Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Tube City

Tube City was the name of your hot dog stand. I guess the Armageddon of Entrepreneurship would have been too big to fit on the sign. How about: “The home of the hundred dollar hot dog.”

I only know this time of your life by anecdote. The secret industrial knowledge of the all meat casing passed me by. I wish I could have worked the stand with you. Then I would have seen the Low riders beat you for the tab, or the wide bodied Buick ladies hammer the slump stone corners of the restaurant as they lurched out of the drive through lane. Of course, it all started at Cupid's. The dream of an independent restaurant with nothing but dogs and drinks… and the dogs would have the snap of an all meat casing.

Cupid's Hot Dogs are still part of my pilgrimage when I'm back in L.A. The snap may be gone from the casing but Cupid's still serves the best dogs I've ever bitten. Yes I enjoyed Nathan's, east coast, spicy, special, a dog lover’s delight. I frequented the Nathan's stand when I was at Berkeley, but Cupid's wins out head to head, or better yet: dog to dog. Nathan's was like Berkeley, dark, spicy, vaguely dangerous. Cupid's, like the time I associate with consumption of these epic dogs, embodied the clean, safe, open, nature of growing up in the valley in the 50’s and 60’s.

We'd usually go to the Cupid's on Lankersham Blvd. I imagine that touring North of Lankersham these days, especially late at night. is begging for a gang bullet, but then the frontier wasn't so hostile, and Cupid's was neutral ground. Good things happened there. It was food well worth the moderately long wait in line.

In line we'd chat, the order was easy to compose, there weren’t a lot of choices at Cupid's. I'd get 2 with chili. You'd get 2 with chili, mustard, relish, the works, everything! Add two cokes and plenty of napkins. Cupid's was always good for a meal and it was easy to calculate the cost in your head. (I remember being shocked every time the price went up. Not that I ever paid when we went together.)

Stepping up to the window you could see and smell the wonders of Cupid's. The wooden dog racks, 8 scallops of smooth bread board wood, ready to hold a big order. The counter guy had a flourish to his preparation routine, riding the dogs through thin air, dipping and pouring the chili with a subdued sense of showmanship. The stainless steel bins held the moist steamed buns, perfectly soft, adding a homey, yeast based smell to the spicy, tangy, slightly damp atmosphere that wafted from the open window.

The counter man’s fast hands, laid out the slightly soggy buns, then the dogs, then quick ladles of chili overflowing the bounds of the buns. A flick, a snap, a twist, and the dogs were caught in wide white, industrial strength wax paper. Rack 'em up in a cardboard box. Add the cokes, pay the tab, off we'd go to a tin metal table under the L.A. sun-heated awning.

Epic fast food. First bite, the snap, the spicy hot chili drenched taste, delicious, best dogs in the world. Those all meat casings were a state secret in the restaurant biz, a secret you were determined to discover.

I guess once the secret was out Tube City was inevitable. Now Tube City is gone, so are Cupid's all meat casings. The seminal store in North Hollywood has been bull-dozed.

I'd still like to sit with a couple of chili dogs & a coke and share an afternoon there with you.

I'll pay this time.

The look in his eyes almost stopped me from punching him out.

Fighting with my brother John was second nature. We were trapped by a down and dirty, knee-jerk habit of brawling, arguing, whining, framing and ratting out each other to mom or dad. Betrayal was our daily bread. We hacked our way through growing up together with fiery accusations, roaring jealousies and cutthroat competition. We fought for space and attention. We fought for the sheer fun of it, and because we didn't know what else to do with each other.
Whining, tattling, and confrontations were the cornerstones of our relationship.

I saw myself as the victim of John's devious and sneaky ambushes. He was always setting me up and I was always falling for it. Of course I was a bully venting my rages on John, building myself up by pushing him around. I had no right to resent the sneaky survivor's personality he developed to cope with my moods but I resented him anyway.

 John lived in the shadows, scurrying behind my back knowing my white-hot rage could explode in his direction at any time. His was a bunker mentality. John would tease. I'd explode. We were trigger and bomb, caught in a need to tear each other apart__ yet depending on each other to be there as a vent for all the antsy spleen of growing up in the San Fernando Valley. We fell into the habit of sporadically torturing each other. Long weeks of uneasy truce would reign between battles. I'd swear to myself not to let it get started again. But moments of decency and tenderness seemed unnatural and rare.

