A Man For All People

I've never seen him before in my life.

I’ve never seen him before in my life.

It was late on the Christmas night of Hubby’s 48th year.  We were all sitting around the dining room table, digesting our dessert.  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, he turned to me and stated, “I know what I want for my 50th birthday.”

I didn’t like the way he said it.  Maybe it was the way he brought it up, apropos to nothing.  It could have been the fact that he was giving me two years’ notice.  Whatever the case, I was instantly suspicious.

“What is it?” I ventured, my eyes narrowing.

“I want a birthday party with everyone I’ve ever met.”  The room fell silent.  We all stared at him, waiting for the punch line.

When he offered no further details, I asked, “Everyone, as in the whole family and your closest friends, everyone?  Or everyone, as in your family, friends and your pre-school crossing guard, everyone?”

“Yes,” he said.

Hubby enjoys ruffling my feathers from time to time, especially when he has an audience.  That night’s spectators included my mother, whose buttons he likes to push even more than mine.  Right on cue, she harrumphed, “Oh, that’s ridiculous!”

“But it’s what I want,” he shrugged, as if he couldn’t help it.  For good measure, he played the sympathy card, “How many 50th birthdays does a guy get?”

I wasn’t taking the bait, “Since I can’t afford to rent Madison Square Garden, what’s your Plan B?”

“There is no Plan B.  This is what I want,” he persisted.

Mom had my back.  “Are you crazy?  I never heard of anything so silly.”

I patted her hand, “He’s just playing with us, Mom.”

“No, I’m not.  And I want it here.  In the house.”

Hubby say what?  In the house?  He bypassed all my lessor warning levels:

DEFCON Green: commenting on dirty dishes in the sink. 

DEFCON Yellow: suggesting I ask my friends for fashion tips.

DEFCON Red: critiquing my cooking.

With an extremist’s indifference to world peace or the preservation of human life, he nonchalantly pushed me to place my nuclear missiles on stand-by.  DEFCON White: Let’s throw a huge party in the house.

Let me explain.  I have a thing about over-stuffing our home with people, especially when booze is involved.  At the risk of sounding obnoxious (I’m just going to put it out there), I have some nice things – antique furnishings, hand-tufted rugs, pricey doodads.  These are things for which I overpaid, but had to have (you can’t put a dollar amount on love, my friends).  These treasures cannot be replaced and there’s nowhere to store them for safekeeping when we have company.

Hubby knows that I experience anxiety when we’re planning big gatherings.  In my defense, allow me to put things in perspective…

At one of our parties, I watched helplessly as a guest balanced a glass, of the reddest red wine, on the arm of my bright yellow, custom upholstered chair.  I nearly fainted.  I only remained upright because I knew the tremor I’d produce, by hitting the floor, would tip the glass.  On another occasion, while cleaning up (and I’ll stay up all night to clean after a party) I discovered that someone had dropped a huge glob of Ooey Gooey Pizza Dip on the dining room floor and tracked it all through the house.  I had to take a Valium.  Another time, somebody placed an opened gallon jug of milk in the refrigerator…on its side!  Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea?

After every bash, I’d begin my litany of rhetorical questions: Was everybody raised in a barn?!  Don’t people have any respect anymore?!  Can’t I have anything nice around here?!  Who’s pants are those hanging from the chandelier?!…

 Without the slightest trace of judgment, Hubby always offered the same matter-of-fact conclusion: “When people drink at parties, they don’t always realize what they’re doing.”  Swell.

So the prospect, of cramming everyone he’d ever met into our house, was more than I could bear.  I was certain an army of plastered revelers would trash the place beyond repair (even though I’d never met his pre-school crossing guard or the guy who sold him his last suit, and didn’t know if they drank).

Seeing the look on my face – something akin to I’m trying to be good-natured about this because it’s Christmas, and I don’t want to kill you in front of the children – he backpedalled a tiny bit, “We can put up a tent in the backyard.”

“Your birthday is in the winter,” I hissed.

“We’ll get those portable heaters,” there was hope in his voice.  “And they have those fancy outhouses that come on a truck and look like real bathrooms.”

He had done research, which meant he was 100% serious.  My systems were “go.”  BLAST-OFF!  “Well you can have your stupid party with everyone you ever met, except for one person!  I!  WILL NOT!  BE THERE!”

Mom dove in, “Why do you have to do this to her?  Do you know what they’ll do to this house?  Do you think this is funny? Who put you up to this?”

He shrugged again, unable to fathom what all the fuss was about, “It’s just what I want.  I am who I am today because of all the people I’ve encountered in my life.  We all touch each other’s lives…everyday…if only in a small way.  It shapes us.”

