YESTERYEAR ME

We found a box of old photos in the attic last week. It was like peering into a time machine. There was one of me as a wary kindergardener. I have a vivid memory of the day it was taken four score years ago. An intinerant photographer carrying a large long-legged camera rang our doorbell one afternoon and talked Mom and Dad into spending a dollar on my portrait.

It was a scary experience for a little kid. It looked to me like the man was hiding behind the camera inside a black tent with one arm stuck out waving a stuffed canary in the air. Back then photographers said, “Watch the birdie” instead of “Say cheese”. I managed a nervous smile long enough for him to get focused inside the tent and make a quick snap.

I was looking at this old photo when a friend dropped in and asked, “Who’s that?” I was surprised by the question. “Can’t you see the unmistakable resemblence?” I asked.

“Are you trying to tell me this cute little boy is you?” he replied.

“Well, I admit I’m much taller and heavier now, but I’ve got the same smile, the same dimples and the same hair.”

“The height and weight gains are obvious,” he said. “but did you have caps on your teeth back then and I don’t see any dimples now unless they’re under your wrinkles. And what do you mean by ‘the same hair’? Are you including all those gray wisps coming out of your ears and nose? (I really have to get some new friends.)

“Okay, I’ll admit the little tyke in the old photo and I are not complete lookalikes, but I also find it hard to believe I resemble the old guy in the pictures taken at last month’s family get-together . Cell phone photos can be a little distorted, you know. I was sure I’d been electronically aged in the process.

I was brought back to reality yesterday while on an elevator in a medical building. The car stopped, the door slid open, and an old man was out there just peering in and not moving. “Make up your mind, you old coot,” I thought. “Are you coming in or not?” I raised a hand motioning him in and he also raised a hand , inviting me out. I was trying to figure if the old geezer wanted to duke it out with me when I realized I was looking into a full length mirror.

DISEASES AKA

I’ve been mistakenly giving credit to medical science for conquering a multitude of illnesses that were once common and now seem to be completely obliterated. For instance, I had friends in the last century who suffered from carbuncles, a painful affliction that I never hear about anymore, so I thought it had been eliminated.

But then I realized there had never been news of a National Carbuncle Institute with fund-raising events like Carbuncle Walks and 5K runs and there was no dramatic announcement of the discovery of a carbuncle cure or immunization.

So I did a little checking and found that carbuncles are still painfully out there. They haven’t been eliminated, they’ve been renamed. We call them “boils” now. The same goes for old-fashioned afflictions like the croup which is today’s laryngitis or strep throat. Lumbago is now just lower back pain and Quincy is severe tonsillitis. The grippe has become the flu which is under control to some extent, especially for those getting their annual shots.

No one gets hay fever anymore since they found hay isn’t the only vegetation causing the allergic reaction of sneezing and wheezing. Instead, a wide variety of pollens are irritating our nostrils and eyelids. The technical name is now pollinosis.

Pneumonia is still around without a name change and there are innoculations available to protect us, but what about double pneumonia which my mother warned me about so often?

“You can’t go out dressed like that on a snowy day! You’ll catch double pneumonia!” she’d say, and then make me put on a scarf and a heavy sweater under my mackinaw. I was the only kid out in the blizzard who was sweating profusely. I hope now they have a double shot for double pneumonia.

I’m sure the renaming of diseases was not part of a conspiracy, but just an attempt to update the terminology and make it more precise. Most young people, unless they’re history buffs, have never heard the melodramatic old affliction names like falling sickness (epilepsy), lockjaw (tetanus), and consumption (tuberculosis).

However, we must avoid being duped by scammers asking for contributions to fight ficticious diseases, some of which were invented by novelists and screenwriters. “We’re asking for your help in combatting the deadly Montaba Fever,” one caller said. I recognized that as the ficticious fatal disease in the move “Outbreak” and I was quite sure Dustin Hoffman had found a remedy. I said I would be happy to donate $50 and, after a slight pause, the scammer said, “Sir, the credit card name you gave me doesn’t exit.”

“Yes, I know,” I replied. “And I’d like to donate another $50 to the Saint Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries as recommended by Doctor Harry Potter.”

1

A SOUND INVENTION

Thomas Edison accidentally invented the phonograph in 1877 when he was working on another project and was surprised to hear faint voices coming from the spinning telegraphic disc he was testing. Edison was fortunate to have heard the recorded words of his nearby helpers since he was quite hard of hearing.

Recognizing the importance of his discovery he quickly turned out a prototype model, recorded an assistant’s recitation of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” poem and took the demo device to a Wall Street broker to ask for financial backing. Workers in the building, hearing about Edison’s latest “miracle”, rushed into the broker’s office to hear the world’s very first recording. There was fear of a floor collapse and the crowd was dispersed, but the broker, sensing the potential popularity of the invention agreed to help finance development. “Mary Had a Little Lamb” topped the charts in 1877

Nature had already provided a couple of ways for humans to capture and repeat their speech, but they were limited and unreliable. There was the echo which required a trip to the mountains and usually resulted in only a few repetitions of long “Hellooos!” One could also train a parrot to mimic and repeat what he said, but who would ever dictate a letter to a parrot expecting the bird would repeat it accurately to a typist and without interjected profanity and requests for crackers?