At Christmas, we could create a semblance of brotherly love that would sustain a holiday mood. I'd stay clear of John. He'd play in his room. We got along by walking way around each other. The uneasy truce would break down as soon as the holiday glow began to fade.

Now I watch my own kids squabble. I see the passion and gleam in their eyes as they tear at each other's soft spots. I've been there, but it doesn't make it any easier to stand. At least my kids seem to be able to make up quickly. But they're young. Give 'em time.

"You're driving us crazy!" Jan and I scream in chorus. "I just hope that someday your kids treat you like this!" I can remember mom hollering that. Now I've said it too.

 Why do parents say things like that? Is it just desperate rambling induced by sleep deprivation, lack of privacy, and incessant bickering? The prophecy and hex have come true. Now I'm the one who has to drag himself up on weary legs and stagger towards the shrieks and screams of fighting children.

 It does no good that I now regret my part in shattering the brief bits of hard earned peace my parents managed to scrape together. John and I could turn a weekend into madness. How many Sunday mornings did we splinter with our screams and accusations?

I was talking to Dad just the other day. Talking about my memories of epic fights with John, and Dad laughed! "You two never really fought. You guys never had black eyes or split lips." I suppose compared to the beatings my dad took from his brother Tom, my fights with John seemed tame.

 My dad had been the younger brother. Tom had punched him clear through a glass door one time. Dad had an adolescence of black eyes and fist-loosened teeth.

"Tom taught me I could take a punch. I'll say that for him. He hit harder than anybody I ever faced in the ring." Dad's voice was mellow and laughing as he looked back. Did I teach John the same lesson?

I was a hitter. Perhaps not a brawling puncher like my uncle, but I liked to hit John. I usually held something back, I can only remember a few times when I really unloaded on him.

Usually I'd pop John a hard one on the back or arm, shouting in rage, my angry bellow pierced by John's high-pitched scream. He could crack crystal with his air raid siren scream. The scream was John's first line of defense. His scream made an adult's spine stiffen. I'd look at him mean barking at some taunt or smirk of his and he'd let loose with a scream that would drive any parent to their feet. His howls would haul mom and dad out of near exhaustion and drag them on a tractor beam of terror right into whatever dispute I was hoping to solve with my fists. John would poke me like a dog through a chain link fence; laugh in my face and then save his own butt with a scream.

When my folks put in their first pool they were thinking of all the positive, family centered, time we'd get lounging around the pool. Maybe they hoped the pool would absorb some of our energy. I was still going to Langdon Ave. Elementary School, sixth grade. John was in the third. The pool would mean a chance for happy family times a chance to relax and be with each other.

Maybe the Romans were thinking of the same thing when they built the coliseum. For John and me it was the beginning of the great sea battles.

Something still happens to me when I get in a pool. Chlorinated water is like Dr. Jekyll's solution. Layers of civilization peel away. I become a wild man. As a kid I lived to dunk my little brother and strip the trunks off him in the bargain. I had no restraint or remorse. If John got in range he was in for it. I simply wanted to see how close to drowning I could take him every time I could get my hands on him. The two of us in a pool for more than a few minutes meant cannon balls, splashing and mayhem.

It would start innocently enough. We'd both be hot and sweaty, ready for a swim. We'd beg mom for permission to use the pool, swear a double oath not to fight, squabble or hassle each other "Honest mom, honest, we won't fight!"

We broke all our promises as soon as we hit the water. We'd jump into the pool; angling our entries to splash each other, then jump out again and race walk (no running) to the diving board. A cannon ball contest to see how much water we could splash out of the pool would follow. Eventually one of us would tire and stay in the pool providing a perfect target for the next cannon ball.

I'd get keyed up, cranking the game up to the next level, sending walls of water out into John's face while he'd give me neyah neyahs and hyena laughs. "Didn't get me, Ha Ha, didn't get me!"

Before long I'd be chasing him down and throwing him in. Soon the line would be crossed. Adults have the ability to see the line clearly It's that act that goes too far. Older children should be mature enough to back away from the line. On the far side of the line is violence and craziness. But once I was wet I'd loose the ability to reason. The concrete edge of our backyard pool was the line for me.