Now, it was my turn to take a step back.  This was a true statement.  He delivered it with such genuine heartfelt emotion.  So sweet.  So profound.  So ineffective in halting the hives blooming across my torso.

At this point, my sister threw in her two cents, my brothers were laughing and shaking their heads and probably making bets, my father (the smartest person in the room) left the table, my aunt was rolling her eyes and my nephew said he thought it would be awesome.  It was getting loud and heated.  Yet, no one from Hubby’s side of the family said a word.  Why?  Because he’d waited for them to go home before he mentioned this gem of an idea.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

The argument spilled over to breakfast the next morning, the following week, and well into the New Year.  The subject of “the party” would come up regularly.  To our friends and family, it was a running joke.  To me, it was a source of nasty fights and excess stomach acid.

After about 15 months, he finally wore me down.  I just couldn’t take it anymore.  He could have his precious party, but with one caveat: it would not take place at the house, or anywhere near it.  He agreed.

So I began the fool’s errand of planning an impossible-to-plan event.  I went through Hubby’s old yearbooks, date books and calendars.  I asked his friends for leads.  I went to his favorite places and flashed his photograph, asking if anybody knew him.  I always used his bar mitzvah picture (secretly hoping no one would recognize the 13-year-old boy with the slicked down bangs and aviator eyeglasses). “Do you know this guy?” My question was consistently greeted with, “Why? What did he do?”

One day, something shifted in my thinking.  I had become so twisted by the whole idea that I’d overlooked a key detail…I was in the driver’s seat!  I was planning this party.  I would set the parameters.  This was going to make it a whole lot easier…

Rule #1: No ex-girlfriends.

Rule #2: If Hubby hadn’t mentioned a person in the past year, they were off the list.

Rule #3: I would limit the number of guests to 200.

Rule #4:  Every guest had to live within a 25-mile radius (I did not reveal Rules 1-4 to Hubby).

Rule #5:  I refused to invite our former landscaper, whom I fired for digging up my heirloom dahlias and hollyhocks, because he thought they were weeds.  A landscaper can’t tell the difference?  Do not even get me started!

“The party” was still a crazy idea, but it was becoming a lot more manageable.

With less than a week to go, I was running around town, finishing up last-minute errands.  My first stop was at the dry cleaner.  When I walked in, Mr. Kang avoided my gaze.  “What’s going on?” I asked.

“I’m really sorry, but I can’t make the party.  My wife says I can’t go to any parties without her.”

My plan was working.  The directive was to invite everyone Hubby had ever met.  Since he’d never met our dry cleaner’s wife, I could not invite her.  Bwahaha!  Evil, I know.

My next stop, the drugstore for wrapping paper.  As I approached the counter to pay, Stephanie P. (the checkout girl) apologized for having to cancel.  “I’m really sorry, but I can’t make the party.  I decided to start the Master Cleanse this weekend.”

In the land of lame excuses, I’ve noticed this one picking up steam recently, outranking “that’s my poker night” by a wide margin.  But I didn’t care.  The herd was thinning.

The service station was next on my list.  As I stepped from my car to gas ‘er up, the attendant, Mr. Aliakbalahar approached me.  He hung his head low and whispered, “I cannot come to the party.  And by the way, you misspelled my name on the invitation.”

And another one gone.  And another one gone.  Another one bites the dust!

At this point, you might think I’m sounding pretty horrible.  But the truth is, I’m no Warren Buffet and cannot afford to throw lavish parties for large sums of virtual strangers.  Also, how could Hubby possibly enjoy anyone’s company when surrounded by that many people?  Wouldn’t quantity cancel out quality?  Would his memories of his 50th be anything beyond a blur of unfamiliar faces?

So as my “fringe” guests started dropping like flies, I held hope that I could still throw a great shindig without breaking the bank or completely overwhelming the birthday boy.  And that’s exactly how it played out.

Instead of a room packed with people who touched his life by schmearing his bagel or rotating his tires, Hubby actually knew every one of the 60 attendees.  More importantly, everyone knew him.  Nobody felt obliged to be there, or showed up only for free pigs-in-a-blanket (classy, no?).  What did Hubby come to realize that night?  We were all there because we love him.  When all is said and done, isn’t that really the best present a guy could get on his 50th birthday?  Hubby thought so, too.

Mine Eyes Have Seen The Gaudy

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History’s smallest parade. The kid on the left (me) is a firecracker, not a tomato.

