Saturday, November 30, 2013

Coffeehouse Writer's Group - Nearly a Full House - My poems: Black Friday and Mornings at the Joyce Hotel

A commercial I heard on the radio inspired the short story I worked on for two whole days.Wanted the Writer's Group to critique it, so I stayed up until 4 am, while running into my bedroom to watch Barbra Streisand, b. 1943, on a PBS Special.

She's as strking as ever and speaks crisply so you can understand every word. My Brooklyn-born friend Coach Iris has the same manner of speaking.

Too Many Migraines and Not Enough Cash concerns the evolution of a young woman who must learn to stand up for herself.

And what would her name be?

I probly spent an hour working on her name - Doreen Hennessey - and her boyfriend's. The name "Doreen" probably came from the Self-Checkout Cashier Doreen at the Giant.

I needed a good Irish surname and it came to me in a flash. 

When I went under the covers at 4 am - I always turn the heat down to 65 - I re-read it, always with a sense of dread, and learned to my horror, that Doreen was not a fully developed character, nor one we would root for.

I'll fix it in the morning, I thought, picking up The New Yorker and reading a new Rachel Aviv piece - she usually writes about mental health issues - that was so disturbing I put it down and picked up The Life of Pi.

I simply wanted nothing to do with The New Yorker. It felt tainted b/c of the appalling tale Aviv was telling.

Wait a minute! Not true. I began to read Calvin Trilling's story about a mozzarella shop on Sullivan Street in New York, near where my sister Donna had lived for many a year.

Boy, did that Mozzarella Story lift me up! Soon the mag began to slam me in the face, as I fell asleep holding it above my head. Slam!

We dress warmly as it's usually chilly in the Coffee Shop.

Is that the Grim Reaper behind Martha? If so, he didn't snatch any of us with his scythe.

Reminds me of those drearily wonderful Ingmar Bergman movies.

But let's get on with the show.

Martha wrote a poem called The Worst about her dental pain. What a great idea for a poem! "Make me feel your pain," I told her. I do hope she works on it.
Carly, wearing a Light Blue Cardigan, which was the name of an essay she sent us, wrote a poem her husband told her was awful.

The group members, who are endlessly kind and caring, assured her it would be quite good.

I took no stance but was pleasantly surprised at how good A Yardley Thanksgiving was. The whole family went out to eat.

Carly mentioned she didn't know what to make for dinner, thinking aloud that maybe she could make a pizza like Scott and I do on Sunday nite.

Can't, she said. Her husband works at Papa John's.  Here, for old timessake is a wonderful song with Papa in the title from the late 50s. The Rivingtons pretty much nailed the song, but so did the Beach Boys. Take a look at how young they were before the recklessness of their generation killed a few of em.

Scuse me while I get up and dance. (She's not kidding.)

Soon we were having a discussion about Karma and What Goes Around Comes Around. I listened to all these chatter with a sinking heart. Don't believe it for a moment. Good things happen to bad people. 

Donna, whose painted fingernails reminded me of Barbra Streisand's last nite, told us she wrote a poem in twenty minutes.

It was excellent... and you know what?

Twenty minutes is all it takes.

Daughter of Mine was just about perfect. We all have favorite lines in poems. Mine was "Put down the vodka."

Shall we start calling Beatriz "Butterfly?" Nah, she would not appreciate that. The latest in her nature sagas concerned the winged migration of these ephemeral creatures.

Say hello to The Comma Butterfly. The markings on its wings resemble commas. Another species has "question marks" on it.

But this dude is the Admiral Butterfly b/c of his "epaulets" on his tissue-paper wings. I mean, I just can't get over the fragility of the butterfly.
Who they?

Oops, I forgot to wear my earrings, so Linda will stand in for me. Her poem A Thanksgiving Thank You was written in gratitude for the meal and the company she and her mom had on Turkey Day. In the poem Linda thanked Brian, I believe, for driving all the way to Acorn Lane to pick up "My Mother and I."

We liked the way "Mother and I" sounded even tho it was grammatically incorrect.

Here are my two poems. Let me tell you something. I set a goal to write two poems today. I had no idea what to write about. Then I got the idea of "Black Friday" and jotted it down.

