Macy’s Ghost Clerks Invade the Aching Feet Treatment Center

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Macy’s Ghost Clerks Invade the Aching Feet Treatment Center

I used to be an unreconstructed creature of habit, but now that I am of a certain advanced age, a new realization has come upon me.

Now my habits have habits.

And speaking of habits, even the clothes I don each day look something like nuns’ habits—-dark blazer over dark shirt above dark trousers anchored by dark shoes. I don’t have a particularly wise and witty reason for wearing black all the time. It just seems easier to match everything, easier to minimize my blobby girth. I don’t have to expend energy and time figuring out what I will wear today.

Anyhow, eventually even I—the guy who pays no attention to clothing—realize that my jacket is looking frayed and feeling poorly. So I make the long-dreaded trek to Macy’s to see whether the chain still carries a clone of the coat I’ve worn to a frazzle.

My fantasy is simple: I won’t even have to try on anything. I’ll just walk briskly to the Men’s Department, show the lining label to a clerk, and say, “I’d like to order two more of these, please.”

But you know and I know that nothing is ever as simple as it is. Everything is more complicated than it is. Everything costs more than it does.

I enter Macy’s and suddenly feel as if I’m in a haunted-house movie. Well-dressed clerks are scattered about, each maintaining a post in a specific department, each customerless, each staring straight ahead with pleasantness frozen on their faces just in case a supervisor wanders by for a pleasant-expression inspection.

What daydreams may come to these clerks, what soreness of foot and aching of back syndromes do they endure?

After a lifetime of encountering clerks from every walk of life, after decades of chatting with them and listening carefully to what they say aloud to one another, I have learned this: No matter how pleasant or dismissive or distracted they look, each one is glancing at the clock in anticipation of the next recess, the lunch break, the shift-ending hour. Each is hoping to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

The male clerk destined to assist me is pleasant, business-like, and robotic. I’ve never yet had a salesperson say, “Gee, that looks like crap on you. Don’t buy it—people will laugh.”

The clerk knows this silent truth, I know this to be so, thus I have to make my own judgement about whether I should purchase this jacket or that jacket. I’m always fortunate when Liz is able to accompany me and provide some feedback. Left up to me, I would buy the first thing I see (and I often do that), just to escape Robotics Land.

I make a selection, in the process learning that men’s clothing departments no longer offer alterations. I have to take my three-inches-too-long-sleeved blazer to another store that specializes in tailoring. The entire process takes an hour, not counting the return visit I will make to pick up the altered item.

See? As Liz Reed always says, “Everything takes longer than it does.”

In my 3 a.m. wide-awake insomniac meanderings, I add to my TO DO LIST: Send each Macy’s clerk a gift packet containing Epsom Salts, dark chocolate, aspirin and a thank-you note reading, “Be of good cheer. We’ve all been there, and you will get through this.”

The clerks won’t know what the heck that means, but at least I’ll feel better

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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Mario Lanza Almost Live and in Person

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I found this twenty-year-old entry in my Red Clay Diary. Though it happened long, long ago, it feels like yesterday. And it helps me recall my Mom, and a good adventure I had with my brother, Tim.


Somewhere deep in the bowels of the city of Philadelphia, on the second floor—or is it the third?—of a music school, reside the paper-and-cloth remnants of a pre-Pavarotti superstar, a man who died in 1959, still remembered by a few aging fans who celebrate his Philadelphia-ness each year.

I am here with my brother, Tim, who is busy showing his whimsical art at an enormous civic-center show. I take a break to have an adventure in a town I know little about.

The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, I learn, is listed as a tourist attraction by Triple-A and, of course, this is the natural place I want to visit first if I ever get to Philadelphia.

This kind of attraction appeals to me most…the dusty little out-of-the-way corners of the nation that are ignored by crowds waiting to get into the Benjamin Franklin Institute or who drive 90 miles to see the home of Edgar Allan Poe. Besides, my mother is a  longtime fan of Lanza, so I think it will be a great gesture to bring her a souvenir or two from the Institute.