Whenever the Fourth of July rolls around, I start reminiscing about 1976.  It was, of course, the 200th anniversary of our nation’s sovereignty.  For the year leading up to it, our collective American consciousness was obsessed with all things Bicentennial.

As the world’s leaders in conspicuous consumption, what better way for Americans to mark such an auspicious occasion than through the manufacture and sale of kitschy knickknacks?  Who could forget the homage paid to our founding fathers by the Old Spice company and their Bicentennial Commemorative Coin series?  No?  These were 6-ounce after-shave decanters, shaped like coins, bearing the likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Paul Jones.  How Jones got the nod, over Samuel Adams, is anybody’s guess.

Kids had Bicentennial lunch boxes, key chains, and playing cards.  They decked out their bikes with red, white and blue plastic streamers and metallic star-spangled banana seats.  Moms bought decorative Bicentennial plates, tablecloths, glassware, planters, cupcakes, stamps, tampons, Betsy Ross sewing pins, jewelry boxes, towels, Dixie cups, and anything churned out by the Franklin Mint (of which there was plenty).  All these wonderful novelties could be paid for with the exciting and new Bicentennial currency.  You had your choice of Bicentennial quarters, half-dollars, silver dollars and, everybody’s favorite, the idiotic two-dollar bill.

In addition to all the collectables, there were lots of Bicentennial events.  One, in particular, stands apart.  It involves a calamitous spectacle, put on by my high school’s most talented performers.  The band (of which I was a member), the theater department, and the choir were invited to the state’s capital to present a Revolutionary-themed concert.  It was quite an honor and I remember we practiced for weeks.  Our singers and actors were dressed in homemade 1776-era getups.  The girls wore long calico dresses with bonnets and shawls.  The boys wore wool vests, coats and knickers (those American Revolutionaries really bundled up).  Since nobody ever pays attention to the band (unless we’re talking Rolling Stones) we were allowed to wear our regular school clothes.

The presentation incorporated Revolutionary music interspersed with narratives, read dramatically by the theater hams students.  The thing I remember most about that day was the heat.  It was about seven million degrees hotter than the inside of a dragon’s belly.  Don’t doubt me.

During our production – between Yankee Doodle and the Battle Hymn of the Republic – one of our actors was dramatizing the skills of a minuteman.  He mimed the loading, aiming and firing of his musket.  Our drummer, Bobby, was supposed to hit a rim shot at the same time that our actor was “firing” his gun.  Bobby executed it perfectly (he was very professional for a 15-year-old).  At that precise moment, one of the boys from the choir, overcome by the heat and his Benjamin Franklin costume, keeled over and fell face-first onto the floor.  The only thing that saved him from a broken nose was his tri-corner hat and Polyfill beer gut.

The audience erupted with wild applause.  They whooped and hooted.  What showmanship!  Slowly, however, it dawned on them that this was not part of the program, but rather a “situation.”  You’d think they’d have been tipped off by the fact that Ben Franklin’s impromptu assassination, by a minuteman, was not historically accurate.  Sometimes people just get caught up in the moment, I guess.  Or maybe they weren’t history buffs.

Anyway, the worst was yet to come.  Teenagers are very susceptible to suggestion, nerves, and, in this case, dragon-belly heat.  The sight of that one kid, splayed out on the floor, set off a chain reaction.  Other choir members started passing out left and right.  Our long-suffering conductor, Mr. Scaine, put down his baton, calmly approached the microphone and announced that there would be a brief intermission (he was every bit as professional as Bobby).

No one was seriously injured, but the remainder of our show was a wounded turkey.  By the time the concert resumed, we were all paranoid about another fainting epidemic.  We played our instruments tentatively, so as not to jar the more delicate members of our ensemble.  Our poor audience looked like anxious captives – they clearly wanted out, but decorum prevented them from leaving.  And rather than being performed with the gusto it deserves, our Battle Hymn of the Republic limped to a lackluster finale.  After the trauma and embarrassment of the morning, the only thing worth a hallelujah would be the glory of getting back on the bus and returning to school.  Thank god nobody had camera phones in 1976.

RIGHTEOUS!

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Many people of the cloth speak of the “calling” which led them to religious service.  My friend, Jane, was a New Jersey housewife (a real one, not a Real one), when she got the call.  Now Jane is a Vicar, enrolled in an intensive four-year program to become a Lutheran minister.  A relative of my husband’s got the call after being laid off from a high-level corporate finance position.  He joined a seminary and, after four years of rigorous study, lives as a practicing minister in Long Island.

