CAUTION AT THE AUCTION

I get discombobulated at auctions. With all the shouts and arm waving of dueling bidders and the “Going, going!” warnings of the auctioneers, my adrenalin gushes and I forget to stay quiet and motionless because, to paraphrase an old song, “Every little movement has a meaning all its own to an auctioneer.”

At my very first auction I was anxiously bidding on a chipped soup tureen determined to outdistance the other bidder when a kindly old lady pointed out that the “other bidder” was me.

Once at an outdoor auction I was swatting attacking yellow jackets not realizing I was in a bidding war with two other guys until I heard, “Sold to the wildly waving gentlemen for one hundred dollars!” The abstract painting is still hanging in the back of my closet. It might be upside down. I don’t know for sure.

I realized I had to quit cold turkey or sit through auctions with my hands in my pockets and wearing dark sunglasses. Even a significant blink at the wrong moment can cost you big bucks.

Then one fateful day my editor shouted, “Newman, I want you to cover a really interesting auction today.” I was in shock. My hands will be out of my pockets, busy taking notes!

It actually was a very interesting auction. Someone was parting with his World War II B-25 bomber, the same model Jimmy Doolittle and his small squadron flew to bomb the Japanese homeland in 1942 to avenge the Pearl Harbor attack. The MGM movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” was a dramatization of the raid.

Some of the bidders were Air Force vets and so was I. Some had fond memories of flying in B-25 bombers and, Lord help me, so did I. As a rookie in 1949 I’d hitched rides on the bomber to get home on leave quickly and cheaply .

I interviewed the handful of prospective bidders, trying to keep my reporter’s distance. One man said he had fond memories of flying in the twin-engine bomber including a low level flight over downtown Boston with one engine on fire. I’m sure this didn’t become a fond memory until a day or so after the safe landing.

Another man, a pilot, said he’d like to plant the bomber on his farm so he and his buddies could hang out in it, a really dramatic clubhouse. I thought I’d like to join that club if he was the low bidder.

A Morristown N.J. man, planning to open a hobby shop, envisioned the Billy Mitchell bomber as a great attraction, seemingly poised for takeoff in front of his future shop.

The auctioneer began. “This is an as-is sale.” ( That’s where you get the real bargains, I thought.) “There are no guarantees.” (Who needs a guarantee? What pitfalls are there to owning a neat B-25 bomber? Well maybe some fussy zoning board rules, but there must be some place a guy can store it for occasional visits, to sit at the controls making engine noises and pilot-to-tail gunner commands.) I was beginning to forget about my serious addiction.

When the $1,100 minimum price was announced, I wrecklessly took my hands out of my pockets to count on my fingers. I thought, if I cut lunches and gave up bowling for two or three years…….

“I’ll take it at $1,100” was shouted. My goodness, was that me? How will I ever explain to my wife I’ve bought a ten-ton bomber? She’s very understanding, but there’s a limit. Someone was shaking the hobby shop guy’s hand. He must have bought the bomber. What a relief!

Returning to my reporter’s role, I asked, “Where will your hobby shop be? I was thinking of hobbies I might adopt as an excuse for B-25 visits. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “I have to find a town that will allow the plane on commercial property near a major highway.”

That was 46 years ago. I never heard tell of the bomber again. It was probably downed by township ordinance flak.

THE INFLUENCE OF AFFLUENCE

Money talks and we all listen. There is a certain attractive aura around a wealthy person that engenders respect, admiration and, if he plays his cards right, groveling.

Money is one of the main ingredients of power and power must be catered to. There is also the mistaken belief that a very rich person might give away a few handfuls of cash occasionally or at least remember favorite grovelers in his last will and testament.

It’s possible for us underdogs to get temporary VIP treatment by persuading others to believe our financial status is higher than it actually is. However, rule number one is: Do not try to impress the wrong people. It’s okay to convince the bank’s loan officer that you’re a person of substance and a good risk for that few thousand you need for “odds and ends during a short period of low liquidity”. He doesn’t have to know the “odds and ends” are food and clothing and repair parts for your old Chevy.

But don’t hint at hidden opulence when being interviewed by the IRS or while the mechanic is adding up the repair bill for your old Chevy. A cry of poverty would be more in order. “You’re taking my children’s food off the table!” I once told a greedy transmission fixer. His exhorbitant bill was unchanged, but he gave me three Nathan’s coupons. “Hungry kids love hot dogs,” he said. What a great guy!.