The Angolan cab driver has no idea how to get me to the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, so we have to stop several places—at my expense—to ask various uninformed and usually indifferent citizens for directions. We finally find a woman, standing in front of a theatre, whose child has actually attended the music school and who thus provides directions for me—certainly not directions for the cab driver, who has no idea where anything is and whose wife was trying to get through nursing school so he won’t have to spend the rest of his life driving through a city he fears (“No cabdriver wants to drive after 5 o’clock in this town.”).

 So, after scrunching up our shoulders to make it through the narrow streets, I at last tell the lost driver to just let me out. He does, and I find myself in an alien land—shabby,  overcrowded and oversqueezed buildings, trash in the streets and loiterers eyeing passersby with thirsty curiosity.

Just can’t figure out where I am, so I enter a teeming neighborhood laundry to ask the Chinese owner for directions. He can’t understand anything I say, and the hangers-out in the establishment are beginning to crowd uncomfortably close to me, the bearded London-Fog-overcoated bald guy who just doesn’t seem to come from these parts. One rather large, sullen man looms over me, staring.

From behind, someone taps me roughly on the shoulder. I freeze, hoping the contact is accidental. The tapping continues, and I turn to find the smiling face of a woman who speaks English and actually knows where the Mario Lanza Institute is.

Just a block away, behind high metal fences, stands an aged building with high ceilings and run-down plaster-walled offices. Inside, even though I call ahead to make sure the Museum is open, nobody can tell me how to get upstairs to see the Museum (“The elevator can be operated only by key–and you’ll have to talk to the people in the office.”). The people in the office are tied up with personal phone calls, so I stick my head into a side office, interrupting the casual chatter of two denizens, who send me back to the desk I’ve just come from.

 ”Here, I’ll let you on the elevator with my key,” a grizzled, limping elderly man smiles. He leads me down a narrow hallway to a stale-smelling tiny elevator and sends me on my way, alone and claustrophobic, to the floor where I might find Mario Lanza’s scraps and pieces, if I am lucky.

Once the door clangs open, I am inside another narrow corridor which leads eventually to a high-ceilinged dimly-lit hallway on the walls of which Mario Lanza himself PR-grins himself silly for visitors and photographers around the world.

There are yellowed newspaper clippings, a framed letter to Mario from Jack Warner, another from Sammy Cahn, a Mario Lanza dinner jacket with the faint yellowing you associate with rental outfits (his arms were incredibly short, it seems), various audiocassette tapes comparing Lanza to Caruso, tabloid papers reporting on the annual Mario Lanza Festival, dingy scrapbooks and press-clipping binders available for Lanzaphile research, a sample copy of a book about Lanza (“We’re out of these, so we can’t sell this copy,” the bored clerk who staffs the Institute says.) and various fan club materials on the cracked-plaster walls of one small room.

And that is it.

The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum is about to close in the middle of the afternoon, and I am the third and final person to sign the guest book this day. I purchase a cassette for my Mother, pick up a few freebie photocopies and pamphlets for her, and make my way downstairs to the main door, dodging young musicians and their parents.

Outside in the cold winter air, I cannot find a cab, but two tourists do stop to ask me for directions. I wander toward what is called the Italian Market, smelling wonderful cooked-sausage and pasta fragrances, and trying to look as if I know what I am doing in this strange and unclean neighborhood, trying to look as if I can handle myself.

Finally, a cabdriver idling his GM car in front of a small store says he will take me back to the Philadelphia Civic Center as soon as his mate is through shopping. His wife, a petite and polite woman, chats with me a bit as we drive through the incredibly narrow streets of another planet and head toward someplace I can call familiar in this best and worst of all possible cities where once a tenor spent some time making fans of people who are beginning now to forget both him and the hopefulness that once welled from within his lungs…a hopefulness that thrilled my mom and a million other moms whose lives in the late-1940′s and early-50′s were so much harder but so much purer then

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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You Load Sixteen Quarters and What Do You Get?

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The Sixteen-Quarter Two-Hour Beautiful Historic

Downtown Birmingham Shopping Spree

Through the window of my wonderful old bookshop, I can see the city streets, the city buildings, the city people, and the city Shopper Zappers.

They are all there for my viewing pleasure each day, these historic structures, these diverse and fascinating people. The privilege of watching day to day history unfold before me is one of the reasons I love this old city.

But watching the Shopper Zappers operate is akin to watching a zombie movie—each visitor to our neighborhood is stalked by these annoying and off-putting mechanisms that are designed to kill all traces of goodwill and good humor in folks who otherwise are trying to have a nice experience during their time here.