Of course just as I was closing in on John, just before I could corner him and get my hands on his neck, that air raid siren scream would crank in. My hands would be on his shoulders pushing him under, dunking his head. He'd squirm like a seal, gasping for breath with panic beginning to surface in his eyes. I'd get my hand on top of his skull and push him under. We both would smile until we were right up to the line. Then the smiles would change.

Mom would suddenly be screaming at me from the edge of the pool, threatening us with Dad's vengeance. "Dennis! You stop that this instant! Get out of the Pool! How many times do I have to tell you to leave each other alone in the Pool?" 

There was a weary, desperate, near hysterical edge to mom's voice most of the time. John's air raid scream saved him for a long time. It got so he was over confident, and careless in its use. He'd sit on the edge of the pool and make faces in my direction.

I lurked in the deep end nursing a grudge.

"Just ignore him." My mom would say, "As soon as you stop paying attention to him he'll get bored and quit." It's the classic adult answer to teasing. They don't feel the acid venom of a well-targeted jibe. They have forgotten how a little bother's neyah neyhas can pierce the soul and scratch up rage.

I was trying the ignore him trick. John was making ape arms at me. He'd jut out his jaw and drag his arms low like a chimp. This routine normally drove me crazy.

Just ignore him.

 I floated on my back with my eyes closed. If I don't look at him, it won't bother me. Then I realized that a cannon ball attack could be launched at any time. I got out of the pool, not even looking at him, and walked toward the diving board.

" Dennis is a chicken! Dennis is a sissy!" John was making his shinny grin at me, jutting his jaw out and wagging his head in a way that always made me furious.

"Chicken Fat Chicken Fat!" John grabbed his stomach and pointed at me. I couldn't believe it, he was begging for it. By ignoring him I'd only challenged his god given ability to tease. My feigned indifference drove John crazy. He had to break through my act. Capering like a chimp he gave me his jaw jutting shinny grin again, rolling his eyes he laughed at me, "Chicken Fat Chicken fat, you jiggle like a girl when you walk!"

That tore it. It was the one I couldn't ignore. John sensed that he'd stepped over the line too, because he was instantly silent.

 I stopped dead. I turned toward him, looking down at the shallow end of the pool. He was twenty feet away. I stared at him furious. He began capering and crowing again, pointing his finger at me and laughing. Holding his belly and swaying his hips; John had a death wish. I was going to oblige.

I started for him and the look on my face must have cut through the fog of his teasing. John froze. I was ready to drown him. I was planning on doing him in this time. 15 feet away I raised my fist up by my head, promising him a punch if only he got into range. He began to scream. John screamed with true horror and conviction.

I figured I was doomed. Mom would be sure I was killing him and I was too far out of range to get even get a single shot in. My insufferable, screaming, ratfink of a brother was going to get me into big trouble again, and there was nothing I could do about it.

"John Henry O'Connor You Be Silent This Instant! It saw it all! Dennis didn't lay a hand on you!"  John's ear piercing wail died on the spot. He looked guilty, he was caught red handed and open mouthed.

I couldn't believe it! After all the times I'd been punished for hitting John without ever getting the satisfaction of actually beating him at all he was finally caught! 

There was justice after all.

I trapped John by himself later on. I held him by the wrist and slugged him a good one on the arm. I really enjoyed whispering "Go on, scream no one's gonna believe you this time!" He didn't make a sound. His eyes were filled with tears and desperation.

Suddenly I felt bad for punching my little brother. It really wasn't fair. I let him go. As he scurried around the corner he jutted out his chin and gave me a hyena laugh. I just tried to ignore him.

Years later when I was in high school, I just couldn't ignore him. I was out front at the Teasdale house, raking dry leaves on a fall day. Mom and dad were away. John was in the house playing by himself.

As I bent over to scrape some leaves on to the tarp John turned the hose on me. He soaked me down good, using the high pressure torrent from the brass nozzle to drive me back across the lawn. I was sopping and furious. I charged back into the stinging water and John dropped the hose and sprinted for the door, calling and laughing back over his shoulder. "You're a wet dope! Yeaaah" I charged on and reached the door just as it swung shut with a thundering slam. I could hear the sounds of the chain and dead bolt falling into place.