A few brief remarks during a conversation with high level execs at a company conference can have the appropriate effect. The phrase “Land is money!” uttered loudly and with conviction, can be effective, even when unrelated to the topic under discussion. And if you later casually remark, “I’ve got to get the rolls back to the shop,” it wouldn’t be your fault if they assume your expensive British sedan needs work when you’re merely returning stale bakery goods.

Once at a social gathering I casually mentioned I was a particular favorite of my very sick agriculturist uncle. That was onlypartially true. He had, in fact, been dead for six months and you can’t get sicker than that. We were very good friends, both die hard Mets fans, so that was true. He’d been a less than failing farmer and when I said I was willed the receiver of his stock. That was also true. His stock consisted of two goats, a milk cow and several chickens.

Remember, being rich 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is the burden of the actual rich. We pretenders can slip back into comfortable indigence when it’s no longer necessary to influence a stuffy maitre d’ or to energize a sluggish clerk.

Sometimes you might have to work in the opposite direction to convince someome you’re more indigent than him. Returning from a posh Manhattan cocktail party, on foot, since I couldn’t afford a cab, I was approached by a large man who kept one hand in his coat pocket and asked for a handout in a threatening way.

This was no place for a rich man. I hunched over, with one hand reaching for a nonexistant weapon, looked furtively around and grunted, “Beat it Mac. I’m woikin dis side o’the street!”

SATURDAY LOCKDOWN

I found this handwritten message on a crumpled piece of scrap paper blowing around my neighborhood Saturday morning. I think I could name the author, but that’s not important and it wouldn’t be kind.

It begins: My family has locked me in my bedroom for the weekend again. I’ll have to smuggle this message out somehow. They do this every year about this time. They say it’s for my own good , and their’s.

It’s not so bad. I have the TV and some good books and when they bring my lunch I get the daily newspaper, but without the classifieds. That’s the whole point of my incarceration. I’m an incurable garage sales addict.

The obsession usually reaches its critical stage in the fall. Something in the crisp autumn air triggers a strong urge to cruise around in search of intriguing junque. It’s no coincedence that this is also the hunting season. Garage saling is my response to my elemental instincts by providing some of the thrills of the hunt that are not possible in the big shopping malls.

There is no stalking excitement in the malls. With the No-Questions-Asked return policies, there is small danger of the quarry being the victor. Thirty other guys can brag about getting the same big price break I did at the Sears chainsaw sale. Then where is the individual thrill of the kill?

The mall can offer nothing to compare with the triumphant feeling I got on that memorable day when I discovered a Shirley Temple doll hugging a Charlie McCarthy dummy behind a pristine Candy Lands game box in a cluttered garage. “What do you want for this old stuff?” I asked the man, barely surpressing my YAHOO! shout. “My wife’s making me clean up the garage,” he said. “Ten bucks should cover a good push broom.”

My family doesn’t understand how much this means to me. “If we let you out this Saturday, you’ll buy another stuffed moosehead,” they say. Of course I’d buy another moosehead if I could find one. Our living room is crying for another moosehead. Visitors must notice right away, with mooseheads on only three living room walls, it’s so unsymmetrical!

I’ve just returned from a family parole hearing. I nearly swung it with my unlawful imprisonment argument until someone asked, “What about that boat?” I must admit, she had me there, but it proves gargage saling requires the interrogational skills of a seasoned district attorney. “Does this boat leak?” I’d asked the Saturday salesman and he replied, “I can honestly say right now. It doesn’t leak.” (Or maybe he said, “I can honestly say, right now it doesn’t leak.) Two weeks later, swimming home from a fishing trip, I realized I should have asked, “Does this boat leak when it’s in the water?”

Garage sales prices are so reasonable you don’t have to have a present need for a particular item. My basement and attic are filled with potentially useful stuff like that. If I ever buy a Model T Ford, for instance, I’ve already got the seat covers. You may think that’s fooolish, but if I’d bought that rope ladder a couple of weeks ago, I’d be a free man now.

THE DEFENSE RESTS, MY DEAR

Good communications are vital to a happy marriage, but it’s also important for each partner to know when to keep her or his big mouth shut. Discriminating wives and husbands can sense which subjects call for lively, opininated conversations and which require a diplomatic “no comment” or outright lies.

“What did you think of that bathing beauty on the beach today?” the little woman will ask nonchalantly at dinner. (an ear-splitting alarm bell has been activated, but the poor sap doesn’t hear it.)

“Bathing beauty?” says the unsuspecting husband.

“The one all the men were ogling. Don’t say you didn’t notice her.”

