche, Keystone Kops chase and traffic jam, it would cause a saint to cuss and cause the vilest sinner to repent on their knees. Doing it a dozen times per show was exhausting.

The show costumes were cloth monuments to splendor and bombast. They were designed by Don Foote, who never met an epaulette he didn’t like. Covered in spangles, cloth of gold, rhinestones, feathers, fake fur, tassels, and enough tinsel to decorate the Chrysler Building, each one weighed a good forty pounds. Putting them on was akin to getting into a canvas diving suit, along with the metal helmet.

There were around 25 of us all having to change costumes at the same time, in a space about as big as a grade school cloakroom, with only one attendant to help.  Prince Paul, the evanescent dwarf clown, paid the attendant five dollars a week to help him into and out of his costumes – so that left the rest of us pretty much on our own fiddling with zippers and trying to attach worn-out Velcro.

My first year on the show I had to wear a rabbit costume for Spec. Once entombed in this horror, I began to steam, and smell, like an oyster bar. I could barely see out the mesh covering on my bunny head, and collided with pillars and elephant tubs on a regular basis. My knees were so black and blue that they could have passed for ripe plums.

The costumes were dry cleaned only once during the season, right before we opened at Madison Square Garden in New York City. As the season dragged on the costumes became so ripe that even the flies began to wear gas masks before venturing to buzz into men’s wardrobe. Stiffened with sweat, perfumed with the ether of a thousand ill-digested meals eaten on the run, each piece of wardrobe began to take on certain characteristics of the charnel house.

For the Manage number with the elephants one season we were issued bright orange three-piece suits with rakish orange derbies made of heavy velvet. I had the wardrobe guy sew a long piece of elastic string inside the brim of my derby, and when I was out doing the high kick I would pause, take aim, and throw my hat out into the audience. With screams of delight the kiddies would reach for it, only to groan in disappointment as the derby snapped back to me on its elastic string.

Only the ineffable Otto Griebling was exempt from costume changes. He stoically stumped about in his bedraggled tramp outfit during every production number, surrounded by diaphanous houris-like showgirls who would implore him for a single caress; he answered their impassioned pleas with a contemptuous flick of his filthy bandana.

A few years later I returned to clown alley in a much more exalted position, as advance clown. Steve Smith and I were partnered to travel ahead of the show to appear on television and do shows at schools.  Occasionally we stopped by to see how our fellow buffoons were doing. One evening while we were visiting, during the break between the matinee and evening performance, a wild hair entered our respective wazoos. The alley was empty, and the wardrobe attendant had gone out to get a ham sandwich. Smith and I silently crept into the men’s wardrobe, armed with dozens of balloons. We inserted same into all the sleeves and pant legs of the show costumes and inflated them. Then we sat back to await the fun.

As soon as come-in was over the clowns rushed pell mell into wardrobe and began pushing and shoving each other to get at their costumes to get them on in time to make it to the back door for the start of the Grand March. Meeting with nothing but soft yet unyielding resistance at all turns, our colleagues swung their arms around like windmills and hopped about like sailors at a hornpipe, trying to insert their arms and legs where they had normally always done so with ease in the past. They finally wised up to the fact they had been bushwhacked and began popping the balloons with the ubiquitous pins and needles the wardrobe attendant kept handy.

Once their bewildered grunts turned into the rumblings of a lynch mob Smith and I stole silently away, chuckling in evil delight. In the scheme of things we should have been punished with some bad clown karma for that insouciant peccadillo, but I don’t believe we ever were. We just had a helluva lot of fun that season doing the advance work. With no costume changes . . .

The Rolltop Desk.

roll-top-desk

I love to sit and shuffle papers at my rolltop desk;

It gives a man a feeling of a life lived statuesque.

The cubbyholes are stuffed with odds and ends, and paper clips.

The drawers are full of scissors, staples, and a bag of chips.

 

There’s no room for computers or much other new claptrap;

My rolltop is a refuge (where I bow my head and nap).

I keep a blotter there in case I find my fountain pen,

Which has been missing since the summer days of 2010.

 

When I pull the tambour up, with its dusty scrape,

I’m back into the world of Rolodex and crisp scotch tape.

Rubber stamps and index cards; that’s the life for me.

When I’m at my rolltop desk it’s 1953 . . .

The Barge.

barge

(Inspired by an article by Ron Nixon)

A barge is something so immense to little boys who view

Them from a Mississippi bridge as they pass two by two.

Filled with coal or sand or oil – or cavernous with space,

A barge majestic on the roll of water has spare grace.

 

Before the semi trod upon the asphalt highway lane,

Before the horse-drawn wagon crossed the honeysuckled plain,

The river and its cargo went their solitary way;

Full of mud and thunder on a sultry summer’s day.

 

I could wish to be upon a barge by tugboat prodded;

The envy of the world and by all little boys applauded.

Navigating locks and dams, a Huckleberry Finn –

Baptized daily in the flood and innocent of sin.

Sincerely Yours, Irvin Feld.

Ringling program.

I wish my memory would shut up.

It is not a reliable narrator – either of my past glory, or my past shame.

And it grows less selective and discriminating as time slips by.

I would prefer a Buddhist silence in my head, so I could sit and meditate on the Greatness of the Universe, and the Nothingness of Existence.

But willy-nilly the old experiences creep into my mind as I sit in my cruddy old blue recliner, with the upholstery worn to a whitening nub; so I succumb once again to writing them down for posterity (or “posterior” as Stan Laurel once said).

