The Christmas Spitz Junior Portable Universe Transporter

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Here’s a vivid Christmas memory. Hope it takes you back…

When I was a young one just trying to absorb the fact that I’d never be a Babe Ruth or an Albert Einstein or an Edgar Allan Poe or a Gregory Peck, I received for Christmas, sitting there just beyond reach of the carnival-decorated gaudy fir tree, a SPITZ JUNIOR PLANETARIUM, manufactured by HARMONIC REED CORPORATION OF ROSEMONT, PENNA.

It was a most special Christmas gift.

Just looking at it now, in my mind’s eye, it has remained crystal-clear all these many years: a shiny black flexible-plastic globe bifurcated by a yellow rubber equatorial flange that represents the stellar ecliptic and incidentally holds the two half-spheres together. The black globe sits atop a white plastic observatory-shaped base, and the whole thing can be rotated round and round as well as moved up and down to simulate all the naked-eye observable movements of the stars.

To appreciate the planetarium, you had to take it into a pitch-dark, preferably cube-shaped room and slowly turn up the rheostat just above the off-on switch on the front of the base. If you did it just right and just slowly enough, you would suddenly feel yourself transported to the middle of a darkened field in the middle of the night in the middle of the planet in the middle of the universe because, all around you, there would suddenly appear stars in exactly the same positions, the same configurations, as they would appear if you actually were in the middle of a darkened field in the middle of the night in the middle of…etc.

Even if you couldn’t go outside to see the stars, even if it was cloudy and raining, even if you had just come indoors from the humid sunshine, you could still go into that darkened room and be somewhere else in time and space and feel all alone in a crowd of billions of others whose names you did not know.

One day way back when, my sister Rosi got my SPITZ JUNIOR PLANETARIUM out of storage and presented it to me and I took it home and now I sleep again in the middle of a darkened field in the middle of the night in the middle…

Whenever the demon insomnia causes my eyes to flicker open, I can see the old familiar stars keeping me silent company and reminding me that they will always be there and that any problems that seem gargantuan now are minuscule compared to the distant silent coolness and the close-up noisy fury of those suns upon suns upon suns out there. The mathematics and physics of astronomy escaped me early on, but the sheer personal poetry of the tiny points of light so large and so far away still affects me and still makes me remember what it was like to be a small boy and open an incredible shiny gift that pure and lonely Christmas so many eons ago in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed

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‘Tis the Season of the Parallel Parked Panhandler

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I’m manuevering between faded parallel stripes, sliding into a familiar parking place at Five Points South, but there’s something already parked there.

It’s nighttime, and the lump of clothing isn’t covered in reflective tape, so it would be easy to run over it before the thinking process kicks in.

I pause just short of filling the entire space, to see what’s what.

Lying full-length in the parking space is a man of darkness—dark clothing, dark beard, dark skin, dark asphalt, darkened night. He’s conscious. I know that because he’s leisurely smoking a cigarette, gazing up at the sky, head propped upon belongings, oblivious to the rhythms of the city surrounding him.

The uninitiated driver (me) might panic, might call 911 to report a vagrant, might call the cops to alert them to the possibility that this man is subject to being run over, might call the Jimmy Hale Mission (but what would they do?), might walk over and make a donation to the causeless cause, might pull back and park elsewhere (thus leaving the man once again vulnerable to the urban nighttime), might mind his own business and get on with his errand.

I can attempt to justify a dozen different actions, but most of them seem judgmental, most of them would entail behaving with incomplete data.

Does this man report me for almost running over him? Does he give me a lecture about invading his space? Does he ask anything of me, save his silent plea to leave him alone? Is he better off in his small universe than I am in mine? Am I the true vagrant—feasting off the images of people different from myself in order to write a story such as this?

Can’t stop my brain.

The better part of valor is to remember him kindly, appreciate what I have in my life, hope that he’s happier living without my imposed opinions, hope that he finishes his satisfying smoke, picks up his portable life, and saunters off to the next shelter—and finds some warmth and quiet within this nervous and nosy metropolis

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed

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So exactly who are those outside agitators we used to mutter about so much Down South and here in the Big City?

Back in the bad ol’ days, it was usually anybody who stirred our emotions by bringing unpopular ideas to town—ideas sometimes contained in carpetbags. These agitators were referred to in the context of being troublemakers…but in the long run, their actions and ideas often gave us hope.

Mainly, those folks were our Avatars—they could say and do things we could never say and do, since we lived here, were rooted here. The agitators were able to do their magic, then get the heck out of Dodge before the criticism started. If we agreed with what they did, we didn’t have to take ownership until it was safe…we could just say, well, it was their idea—don’t look at me!

That was then. This is now.

Anyhow, these days, outside agitators are often toting messages of hope to the town. Their presence isn’t as resented as in the past.

I guess if you have a permanent residence here, you can’t be called an outside agitator.