John looked out of the window at me, laughing and making faces. "Let me in John, and I'll let you live. Let me in Damn it!" John just laughed and stuck his chin out at me.

"I locked all the doors! You can't get in! You can't get in!"

It was his certainty that drove me over the edge. He was so damn smug. It was too much to bear. I ran for the door, kicking at it with both feet, I felt the door start to give. I kicked again and again.

John was screaming in the background. "You're gonna get it for breaking the door. Stop! Dad will kill you!"

I drove my shoulder into the door and it gave way, whipping open. The chain was still attached and tore the molding from around the door. John stood frozen in horror on the other side of the gaping door. The look in his eyes almost stopped me from punching him out.

After I dried off and cooled out I was really worried about that door. I did my best to nail things back into place. I was really sweating it, but the folks didn't seem to notice the damage. Years later Dad admitted that he was puzzled and confused by the intermittent damage around the front door. "I just couldn't figure out what was causing it. It seemed like I had to putty that door up every 3 months."

I only remember going through the door after John that one time. Maybe it became a habit.

Dad built a pool at the Teasdale house too. But by this time I was on my way to college at USC and didn't get much use out of it. By then John and I had lost interest in tormenting each other.

 In fact, things had been cooling down between us ever since I'd kicked the door in to get at him. We didn't become great buddies. We just got busy with our lives and began to ignore each other even more. But you can't just forget a history like ours and walk away. Little brothers grow up, and I suppose they all hope to settle the score.

I 'd been away from home for years. I'd transferred from USC to Berkeley and started my own life in Northern California. Then I came back home from Berkeley for a visit. John was still living at the Teasdale house.  He was living in my old room. It was a great room with a private entrance, it's own bathroom, a fireplace in one corner, and built in bookshelves. I'd spent a lot of my teenage in that room waiting for my life to start.

 John looked me right in the eyes. "It's my room now. I had to wait a long time for it." I just shrugged I was used to sleeping on the floor in a bag.

John was in the middle of his training at the police academy. We were the same size now, but being three years older and his big brother still gave me a psychological advantage.

It was an interesting trip home. The hippy son back from Telegraph Avenue and the little red school house bumps up against the straight arrow son training to be a policeman like his dad.

We danced around each other. A lot of things had changed in our lives. But one thing hadn't. We shouldn't have gotten in the pool together. The Teasdale pool was a novelty to me. I'd grown up in the backyard before it had been filled up with concrete and water. We all got into the pool together. John, me, and our little brother Paul.

Paul was about 10 at the time and it soon became apparent that he'd inherited the O'Connor water curse. John and I tossed Paul around like a beach ball for awhile. Paul wiggled, giggled, kicked, and screamed. John and I took turns dunking and tormenting Paul until he finally ran screaming from the pool. Paul had a good scream, but it couldn't compare to John's.

I can't remember who made the first move but soon we were trying to dunk each other. John had been learning some interesting wrist and choke holds at the academy. I'd been taking judo at Cal and working as a warehouseman at the Ice Company. I once figured I lifted about 60,000 pounds of ice a night working that job.

We both knew it was time for a showdown.

He kept trying to spin me around and get a hold on my back and neck. I was slapping at his head with open palms, trying to push him under like I'd done years ago.

We started out laughing. Then the shoves and slaps started to land a little harder. We both slipped across the line before we knew it. This time no one was going to scream for mom.

I slapped John hard in the face. He countered and managed to spin me around. His forearm slid across my throat. I elbowed back at him, catching him in the ribs. Then John pressured his arm up. I rose up on my toes, and then things started to darken. I couldn't move anymore. Next thing I knew I was hanging on the edge of the pool coughing and vomiting up water.

"Are you all right Den? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you." John was really upset. I was stunned and I was never going to think of John as my little brother anymore. We both grew up some that day.

 I left and lived my life. After awhile, John left home too.

John was best man at my wedding. It was a big wedding, about 150 guests I knew about 20 people. It was the night of the USC-UCLA football game, just before Thanksgiving. The ushers were having trouble getting the judge who was to marry us out of the bar and away from the game. It was a close game and a lot of people were shouting.

While I waited for the call John and I started talking about growing up. John was dressed in a sport coat and slacks. He was goofing around, laughing, trying to loosen me up. He pointed out the small hand painted Mickey Mouse on his necktie. I grinned. "John, I gained a lot of respect for you when you choked me out in that pool."