I was watching a particularly raunchy episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm when I got the call.  It was my cousin and her fiancé, calling to say they were getting married.  They wondered if I’d be willing to become ordained and officiate at their wedding in Manhattan.  What fun! You bet!  “I’ll start the process right away,” I told them.

So I sat down at my computer to begin the steps necessary for acquiring my point-and-click investiture.  I Googled, “I want to be ordained online.”  The first website that came up seemed sufficient, and I’m lazy, so….  According to the website, an ordination through their church would qualify me to marry people in New York, as long as I registered with the New York State Bureau of Licensing.

I went through the prompts and started adding things to my virtual shopping cart.  Did I want the title “Doctor of Divinity” which included a printable degree?  Yes.  Did I want the small black book containing prayers and various ceremonies, such as weddings and baptisms?  Billed as a $45 value, it could be mine for the low, low price of just $19.99, plus shipping and handling.  Yes.   Did I want the printable parking permit, stating I was on official ministry business?  This would allow me to park anywhere.  Any where.  Are you kidding me? That would be a ‘yes.’  Did I want the printable proclamation authenticating me as a saint?  Hell, yes!

With my ordination bundle complete, I checked out and printed my PhD and saint certificate (which, as advertised, were suitable for framing).  I signed my parking permit and set it aside to be laminated.  Time spent?  Four minutes.  Who needs four years?

It’s amazing what having these documents did to me.  Like balm for my soul, the saint certificate assured me that the key to the pearly gates awaits me, already tucked under my eternal pillow.  I’m a shoe-in.  The degree stoked my ego.  I was now a doctor.  A doctor!  Oh, the respect I would command with that title.  And the parking permit?  Well, only the rare and extremely privileged individual has that kind of omnipotence.

These exciting revelations were followed by heady daydreams.  There I was, standing on a windswept mountaintop…at sunset…resplendent robes a flowin’.  I would gather people together to witness the unions of hundreds of happy couples.   And I would charge $300 a pop for 20 minutes of my time, plus gas and tolls.  What joy!

The next morning, I stopped at Kinkos, laminated the permit, and headed for the licensing bureau in downtown Manhattan.  I parked, tossed my permit on the dashboard and sashayed right past the muni meter. Dr. Anita Rosner parks for free!  Mm hmm. Take that, Mayor Bloomberg.

When I arrived at the bureau, the line at the only open window was about 30-people deep.  Other folks were off to the side, filling out forms.  Everybody was waiting in pairs – one person to hold the spot in line, the other person to keep the parking meter fed.  Suckers!

Being prepared, I had printed out the forms the night before and already completed them.  When my turn came, I presented the clerk, Ms. Waters, with my documents.

“I’m here for my license to perform marriages in New York.” There may have been an exaggerated note of gravitas in my voice.  I’m not sure.

Ms. Waters looked over the forms.  “I can give you a license for New York State, but not New York City.”

Uh-oh.  “Why not New York City?”

She pointed to the website listed on my credentials.  “We don’t recognize this church in New York City,” she casually replied.  To make matters worse, she mispronounced recognize as “REK-a-nize,” which is a major pet peeve of mine. When my daughter and her friends do it, I go insane!  But that’s a story for another time.

Sacrilege!  Her rebuff felt like a slap.  But I’ve dealt with enough pencil pushers in my day to be prepared for this.  I had preemptively tucked some bribe money in the front pocket of my conservative, yet chic, Coldwater Creek trousers.  Doctors aren’t stupid, you know.

I carefully slid the bill across the counter, so as not to be observed by anyone else but Ms. Waters.  “Perhaps you REK-uhg-nahyz this PREZ-i-duhnt,” I whispered, as I gave her a sly wink.

She openly picked up the bill, looked at it, slapped it back down on the counter and shoved it toward me.  “Ma’am,” she sighed, “I think everybody REK-a-nizes George Washington.  Now step aside.  You’re holding up the line.”

“That’s hardly any way to speak to a reverend,” I grumbled, as I stuffed the documents and dollar into my purse.

With my head held high, I marched indignantly from the bureau.  How dare they!  What chutzpah!  This threw a major wrench in the plans.  I would not be able to marry my cousin and her fiancé after all.

To add insult to injury, when I returned to my car, I discovered a $115 parking ticket stuck under my windshield wiper.  Someone had drawn on it…a picture of a smiley face wearing a halo and wings, followed by the words, “Ha! Ha!”  As if possessed, I snarled out some very un-saintly expletives, got in my car and drove home.

That night, I said “special prayers” for New York City, the jackass who drew on my ticket and the blasphemous Ms. Waters.  Amen.