“Gee, I really don’t recall. I was making a sand castle with the kids.”

“That young blonde in the blue bikini on the yellow blanket about ten feet to our left.”

“Oh, yeah. I remember her.”

“So, what did you think of her?”

“I guess you’d say she was kind of pretty.”

“You men are all alike! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

That husband requires no pity. He ignored the alarm bell and it’s his own fault he has to sleep on the couch tonight. “She was about half as pretty as you Sweetheart,” would have been the couch-eliminating answer.

In some cases the effect of a few careless words can be long lasting. It was around 1937 when my mother asked my father who was his favorite female movie star. He thought for a while and then replied, “I guess that would be Sylvia Sydney.” Fifty years later he was still denying that he would have married Sylvia Sydney if he had his life to live over again.

Movie stars are a prime source of trouble in this regard. They have been, after all, hand picked and groomed to attract admirers. Most people understand ths and are smart enough, and adult enough, to ignore a few sighs aimed at the silver screen by their mates. However, there are limits and superstars should realize that, for every fan they captivate, they are alienating at least one other. (Robert Redford, if you are reading this, you are not welcome in my home!)

Polite discretion is needed in other areas as well. There are some questions from mates that are too hot to handle unless you are a criminal lawyer, a politician or a used car salesman. “How old do you think I look? from a middle aged husband is one example. Any wife who attempts an accurate answer is either married to Dorian Gray or has a mean streak.

“Do I still look pretty?”…….”Is my hair thinning?……”Do you like your birthday present?”……..”Why don’these slacks fit anymore?”……”Is this better than your mother’s recipe?…..These are not questions. These are opportunities. Do your best to use them to make life a little more pleasant for someone you love.

MAIM THAT TUNE

“Music is the lubricant of life. Don’t you agree Mrs. Kacofany?” I said to my voice teacher the other day.

“What’s that, Dear?” she shouted.

Mrs. Kacofany is having trouble with her hearing, the poor dear. At my last three sessions she’s had wads of cotton stuffed in her ears. I’m quite concerned about her. She seems to be failing and she was so hale and hardy when I began taking singing lessons.

By my third lesson she’d developed a tremor and I noticed her lustrous black hair was beginning to show gray. Also, while I was singing the scale last week I thought I heard her mumbling to herself. You might say these are all common symptoms of advancing age, the impaired hearing, the tremor and the mumbling, but Mrs. Kacofany is only 35.

She said in the beginning she was taking me on as a challenge and, although she’s paying a terrible price, we seem to be making progress. When I sing during church services now, no one turns around to stare and the EMT members of the congregation realize I am not undergoing a medical emergency.

Mrs. Kacofany admires my love of music and appreciates my frustration when music doesn’t reciprocate, but instead, attacks. My love affair began when I was four and almost swallowed my kazoo. No one had warned me about the danger of inhaling when playing a kazoo.

At age eight I had a brief hope of becoming a harmonica prodigy when, after only an hour’s practice, I’d mastered a few bars of Yankee Doodle. But alas, more than eighty years later the remaining notes continue to elude me.

As a teenager I was drummed out of the Euphonic Academy because of my “discordant effect on the student body.” The professor could not believe I’d practiced 15 hours a week and assumed my performances were some kind of juvenile insolence. “You are the only student I’ve ever encountered who plays the tamourine off key”, he growled.

I can understand his misjudging me. Practicing music lovers usually reach some level of acheivment. But even poor doddering Mrs. Kacofany admits I have a very long way to go.

“I love all music, Mrs. Kacofany. Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan, Gershwin and punk rock. It’s all the same to me,” I tell her.

“I’m trying to teach you there are important differences, Dear. Someday you might catch on.”

“This violent world needs music, Mrs. Kacofany. I truly believe music has charms to soothe the savage beast.”

“Promise me, Dear, that you will never sing in the presence 0f strange dogs.”


T

NATURE’S MUTE BUTTON

The human body is always improving, becoming more efficient to meet new challenges and discarding obsolete equipment. Genetic experts say the process might be speeding up.

Our skulls are enlarging each generation to accommodate our bigger brains and our pinky toes and wisdom teeth are showing signs of obsolescence. Less tree climbing and sturdier shoes might explain the decreased need for pinky toes, but is our wisdom waning?

It’s difficult to tell with today’s bushy hair styles, but I think our ears might be starting to lap over. The NOISE challenge is, without a doubt, increasing and Nature or the Almighty always responds with a fix when the need arises. There is convincing evidence we are being provided with something like a mute button to block the many negative quality-of-life noises that bombard us.