"Man, I'll never forget your face when you came through that door. I thought I was dead. I always had respect for you after that." John amazed me that day. I hadn't seen him in a long time. We never really talked much to begin with. He was standing up with me now. It helped. I was feeling nervous. It was good to have my brother standing by my side.

Finally the game ended and the call came. John was still laughing and cool headed. He was a veteran police officer by then. John pulled me aside just before I was to walk down the isle. "I can still get you outta here if you want." He said it with a grin on his face as he held open his coat to reveal a pistol in a shoulder holster. I didn't take him up on the offer.

John's my brother and I love him.  We rarely see each other.

We haven't been swimming together for years.

Learning How to Hit

My whole little league career had been nothing but strikeout after strikeout. My days as a player were an exercise in frustration, left field day dreams, and batting practice embarrassment. Do you remember when I intentionally struck out and took off for 1st base? I misunderstood the rule about wild foul balls on a full count (sounds like I still don't understand that rule) and fully believing I'd discovered a little known loop hole in the game intentionally struck out, dropped the bat and sprinted for first. On base atlast.

Little league was a hopeless exercise in mediocrity and public humiliation, until you taught me how to hit a fastball. You taught me to hold the bat in a weird way with the bat up and way behind my shoulders, almost like I was waving a flag. The stance felt funny at first. But it worked! At first you threw easy stuff while I built up my confidence. I'd slice and ground 'em, but then I started to get it. You pitched and I hit the ball. I couldn't believe it the ball really flew. By the end of the week you threw hard that impressed me, you threw really hard. The ball would fly off your hand faster than anything I'd ever seen in a little league game. I'd swing and hit it almost every time. The sweet sharp crack of the ball and bat was an exalted sound from a
flubber like me. The echoes of those clean hits still chime. I was hitting long flies by now, no limping grounders, protracted arcs, high and away. A few ever went over the fence and into my psyche. Every time I hit one of your impossibly fast pitches I envisioned extra base hits. These were shots that would make me a legend in a league that saw weeds grow around 9 year old outfielders. It was a miracle! A couple of nights of coaching and you'd turned me around!

In Little League I was convinced that a single good hit got you into the majors. You could vault from the minors to the majors in one great stroke! In the majors you got a real uniform, not just the t_shirt and hat we were issued in the minor leagues. I was sure of the way to advancement because any kid on our team who could hit seemed to disappear before the next game. Inevitably we'd see the new recruit (in full uniform) show up for a major league game.
Every day for a week you took me to the field for batting practice. By the end of the week I was sure I could hit anything the other guys would pitch me. Come game day I was moving up!

The day before the game I was filled with keen anticipation. I couldn't wait for Saturday. I was thinking about it a lot. I didn't say anything to my friends about my newly found hitting abilities, my buddies wouldn't believe me anyway. I had to show 'em.

At recess that day we were playing kickball. The pitcher was shipping the ball over the hot black asphalt of the playground. Kids were shouting for their favorite pitches. "Bounces! Baby Bounces, Right over the plate!" I was in the outfield even here in kickball I was consigned
to deep left.

Suddenly someone kicked a high fly ball, you could hear that satisfying ka_thonk of a well kicked ball. The ball soared above the playground, getting smaller and smaller, up there in the sky. I watched it head for me. It was dropping right at me! This ball was mine!

I put my hands up, spreading all my fingers wide, anticipating the catch. The kickball plummeted down. I positioned myself_ hands spread, the ball fell out of the sky and bounced off the ring finger of my right hand. There was a surprisingly shrill boinking sound followed by a subtle little "pop". The ball had come down on my outstretched fingers, it was as if I had tried to spear the kickball instead of catching it. Yeow the pain. I grabbed at my right wrist, instinctively knowing I didn't want to touch my finger. Hugging the hand down against my belly, I doubled over in shock and fear it hurt, it hurt bad. Then I forced myself to lift my hand up and look at it.

What I saw shocked the pain to a stop.

The finger took an unnatural 90 degree left turn at the first knuckle folding grotesquely over my middle finger. The knuckle was swollen and already discolored. I figured it was broken for sure.