The Shopper Zappers—otherwise known as Parking Meters—are designed to give each shopper a bitter taste, a lingering impression that the City does not welcome nor encourage Downtown shopping.

Just join me at the window and let’s see what happens:

An elderly couple emerges from their carefully parked vehicle, glancing around at the fun they are planning to have—a visit to Reed Books and Sojourns gift shop and the Goodyear Shoe Hospital. The driver approaches the parking meter, digs into his pocket for a couple of quarters, and deposits the first one. Then he does a visible double-take when a mere eight minutes registers in the little meter window. Thinking the meter is broken and did not record his quarter, he deposits another. Now he knows he’s in trouble, because he sees that he has only 15 minutes to do all his shopping and sightseeing.

Now the driver has several options. He can try parking in another space that might have a working meter, he can keep putting quarters in the slot till it reads two hours, or he can become upset and drive away, vowing never to return to this apparently cold and ruthless place.

In this instance, the visitor stays calm, knowing that his wife has been planning a visit to the City for some time. While she waits beside the car, he enters the shop and asks whether I can give him a dollar’s worth of quarters for the meter in exchange for a dollar bill. Of course I can, but I know from my experience with dozens of other customers that he has not done the math. In order to put two hours on the meter, he is going to need 16 quarters—and who carries 16 quarters around at all times?

I make the same decision I have been making each day for weeks: I hand him a big handful of quarters and tell him to fill the meter. In other words, I will pay this man to park and visit my street and my shop.

He wonders why I would do such a thing.

I want these customers to leave Birmingham feeling that somebody really cares whether they shop Downtown. I want them to know that Birmingham is much more than the mere City Bureaucracy that extracts penalties and fees while discouraging all visitors from returning.

I want them to feel welcome in Birmingham.

So, periodically, I stroll to the corner of Richard Arrington and 3rd Avenue North and pick up more rolls of quarters from the friendly bankers at Iberia. They spend a lot of time doling out quarters to other merchants and professionals who, like me, are trying to counteract the ill will that these prohibitive and punitive Shopper Zappers exude.

Yep, it’s come down to this.

I pay people to come to my shop. I pay people to tour and visit and appreciate the City.

And I pay people to return home with the knowledge that we merchants and professionals care about them, that we are quite different from the Shopper Zappers and their attendants who seem invisible and insensitive to what it takes to promote a really fine and beautiful historic Downtown Birmingham, Alabama.

Y’all come to Reed Books and grab some quarters

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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Improbably Erratic Adventures of the Light Bulb Thief

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Improbably Erratic Adventures of the Light Bulb Thief

The tiny 60-year-old flashlight bulb has never burned out. It still powers the Spitz Junior planetarium that splatters stars and constellations across my bedroom ceiling and walls, thus allowing me to sleep under a nighttime sky sans mosquitoes and unpredictable temperatures.

My nights are star-filled and constant, even though life itself is erratic.

One of the mysteries of day to day existence is, why do some bulbs burn interminably, while others flash and fail?

This meandering path to the need for artificial illumination causes millions of us to become light bulb thieves.

I’m cozying up with a late-night book abed, preparing to read myself aslumber. One flick of the bedside lamp switch sidetracks the evening. The bulb stops working. There are choices to be made. I can arise from my comfy pillows, don shoes and clothing, and wend my way downstairs to Liz’s studio, where reside light bulbs galore. I can pore through dozens of multi-sized multi-watted Edison rejects for just the right bulb—and risk not finding anything at all, thus disrupting my submersion into the nighttime literary daze—or I can quickly barefoot it to the next room and sneak a bulb from another lamp. Wonder which option I will choose?

Payback. There is always payback. Two nights later, I’m sitting down to read the paper. I reach to turn on the chairside switch, and nothing happens. This is, of course, because there is no light bulb in the lamp. It’s in the bedroom.

Decisions, decisions.

After several weeks of rotating and snitching light bulbs, there comes a day of reckoning. I really will have to make a cranky effort to bring fresh light bulbs into my life, else adjust to perpetual darkness.

Now, to gird my loins and get on with it

© Jim Reed 2015 A.D.

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