Since no other inventor had even conceived the possibility of recording sound, and if Edison’s deafness had been a little more profound, the phonograph and subsequent sound recording devices might never have been invented. What would the world be like today?

For one thing we would still be watching silent movies accompanied by live theme music on theater organs. Blockbuster musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “White Christmas” would not have been produced. TV shows would all be live, since reruns would require hard-to-read subtitles. Repeated live commercials would be expensive so there would be fewer of them. (What a shame!). Those intrusive, illegal telemarketer calls would all be live and we would be able to swear at real people instead of at obtuse robots before slamming down the phone and returning to our dinners.

We wouldn’t have voice mail or answering machines and when we called corporate headquarters to complain about mishandled accounts, we wouldn’t be told by a mellow-voiced female robot that our call is very important and then be subjected to ten minutes of brassy music and commercials while we waited.

If store owners still wanted to irritate shoppers with raucously loud bad music they would have to hire raucously loud bad singers and musicians. Sometimes I wish Thomas Alva had been a little more deaf that day.

BODY LANGUAGE

“Every little movement has a meaning all its own.” Those are the opening lyrics of an old Broadway show. It might have been about a hula dancer, but it could also apply to our universal body language which reveals our inner attitudes.

We should all learn to interpret body language to be able to detect the innermost feelings of those we’re dealing with. For one thing, it might improve our poker performance.

If you’re discussing politics with a small group try to get the pursed lips count, a subtle sign of disagreement, and you’ll have an estimate of the Republicans and Democrats in your audience. Those that you see tapping their fingertips together are thinking over your ideas, but have yet to come to a decision. They’re probably the independent voters.

If your wife or husband asks who ate the last two donuts, your shoulder shrug, indicating you have no idea, would be less of a fib than a wordy denial. It’s a kind of spasmodic Fifth Amendment plea.

Sometimes we’d rather delete our own body language message like the grimace that creeps across our face when a neighbor asks to borrow our lawn mower. It remains there until he explains he’s having a big family barbecue, his mower just died and his shaggy lawn will be an embarrassment. Your grimace changes to a sympathetic tilt of the head and he gets the mower.

I once helped a young mother by reaching for some top shelf baby food at the supermarket. I noticed the toddler sitting in her shopping cart was giving me the thumbs up sign. Imagine that, I thought, he probably hasn’t learned to talk yet and he’s giving me the body language sign of approval! But then he stuck his thumb in his mouth, so it was probably just a coincidence.

Last week I watched a five-man crew sent out to replace a manhole cover on my street. Body language was loud and clear during the operation. Two men, each displaying a “why me?” scowl began to lift the heavy cover while two others stood watching with hands in pockets. I don’t know what the hands-in-pockets body language signifies. It could mean “So that’s how it’s done” or maybe just “Boy, it’s cold today.”

The fifth man stood at a distance with his hands on his hips which is the usual body language statement for “I am in charge.” (For young girls it might mean “Don’t you think I’m pretty?)

A couple of days later I encountered my friend Pete, who’s far from young and pretty, standing alone on the sidewalk in the middle of town with his hands on his hips. “Pete,” I said, “you’re showing me the ‘I am in charge’ body language gesture. What are you in charge of?”

“I’m not in charge,” he said. “I’m in trouble. My suspenders broke. Have you got a safety pin?”

ACROSS A CROWDED ROOM

I was invited to a cocktail party in the city years ago during my freewheeling youth and soon after my arrival I realized I knew no one there accept the host and his wife who were busy schmoozing with guests and refilling glasses.

I ended up exchanging cliches and platitudes with a fellow in a green seersucker suit who, unfortunately, turned out to be an insurance salesman. He adroitly switched from small talk to actuarial subjects, starting alphabetically with accident policies and annuities. By the time he got to major medical and mortality tables I was looking around for an escape route and planning my exit scene. I’d planned to check my watch and suddenly exclaim, “Oh gosh, I’m late already! Sorry, I’ve got to rush!” And then I’d head for the door and maybe the nearest bar.

That’s when I noticed the attractive girl across the room who was staring at me fixedly and not paying much attention to the host who had just handed her a glass of wine.

I looked again when Seersucker Suit was finishing his presentation on surety bonds. Pretty Girl was still staring, but now she was walking toward me and smiling. I thought this could be the start of something big.

“Please excuse me, ” she said, reaching up to touch shoulder. ( I always liked it when pretty girls did that. ) “That’s quite all right,” I replied, trying to sound like Robert Redford. “What can I do for you, Miss?” She smiled again. What a great smile!