I had no idea what to say, but it did come to me.

It's terribly exciting to know you ARE going to produce something, even if it's terrible. And in the germ of La Terrible, something good can certainly come of it.

I'm too tired to revise the two poems, so I'll do it the morrow.


I hope this last day of November
finds you well
Once the body learns how to make
cancer cells, her oncologist told her,
they look for hidden opportunities.
There’s no going back.
Like a child learning to read.

If only the abnormal cells were on the surface
we could pick them off, or take
an X-Acto Blade in the dead of night
Worry-Time, and slice them off
like bits of dried egg
under the reading lamp.

Nothing distracts like shopping,
America’s most perfect sport.
Only yesterday I went to Marshall’s
whispering “You’re looking not buying.
You’re looking not buying.”

When I came home I faced
my mortality once again. The new
credit card – the security code
reads “888” - expires in four years,
just in time for my seventy-second

The words look hideous to me
but some day I’ll count that “young.”
Does it ever cross your mind,
as it does mine, from dawn to dusk
that some day they’ll all be dead.
Every last one of them,
wept for,
buried, cremated, bodies given to science,
as a new generation begins the rhyme all
over again.

Come with me and stand by the window.
The leaves on the maple are withered and shrunk,
dangling like dry tea bags, ready to drop.
Swirls of branches I never noticed
quiver in the cold. They loop round
creating a vacuum in the sky
were I a painter I’d splash it
onto a canvas. I knew a sculptor
once, who said a sculpture is
a tree in disguise.
The cancer that killed him
was in his stomach.

I have peeked out my window
once again.
Is it fair to say
the leaves are waving to me?
They are. They are.
Thing is,
are they waving hello
or goodbye?


With my blazing red hair
I stride into the oblong dining area
on feet that had killed the day before
on our endless wanderings around
this strange city called Paris.

Sidewalks are narrow, but
practically dirtless. Crews of
city cleaners mind the streets
until the weak light of the autumn sun
blesses the tourists and
citizens alike. I totter when
I walk, bracing myself when they
pass me by, and like a drunk soccer player
miss them by inches.

The aroma is heady in the
dining room. Stainless steel
containers steam with
doubled-over cheese omelets,
and bacon from a slaughterhouse
outside Paris fills
another canister and
the various juices
stand at attention
in clear-colored jugs
orange, yellow and purple.

Lilia, dressed in black
nearly as dark as her skin –
they come north from Algeria –
balances a plate of steaming
chocolate croissants on her
hand while I crouch
in readiness to eat one
outside in the sunshine.

I can smell the coffee right now
shivering in a glass carafe
from my desk back home.
But it was the tea I was after.
Mint or Lemon.
Such flavor!
Unknown in the States
I swear on my ninety-year-old
mother’s still beating heart.

sip your tea, my girl,
enjoy these few free
moments before the
streets of Paris gobble you up
for your debut performance
wandering the streets
the churches
the palaces
the stairways
the gardens
and standing beneath
Le Tour Eiffel
where I pondered
how I got over.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A new tradition? Thanksgiving at a restaurant? Buffet at Cafe La Fontana

The door at La Fontana was open and I could not wait to eat my Thanksgiving meal. The buffet was served upstairs.

I plopped the turkey on the delicious cranberry sauce (Ellen got the recipe). Salmon is in the front along with artichoke hearts.

The pumpkin soup was outstanding!
Ellen and I drove over and parked in the empty lot of Produce Junction. Baby, it was cold outside,about 23 degrees.
Second plate included more turkey, delicious stuffing, more salmon, roasted pepper.

Whenever I choose my food I'm aware of the amount of carbs and sugar.

I had one small bite of their candied yams and almost passed out it was so delicious.
"You sure look spiffy," I said to the waiter Michael.

"I feel spiffy," he said, wiping some water off the floor.

Then, amazingly, Michael broke out in song, singing I FEEL SPIFFY, I FEEL SPIFFY to the tune of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story.