I’m remembering come-in with Ringling Brothers.  The twenty minute warmup before each show where the clowns went through their paces as the audience straggled in to find their seats and grab something sweet from a passing candy butcher.

Over the years I came up with a number of solo gags to keep myself busy out on the track; the crowds were too distracted to react very much to my shenanigans, so I didn’t feel like going out of my way to entertain them.

On occasion I would simply do some ‘carpet clowning’.  This meant going into the audience and improvising with the people.  I carried a large silk handkerchief, so whenever I spotted a bald man I’d stop to polish his dome and then check my makeup in it.  Good for a titter or two.  Or I’d bring along a peacock feather to tickle someone behind the ear two rows down.  Also good for a chuckle or two.

Then one day my muse kicked in, and I invented the perfect carpet clown routine.  I blew up a large red balloon, ran a bent paperclip through the knot, and attached it to a spring clothespin.

I stealthily attached the clothespin to the coat tail or back of the blouse of passing audience members, and then watched serenely as they would amble on, unaware of the cargo they were now carrying behind them, which would bounce softly up and down on their keister.  People around me, who observed my sly machinations, grew hysterical as they tried to stifle their laughter.

The payoff came when my victim sat down.  BLAM!  They’d pop the balloon.

It’s not often that a man can take such complete satisfaction in his work as I did with that clown gag.  It got so I began to look forward to come-in, instead of kvetching about it like everyone else in clown alley.

The only centipede in the clown white was the constant demand of audience members for me to autograph their circus programs.  I should have been flattered, but instead grew irritated at how often this interrupted my balloon caper.

I tried ignoring these requests, but soon discovered that the popcorn-munching townies didn’t take kindly to that; they had paid their admission price and by golly they wanted their money’s worth – which included my autograph on their program!

But once you sign one autograph you are inundated with a dozen other requests – and there went my chance to stick a balloon on a fat lady’s butt!

I grew so resentful of these interruptions that I began signing the circus programs with the name of the owner of Ringling Brothers – Irvin Feld.  I’d usually write something like “I hope you spend a lot of money here today.  Sincerely yours, Irvin Feld”.

I must have signed his name in hundreds of circus programs.

That would have been back in 1971.  The Blue Unit of Ringling Brothers.  So check your program from that season, all you circus buffs  If you find my counterfeit scribble in it, you’ve got yourself one heck of a collector’s item!

 

 

The Murphy Bed.

murphy

 

On the Ringling Blue Unit train we affectionately called our car “The Iron Lung”.

Not that it wheezed or huffed and puffed or anything.  It was just past its prime, beginning to show those little trifles that indicated old age was comfortably settling in.

For instance, the fan in my roomette worked fine, but the cage around the blades had fallen off or been wrenched off eons ago, so whenever I used it I was taking the chance of a sudden, devastating scalping if I stood up too quickly.

The rug on the floor of my roomette was of an indeterminate color – neither black nor gray nor brown, but a sort of harmonious blend of dusty pastels.  One day I got a free carpet sample that about matched my roomette’s floor dimensions, so during the trip to the next town I pulled up the old carpet – and found myself confronted with a hole that had a bird’s eye view of the passing tracks.  It was not quite big enough for a trap door, unfortunately – since some of my neighbors were beginning to irritate me, and I thought that luring them into my roomette and then plunging them through the hole would be the perfect crime —  so I put down a piece of handy cardboard and then placed the new carpet over it.  But I did notice on windy days that the whole shebang would rise up an inch or so and shiver, like in a séance.

Then there was the bed, the murphy bed.

It lowered out of the wall with complaining creaks like a sliding panel in a B-grade haunted house movie.  The mattress had cradled Neanderthals during the last Ice Age, no doubt, but it was good enough for me – tired as I usually was after a hard day of buffoonery.

I found it very helpful to turn the mattress over once a week.  This involved stepping out of my roomette into the hallway of the train car, so I could get a firm purchase on the mattress and flip it quick so as not to disturb the cockroaches too much.  They needed their sleep, too.

There was a clasp at the top of the murphy bed that was supposed to lock onto a hook in the wall of the roomette, to keep the bed from springing back up into the wall while you were snoozing on it.  But with the passage of time the clasp had inevitably broken, and so when the train was crossing particularly bumpy terrain a night’s sleep became more of a contest on a bucking bronco.  After a night like that, I usually woke up with bow legs.

And my murphy bed had an unfortunate tendency to come undone after I had put it up for the day.

On one particular evening I had one of the showgirls over to my roomette.  I was demonstrating to her how an octopus would perform a half-nelson, when suddenly the murphy bed decided to get in on the act and began to imitate the leaning tower of Pisa.  Since she had been a most willing participant in my demonstration, we found ourselves both pinned under the falling bed, our arms rather tangled up with each other.

But youth is resilient, so we crouched and pushed up with our legs until the invading bed went back into its vertical tomb.

But before I could resume the interrupted demonstration my showgirl pupil decided she had had enough excitement for one evening and decamped, leaving me mumbling curses at my Judas cot.

And then came the night when the spring mechanism that controlled the rising and falling of the murphy bed failed altogether.  It stuck halfway down, so I could neither put it up all the way or bring it down all the way.  I bawled for some help and within minutes a dozen of my stalwart companions from clown alley were at my side.  We all somehow managed to cram on to the bed and force it to come all the way down.  But it never went back up again.  It was locked in the horizontal position, and I spent the rest of the season lying on my back, fuming, during train runs.

That was a number of years ago . . . I wonder who’s stuck with that roomette now?