“I’ve been noticing your jacket collar is all twisted and it’s been driving me crazy. Please let me straighten it out. It’s one of my quirks. I hope you don’t mind.”

As she rearranged my collar I was hoping against hope that this was just her charming opening gambit, but then she turned to Seersucker Suit and said, “I think we should be going home now, Dear.”

It wasn’t a total loss. Seersucker Suit gave me his number and I ended up with a great life policy that protected the future of the much prettier girl I eventually married and our children provided I didn’t go in for skydiving or politics.

BRAND NEW ANTIQUES

When I was a boy I asked my mother what our neighbor, old Mr. Pie, did for a living. “He makes antique furniture,” she replied. It took me a while to realize that didn’t make sense.

“But, Mom, antiques are very old, maybe 100 years old. How can he make antiques?”

“There are ways,” she said. “Mrs. Pie explained it to me. You may know, there are worm holes in very old wood. Well Mr. Pie knows how to put them in the furniture he makes and he also knows how to make old-looking varnish.”

I never found out whether Mr. Pie sold antique replicas or counterfeit antiques. He’s long since dead, but just to be safe, I’m not using the nice old gentleman’s real name. If you’ve inherited or bought expensive antique furniture at a New Jersey shop, try to forget you read this.

Years later I discovered I could have been Mr. Pie’s talented journeyman assistant. It seems I have a natural gift for making furniture that looks very old. One day a visitor to our home remarked, “What an interesting rickety old coffee table! Where did you get it? Do you know anything about its history?”

I didn’t want to tell him that I’d made the table two days previously so I said I didn’t know its background and thanked him for admiring it. After he left, my wife exclaimed, ” ‘Rickety’ is right! Coffee and cocktails are going to spill off your wobbly table onto our expensive carpet!”

“As I explained before, Dear,” I said, “I’m going to solve the stability problem by adding a fifth leg and maybe a sixth. You know I enjoy challenges like that.”

Most people recognize the antique resemblance of the furniture I’ve created. One of my spanking new footstools looks like it’s endured a century of neglect and abuse. “What do you think of this bookcase I’ve just made?” I asked my brother-in-law. “I was aiming at Early American.”

“I think you overshot,” he replied. “It looks like it was made before books were invented. I’m thinking ‘Early Iron Age’ or maybe ‘Neanderthal’.” Some brothers-in-law can be quite sarcastic.”

My immediate family members have been more supportive. My son stopped by one day while I was cutting out the components of a Chippendale armoire. Examining my sketch he said something complimentary about my design technique. “Thanks Son,” I said. “But wait till you see the finished assembly. Come back in a couple of hours and I’ll have it all screwed up.”

“I’m sure you will, Dad,” he said.

FUELING AROUND

Remember when we called them “service stations”? That was back in the good old days when service was one of their chief products. I never called them “filling stations”. That seemed more appropriate for dentists’ offices.

You would drive up to the pumps and, while they were topping off your tank at 35 cents per gallon, a team of uniformed attendants swarmed over your car, washing the windshield and checking the oil and antifreeze levels. Before you left you’d get a free monogrammed ice scraper or a ballpoint pen and as many road maps as you needed. Now you can’t even count on getting free air for a sagging tire.

Worse yet, forty-eight states have been duped into allowing self-service gas stations. Only New Jersey and Oregon have seen through the false promise of cheaper gas if we’re willing (Grandmas included) to emerge in all kinds of weather in our Sunday best to wrestle with the stubborn hose, inhale toxic fumes and dispense a very explosive fluid hopefully without spilling any on the ground or on our new wingtips. Oregon has since caved and allowed self-service in rural areas. The New Jersey price per gallon of regular is widely available at less than the recently published average of $2.50 for the 168,000 stations in the USA.

When former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine (2006-2010) suggested we join the ranks of the unenlightened and allow self-service stations, there was a storm of protest and the idea was dropped. ( I’m sure the governor’s chauffer was relieved. ) A 2015 Rutgers University poll revealed that more than 75 percent of New Jersey drivers were against making self-service legal.

But back to the “Good old days”: I remember a golden moment in 1954 when I was trying to survive on my G.I. Bill’s monthly checks while going to college. A buck’s worth of gas would propel my jalopy about 80 miles, and more if I coasted down hills. “One dollar regular please,” I told the pump jockey one day.

“There’s a price war on,” he said. ” It’s down to 18 cents a gallon today. How much do you want?”

“Just a dollar’s worth,” I said, happy to learn my horizon had been widened to 100 miles. Years later during the so-called fuel crisis, I waited in a gas line for an hour, expecting to be gouged – and I was.

If you want to gain some modicum of consumer control, check Google and outfits like GasBuddy.com to find stations with the lowest prices in your area. If most of us patronize them, we might start another price war and maybe even get our windshields washed again.