He danced around the entire floor, a few of us joined him - I certainly did - plus a few folks from the table against the wall - very well-dressed young men, including one with a handlebar mustache comme ca:

Pazyryk felt artifact, ca. 300 BC. horseman with moustache and partially shaved head.- Wiki

I ate most of the pumpkin pie and pecan pie, despite the NY Times article that said pecans are in short supply.

How do you pronounce pecans? When I was married and lived in Texas, they said pe-KAHNS and I didn't wanna stand out as a Yankee, which they called me, so I followed suit.

Here in the cultural capital of the Western World - Hatboro and Willow Grove, PA - we call them PEEkans.

I reminded Ellen that when we lived in Cleveland mom used to buy pecan tarts at the various Jewish bakeries we could walk to from 2128 Marlindale Road, Cleveland, 18, Ohio.

New York Bakery, Davis Bakery, Hough (huff) Bakery and Unger's Bakery, which is still there on Taylor Road.

I remember driving home from the bakery with the white bags loaded with:

Rye bread with seeds, challah, pecan tarts, and coconut bars, asking if I could have a teeny little taste of the bread and hoping she wouldn't say, It'll spoil your dinner.

Here are some online sources for nostalgia about the good ole days in Cleveland. I always read them after I 'publish' my blog.

Hungry Browser.

Cleveland Historical Society.

One of the Oldest Houses in Shaker Heights.

The moment I got home from the Thanksgiving Buffet, I jumped on my bike and rode for 25 minutes to lower my blood sugar.

Then Scott came over for a walk. I knew my sugar needed more exercise.

Actually this was taken before Ellen and I left for the buffet. Scott couldn't go b/c his leg and back still hurt. He's healing himself - slowly - by walking.

Am wearing my new shirt I bought in Paris at this place.  

It has patches on the elbows like in Father Knows Best.  

We bundled up and went for a 35-minute walk around the neighborhood, and I do mean bundled up. I wore three sweaters and a long coat, warm scarf and hat.

The cold doesn't care who you are.
Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah too!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Latif is actually his Arabic name, part of a long string of names that ends with Latif, which he pronounces. LAH-teef.

When he called and left a message on the New Directions phone a few days ago, I knew who he was, the moment he said, Latif. His name means "subtle," which he was during his main career, which he has at last forsaken.

"With God's help," he said.

In 2004, my sister Ellen and I were installing a display case at the Abington Free Library.

"Guard my purse," I said to Ellen.

It did no good. With his practiced hands, he stole the wallet and extracted my credit card. He was with two accomplices. I confronted them in the stacks and told him to change his wicked ways. I told the same thing to the young woman and man who were with him.

He returned the credit card. Latif told me he always leaves the money in the wallet. People do not notice that anything's been stolen if the money's there.

And usually they have more than one credit card so it takes a while to notice and by then Latif and his friends have spent tens of thousands of dollars. 

I wrote up the story of meeting Latif in the 2004 Compass.

I was lucky to get my credit card back. But the man did not change until he went to prison.

Latif, who is really Thomas Williams, just got out of prison on Sept. 17, 2013. He was incarcerated on July 4, 2006.

He's staying at a halfway house in North Philadelphia. 

I sipped on my decaf at the Willow Grove Barnes and Noble Coffee Shop where we met.

Thomas spent a total of TWENTY YEARS in prison.

"Was it terrible being in prison?" I asked.

He paused.

"No," he said. "I deserved it."

Name any prison in PA and Jersey and the man has been there. 

The best prison of all, he said, was Bucks County Correctional Facility where "they treated you like a king." He said the food was great.

His goal now in life is to become a chef.

There's a culinary institute in Philly he'd like to attend. He visited and they thought he would be a good candidate. I read the letter he wrote on Why he wants to be a chef. Extremely well-written. The man can write.

The school costs $24,000 a year for four years, I believe. They'll give him a loan. He's 47 years old.

Said Latif, "I thought white-color crime - victimless crimes - didn't hurt anyone. But I was wrong."

He was never violent but was a proficient thief and pickpocket. He began as a teenager. He ran with a bad crowd.

The shocking thing is that Latif was from a well-to-do family who wanted for nothing.

He grew up with money.

He has two children. At 18, a one-evening affair produced his oldest daughter, who is a 49-yo PEDIATRICIAN at CHOP.