By now all my buddies were crowded about me. They gazed at the twisted wreck of my hand in stunned, appreciative silence_ the type of silence that draws a thick crowd on the playground. My friends, morbidly fascinated by the pending shock we were all certain to cause, escorted me into the school. I was hustled along by the crowd. I held my mangled hand out front of me, an irrefutable hall pass that took me straight to Mrs. Jorgensen.

Mrs. Jorgensen was one of the toughest, strictest, scariest, teachers I'd ever had. I spent the whole year in the fourth grade trying to avoid her gaze. I'd slouch rigid in my seat, doing my best not to fidget, hoping she'd forget I was alive. She had a voice that would crack across your brain like a bull whip she always wore brown. Her voice left a bitter taste in its wake.

I shoved my mangled digit in her face. " Look!" I didn't do it to shock or annoy, I was scared, my finger was broken for sure. She was the teacher, she'd know what to do. He tough wrinkled face changed. Her eyes widened, as I waved my right angled finger in her face the formidable Mrs. Jorgensen cracked, hysteria set in, she panicked, screamed, fell apart before the unmitigated horror of my hideously crooked finger. She scared me to death!

After Mrs. Jorgensen ran shrieking from the room I was rushed by my pals to the principal's office. Next thing I knew I was at the doctor's office. I clearly recall getting two shots, on either side of the base of the offended finger. The doctor seized the crooked from of the finger, pulled gently and it popped back into place.

"Dislocated, not broken" he said. Dislocated, I mulled the word over in my mind, I'd never heard it before and now that the fear and pain had faded it sounded neat. Dislocated. A smooth metal splint, a slight s curve that matched the contours of the finger was taped into place and I was sent home.

The splint and the story made me the center of attention for awhile.

The baseball season was over before my finger was fixed.

I never played in Little League again.

The Pomegranate Grove

From the age of 7 to 12, I lived in Walnut Cove, a San Fernando Valley sub-division made up of ranch style houses with big front yards. There were lots of kids in Walnut Cove and we all loved the trees. Walnut Cove had real walnut trees at almost every house had a mature walnut tree in the front yard. The trees were all that was left of the grove that had been bulldozed to create the subdivision. At least the planners had left enough trees to shade the wide sidewalks. They were big trees good for climbing. Walnut Cove's trees were all grafted, they were cross-bred between English and White Walnut. Each tree had a white trunk and a black body. Cross bred trees had strong roots and the best walnuts.

These piebald nut trees would fill up with green speckled pods every spring, then the heat and light of summer would darken and shrivel the pods into a thin black leather. The pods dried, gradually exposing the wrinkled veined details of the walnut shell. You knew the walnuts were ripe when you could snap the husks from the shell. You could collect a wagon full of walnuts!

All the kids in the neighborhood, all my pals (Dave DeCamp, Judy Corn and her sister Sharon, David Olsen, even the evil and weird Reynolds) would gather bags of walnuts. We'd crack the shells and extract the brain-like walnut meat. Occasionally a shell would be filled with bitter dark fibers and spider webs. It made you shiver if you'd cracked the shell with your teeth. But most of the time the delicious light brown nuts could be plucked from the shell almost whole. You could always find a snack in Walnut Cove during the late spring and summer.

Walnut Cove was bordered by two big valley streets, Balboa Blvd and Nordhoff. These were major commuter roads filled with fast moving traffic. I wasn't allowed to cross these streets. It was just too dangerous. Across Nordhoff Blvd were farmer's fields filled with acres of pomegranate trees. The valley was quickly filling up with sub-divisions and people. But Walnut Cove was still surrounded with groves. There were oranges to the north, pomegranates to the south, and walnut groves to the east. To the west across Balboa were bull-dozed, weedless, treeless lots sliced by fresh black ribbons of asphalt. A new sub-division was going in.

We could get into the orange groves without crossing the big streets, which meant their allure was minimal. The oranges were usually small, greenish and bitter. Besides the farmer hated kids and was always on the prowl. It was the pomegranate groves on the other side of Nordhoff Blvd that seemed the most mysterious, remote, and irresistible.