That means the following are just some of the folks who can be considered outside agitators:

Visitors, layovers, business trippers, vendors, employees who go home to the ‘burbs each night, conventioneers, tourists (both accidental and purposeful), guests, temporary residents, consultants, jurors, events-goers, passers-through, flyovers, fugitives from justice, fugitives from injustice, aliens (documented, undocumented or other-worldly), patients, traveling salespeople, transients, escapees, performers, temps… Who did I leave out?

Most of these outsiders know more about Birmingham than you and I do.

These outsiders (i.e., agitators, strangers, Yankees, interlopers…whatever we decide to call them) are more willing than we are to explore and spend money here, and they don’t know the “bad” things we locals have been taught about the City. They see us fresh, and they teach us much about what is good about Birmingham—when we pay attention.

We in turn can show them us at our best.

They usually go away before we have time to point out our fissures and flaws.

These Others can bring out the best in us and let us see ourselves anew.

They are truly outside agitators, the people who come to town and shake us up and get us all excited and hopeful, then leave before we revert to our old habits and start punishing them for their good deeds

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed

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Listen here:  jimbobaggypants.mp3  or read on…


Elmo Riley calls me Jimbo, and I call him Bo. We don’t know why.

Tex Ritter’s next cowboy action film is being previewed on the patched screen of the ratty Ritz Theatre in Downtown Tuscaloosa. Tex is firing both pistols at the bad guys while backing toward his trusty steed. Suddenly, he twists in the air, is astride in a split second, and gallops away to safety. “See it at a theatre near you!” the excited, dulcet voice of the announcer shouts, which is what my pal Bo Riley and I firmly intend to do this time next Saturday. Meanwhile, it’s time to splurge our two nickels for some popcorn and soft drink, before the chapter starts, the chapter being an episode of an extended serial, featuring Batman and his pal, Robin, the Boy Wonder.

While a preview of one of those disgustingly smoochy Barbara Stanwyck romance movies is running, we both run to the shabby concession stand, lay down our coins, grab some grub and rush back to the torn and rickety seats.

Scrunching down in anticipation of unknown horrors and victories to come, we brace ourselves to see whether our heroes will survive diabolical schemes of the villains of the day.

Back then, the Batmobile is just a black Ford, but we don’t know any better. We don’t know about high-tech and million-dollar movie prop design. Low-budget Batman and Robin are all we have. But one thing Batman possesses that surpasses all the low- and high-tech gadgets you could possibly imagine, is…the utility belt! Inside that thick black leather belt is anything you could ever need to escape an impossible situation.

In one tense episode, Batman and Robin are thrown into a jail cell while the criminals make their get-away. The cell is solidly built and the situation seems hopeless. Suddenly, Batman remembers that his utility belt holds the solution to any problem. He whips out a blowtorch, lights it up with a batmatch, and handily cuts the bars, long before anybody dreams up a batlaser or an atomic-ray knife. The day is saved!

We hardly remember the bus ride home, because we are re-playing the serial scenes in our minds—long before instant replay and slo-mo are invented.

Back in the day, small movie fans still play in yards, unaware of the eventual onslaught of videos and television and ipods and texting and a dozen other indoor distractions. The yards are made for play and adventure, and they become whatever we desire—today, simply an outdoor batcave where we can come up with a slew of gadgets like Batman would use.

Taping together some old belt and suspender parts, I dye them black with liquid shoe polish, fashion a bat insignia out of felt, glue it over a buckle, staple some cloth pockets to the inside of the makeshift belt, then look around for emergency tools with which to stuff them.

Let’s see…what would come in handy for Batman? A small pocket knife (who doesn’t need one on hand?), a tiny file (can’t find a blowtorch), nail clippers (might need to snip my way out of a gypsy’s burlap bag), matches (for warming my hands during an arctic escapade), three quarters (could use them to bribe a henchman), two bandages (wound prevention), a small slingshot (silent weapons are always in vogue), four marbles (could throw them behind me while being chased by buffoons who would in all likelihood slip on them), and so on and so forth.

Pretty soon, that utility belt is loaded, my pants are becoming baggy and weighted down, and I’m beginning to lope along like a wounded buffalo. But I’m prepared!

Within minutes, I learn the pitfalls of wearing a utility belt. When under threat, you need to remember exactly where you placed the needed tool…not only that, you have to whip it out before the bad guys can overwhelm you!

It just doesn’t work. You feel like a jerk, asking the desperadoes to hold on while you draw your weapon. You wind up abandoning the project in order to keep your playmates from rolling on the lawn, laughing.

It’s enough to make you retreat back into your solitary books and movies, where you can always find what you need in that utility belt…because fulfilling your fantasy does not require reality.

I can lick any bully on the playground, as long as it happens inside my head. This does become a somewhat effective strategy…the bullies are puzzled because I seem so confident and because they don’t know why  I have that quiet smile on my face—maybe they’re afraid I have a secret plan that might make them laughingstocks. Better leave the dreaming nerd kid alone and go pick on someone who seems afraid and clueless.

Jimbo Baggypants once again saves the day

(c) 2012 A.D. by Jim Reed

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