Perhaps the fix is internal, a new organic switch in our inner ears might be growing that will act like a gun silencer, greatly reducing the decibel level of raucous sounds that make our lives less livable, like leaf blowers, outsized mowers and punk rock D.J.’s at wedding receptions. If our civil authorities won’t intervene, Nature must come to the rescue. We’ve always been able to shut our eyes and mouths. It’s high time we gain the ability to also shut our ears.

You might have noticed some of our young people are apparently already equipped with this mutation and are abusing it by switching it on when there is no real threat to safety or sanity. Typical male teenagers can hear a pepperoni pizza sizzling to completion 25 yards away. (Yes, aroma is involved, but not completely.) But when only 10 paces away from home, they are deaf to shouted orders to return to put out the garbage cans.

“PLEASE TURN THAT DOWN!” I once howled to my son. A group called “Armageddon” was playing a piece entitled “World War IV”, a concerto written for saxophones, drums and howitizers. I’d tried to be tolerant, but the cat was climbing the drapes and the windows were threatening to shatter. “Sorry, Dad,” my son said. “I forgot the radio was on. I was doing my homework and didn’t notice.” (Didn’t notice World War IV?)

While the muting mutation will protect us from the ear-splitting decibel levels of landscapers’ machinery and rock music, it can also be adapted to detect and block trigger phrases that begin with “But first these messages from….” and “Could you lend me…..”

SILENT SIGNALS

I’m so glad I read that book on body language. I had no idea the words I was hearing from salesmen and politicians weren’t always completely truthful. Why would anyone want to lie to me?

Just this week I met an old friend I’ve always admired and respected, but as we shook hands I was appalled to notice he’d rotated our wrists to put his hand on top, a dominant attitude indicator according to the book.

I began to realize the significance of other body signals he’s sent over the years. As we talk, his nose is often very close to my forehead and his foot is planted on top of my toes. I’d always assumed he was nearsighted or hard of hearing, but now I wonder. Could these be signs of the latent aggressiveness I’ve been reading about?

The book has made me quite fluent in the language of bodies. I’m amazed to witness the heavy traffic in torso and facial signalling going on out there every day. Some people, the silent types, do more communicating with shrugs, grimaces and gestures than they do with words. “Okay, I’ll go along” is often contradicted by the gritting of teeth or tightened fists. Spitting in the direction of the speaker is a definite negative indicator.

If, like me, you realize you’ve been handicapped for years by not being able to decode these physical messages, it’s time for you to learn. With your new fluency, you will be a walking lie detector. The fast talking used car salesman who keeps covering his mouth and the politician who shakes your hand while avoiding eye contact will both be outed as fibbers.

However, sincere body language, the cheerful smile, the sympathetic tilt of the head and the gentle caress are genuine friendly messages. Sincere body language is vital and in some situations is more important and effective than the verbal kind.

A friend told me recently that his marriage was in danger. “I don’t know what I’ve done wrong or how I could possibly live without her. I must convince my wife of my undying love and devotion,” he said. “Can you help me with advice? How do I do that?”

I almost said no, but with my new found knowledge , I thought I could try. I suggested he take his wife to a romantic, candle-lit restaurant, possibly with a roving violin player and, while they’re sipping their wine, he should smile warmly, reach across the table, gently take her hand in his and say, “I’ve always loved you and I’ll love you till the day I die.”

Then he should shed a tear that will flow slowly down his cheek. The tear is one of the most effective body language signs. I told him if he’s unable to easily produce a spontaneous tear, he should pluck a hair from either nostril. It always works.

I know that sounds deceitful, but the poor guy was so sincerely and desperately in love with his wife, it was the best I could do. They just left on their second honeymoon.

I

BEMUSED

According to the ancient Greeks there are nine muses devoted to helping artists. Thalia, the muse of comedy would be the appropriate one for me. I haven’t heard from Terpsichore, the muse of dancing, since 1950 when I broke my date’s big toe while doing the Boogie Woogie.

I don’t entirely believe in these old Greek stories. However, I definitely do have a muse who’s given me ideas for over 50 years as a writer, but I don’t think it’s Thalia, a daughter of Zeus, who would be more dedicated to her job and would be giving me better service.

I suspect my muse, whatever her name is (I’ll call her Tipsy), might have a drinking problem. Wouldn’t a sober, dedicated muse stick around to see an artist through a project once she’s given him a barebones idea? Tipsy is more of a delivery girl, dropping off an occasional one-line inspiration and then wandering off, probably to the nearest bar.