He now has his first granddaughter Tamia, who is about 3. He showed me her pic on his parole-mandated cell phone.

 "I'm a criminal genius," he said at the table, looking around the crowded room. He said he could go into any store, watch who was entering, and know immediately if they were there to steal.

"You watch what they carry inside the store."

Latif would like to give presentations to Macy's and other stores on how to foil thieves.

He told me how the Barnes n Noble coffee shop was the perfect place to steal credit cards. He used to stick out his umbrella, grab someone's backpack, get a couple credit cards out, and no one would be any the wiser.

OR at a store, he would reach into the waste basket behind the counter and get receipts. Then he would activate the credit cards, call the banks and thru an automated message would learn how much money he could spend.

He would have accomplices waiting for him in a getaway car when he bought Rolex watches, fur coats, expensive jewelry ($20,000).

He would sell the stolen items at cheaper prices to a list of people who were waiting for his stuff.

He would open new accounts in the names of the people whose cards he had stolen. He reeled off the occupations of people whose cards he had stolen

Stuff! I said. "Dyou want all those riches today?"

I believed Latif when he said he did not. This is one man who changed his life.

Still, in prison, his head was stuffed with his criminal actions. 

"The whole time I was in prison - 20 years - I kept the phone numbers of the credit card companies inside my head," he said, touching his head and telling me the phone numbers of AMEX and Discovery.

I told him Sarah's pocketbook was stolen in Paris, by a salesgirl at Morgan et Toi. It was sitting there in the fitting room.

Never leave your purse or backpack on the back of a chair. Too easy to take.

"My backpack is on the floor under the table," I said, "How's that?"

"You should keep your foot on it at all times," he said.

 See the 'bruise' on Latif's forehead? It's a "prostration mark." In Islam, you touch your head to the floor or rug when you pray.

Latif kept busy in prison. He earned certificates in, among other things, web design.

 He wrote poetry and gave it to fellow inmates.
Most importantly, he wrote his autobiography.

He showed me stacks and stacks of notebooks he wrote. One volume was called "Memoir of a Lunatic."

Don't quite know what the title meant but he told me all the famous people he met in prison, just reeled them off, serial killers like Gary Heidnik, who was executed, and famous mobsters.

Latif knew them all, rubbed shoulders with them in the exercise yard or at meals. Some of his friends were executed. Others died by natural causes.

"Ten of my friends died in prison," he said.

When someone dies, they ring a bell. "That's how you know they died." No one should be treated that way, he said.

He was doing pushups and a friend of his had a heart attack right there next to him and was taken away.  Latif never knew what happened to him until the next day.

The bell rang.

"No one should be treated that way," he said. 

We all know prisons are rife with corruption.

Inmates are strangled by guards or beaten to death. The guard calls out, "Stop resisting" and then clubs the person to death.

He saw the face of his friend, who lived, and he was barely recognizable.

If an inmate wants sex with a female guard, he pays for it.

Let's say Lola is the guard and Sam wants the sex.

Lola's friend will meet Sam's friend at, say, Barnes and Noble. The friend will give Lola's friend $300. This is also the way drugs are brought into the prison.

Latif had no interest in drugs in prison or now.

I told him about my article about the veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. When they got home, they wanted to eat pizza.

Latif is a meat and potatoes guy.

His sister Phyllis took him to the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia

where he dined on prime rib - a $56 meal, thanks to his sister Phyllis, who was the only one who visited him in prison.

In fact, I talked to Phyllis earlier today. Latif wanted me to meet her via phone. She was his sole support and encourager.

I gave Latif a poinsettia to take home but he gave it back.

"We're not allowed to bring anything into the house," he said.

"Oh, I suppose you might have drugs in there," I said.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Latif will be penalized by staying out beyond the appointed time, so he'll stay inside at his North Philly rehab. I reckon he'll do a little writing.

"Would you accept something from me?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "I'll buy my bus pass with it."

He also wants to buy his grandchild a gift. He only works 2 days a week as a cook but has put his application in everywhere. He listed all the city jobs he applied for, part of the mayor's program to find ex-felons jobs. Here's a Federal program, endorsed by Eric Holder.