As a blogger, what am I supposed to do with Tipsy’s “The weather bureau is a non-prophet organization?” Not bad, but then what? She tantalizes me with other phrases like “To get ahead, if you can’t get something on the ball, try getting something on your boss.

Tipsy delivered that one while I was driving in heavy traffic on Route 80. The AAA guy who helped get my car off the median agreed it was quite funny and admitted it would have distracted him also.

My desk and pockets are full of little Post-its on which I’ve jotted down Tipsy’s one-liners so I won’t forget them. Last week I thought I was handing a deposit slip to a bank teller when she looked at it and said, “What is this? ‘Happiness isn’t everything. You can’t buy money‘?” She looked nervous and may have been reaching for the alarm button. I had to explain my mistake quickly.

I have always believed that every good writer, besides having a way with words, a healthy sense of curiosity and perhaps a liberal attitude towards plagiarism, really needs a muse. Writer’s block is a serious condition. Shouldn’t a dedicated muse be on hand with detailed blockbuster ideas?

Tipsy isn’t happy with my complaints. She sent this angry muse-a-gram this morning: “I am NOT working under the alfluence of incohol!”

DINING OUT RAGE

This was supposed to be a fun night out, but here we are twiddling our thumbs in an overcrowded noisy room waiting for a wandering waiter. Why is he called the waiter? We’re doing all the waiting. He’s the waitee.

He gave us five-page menus when we arrived and three minutes later asked if we’d made our choices. We asked for more time and he was more than generous. So far, we’ve had almost an hour. By now I’d settle for a quick bowl of soup and saltines.

Why is restaurant dining so popular? We gave up home cooking and the privacy of our dining room, drove through heavy traffic and had our car parked by a tattooed teenager. Now we’re waiting to eat food cooked by a stranger in some faraway kitchen and, if the room wasn’t this uncomfortably crowded, we’d suspect the quality of the meals.

At least we weren’t forced to wait at the bar for more than five minutes. There was one groggy fellow there who seemed to have forgotten, after two martinis, what he was waiting for. I hope he called a taxi soon after mentioning to me he’d had “Tee martoonies”.

Here comes that little toddler from the next table again, chewing on a steak bone and drooling on my best slacks. “No, no, Madam, he’s not bothering me one bit. I’m enjoying him. He reminds me of when I was an undisciplined little brat, Ha, Ha!” That usually works.

Where is that waiter? After he serves us we won’t be able to get rid of him. He’ll keep returning just when I have a mouth full of linguini and ask, “Is everything all right?” I’ll reply “Grmmplx!” dripping red sauce onto my new tie and he’ll say, “Very good!” in that smug way of waiters when it’s getting close to tip time.

Thank heavens, here comes our waiter now, but who is that with him? Isn’t that the tattooed teenager carrying something? I can tell by the license plate. That’s my front bumper!

OH DADDY BOY, THE PIPES ARE CALLING

Years ago I overheard my daughter Janis speaking to a classmate who’s father, she claimed, handled every household plumbing emergency. “What does your father do when a pipe bursts? she asked.

“That depends,” Janis said. “If it’s late at night and he’s tired, he does the backstroke, but he prefers freestyle.” (I think I know where she got her sense of humor.)

I could take the comical inuendos, the back-breaking work and the wet socks if my plumbing efforts were fruitful, but it’s quite frustrating after three strenuous hours trying to eliminate a maddening “CLANG, CLANG, CLANG” water hammer and only succeed in changing it to “KLUNG, KLUNG, KLUNG”.

Once I had to report that my two-hour attempt to resolder a leaking joint was futile. “It’s worse than ever,” I admitted. “I just can’t master a blowtorch.”

“Too bad, Dear, ” my wife soothed. “And you’re surprised you couldn’t fix it.”

“Surprised? Not really. This was my first try with the new blowtorch. Why do you say ‘surprised’ “?

“Well, you look suprised somehow. Oh, now I see why. You’ve lost your eyebrows, Dear.”

The plumber eventually arrives in his Alfa Romeo van (which he richly deserves) and takes command, but it’s a delicate psychological situation, temporarily surrendering control of my castle. It calls for a bit of face-saving. “I’m glad you’re here, but I was able to take some emergency measures and keep things under control,” I say.

“Fine, fine,” he says. “Just direct me to the leaking pipe.”

“It’s on the far basement wall,” I reply . “Be careful when you pass my workbench. There’s a pretty strong undertow there.”