Even though I wasn't supposed to cross the street I planned a raid on the pomegranates with Judy Corn. Judy lived down the block, she was part of a Jack-Mormon clan that seemed to have no trouble playing cards and breaking all the basic Mormon rules. I'd go to Judy's house to watch American Bandstand with Dave DeCamp and Judy's older sister Sharon. I was the youngest of the group and always got fidgety waiting for the program to end so we could go out
and play. The older kids, especially Sharon and Dave, who must have been at least 13, were fascinated by the dancing couples on the screen. It was boring, but neat to be included with the older kids.

I think Judy was probably bored too, but she wasn't going to admit that around her big sister. Judy was a tom-boy, and one of the toughest kids on the block. She had a hot eleven year old's temper. I fought her once and she won. She must have hit me ten times while I tried to wrestle her arms down. It was hard to hold her arms, she had muscles as big as mine. I told myself that I held back during the fight because she was a girl. You weren't supposed to hit
girls. But she punched harder than any boy in the neighborhood except Arty Guftason, the worst bully on the block. I liked Judy, but I was a little afraid of her. Her punches really hurt.

She wasn't supposed to cross the street either, but Judy dared me, and I couldn't back down from a dare. Besides I wanted to go. We waited a long time for a break in the traffic, then sprinted across the street, through the gully over the wire fence and into the forbidden groves. We wanted to get out of sight quickly before a driver spotted us. A faded no trespassing sign hung on the wire fence, the sign made me feel like we were on the verge of getting caught. There was probably a farmer as mean as the guy at the orange grove just waiting for us.

We went far into the grove between the neat rows of trees, moving deeper into the mysteries of this banned place. We were far enough from the road that we could barely hear the traffic on Balboa. The trees were planted in ordered rows, a tractor width apart. The leaves created a canopy that kept the hot valley sun at a distance. It was hot enough to soften the asphalt at the edges of the street, but it was cool, shady, and secret here. Dust swirled slowly, suspended in the shafts of sunlight that cut through the leaves of the pomegranate trees. We were absolutely alone. It was better here than either of us had hoped.

The trees were filled with odd shaped fruit, a pomegranate's skin is an alien bumpy terrain, pods like pale purple wasps nests hung heavy from the burdened limbs. The overripe ones had fallen to the ground, and lay half hidden in the tall grass. These were insect laden universes, purple, blood colored clusters swarming with ants where the skin had split. The air smelled rich with growing things, backed by a cloying scent of decay. The color of the skin told
you which pomegranates were ready to be eaten. A baseball sized pomegranate with a pale purple exterior, firm to the touch, wasn't ready yet. You needed to find the fruit that was dimpled and swollen, bigger than your fist and almost violet. It should be just a bit soft to the touch.
Those were the ones ready to burst with scarlet seeds and sweet juice.

Judy and I jumped up o steal the fruit, snatching them from the low limbs. But the best ones were out of reach requiring a scramble up into the high branches. Pomegranate trees are hard to climb, none of the branches are low enough. I made a step-cradle with my hands to boost Judy up into the tree. She was surprisingly heavy and it hurt my hands and shoulders when she climbed up over me. From up in the tree she laughed and teased, bombing me with dozens of pomegranates. I chucked back rotten, ground softened, ant covered missiles, but never hit her.

Eventually we called a truce, the battle field was littered with fruit. We stacked pomegranates in pyramids like lumpy cannon balls. We lay back in the grass gorging ourselves. Cracking the sweet fruit open, peeling back the tough fibrous skin, devoured the thick scarlet seeds, biting into the massive clusters, chewing the pulp and swallowing the juice. The crimson drippings ran down our chins and stained our t-shirts. We spit the seeds out and bit again. We ate only the best part of the seed pod. After a few mouthfuls we'd be left with the difficult part of the fruit. With the seeds in small clusters it took to much patience to root them out. We tossed the half eaten carcasses aside, took a fresh pomegranate from the pile and began again.

We spent the late afternoon eating, talking, watching the sky through the tree tops and reveling in the special secret of the place. It was neat to spend time with a girl, even if she was a tom-boy. It got late quickly. The sky started to darken and the shadows grew between the trees. We had to get home. All around us were the split, smashed and broken remains of pomegranates. We ruined more than we ate. When I looked at vacant husks and wasted fruit I began to feel uneasy. If the farmer caught us now, he'd have a right to be mad. Suddenly I felt bad. I'd used a fine place poorly. But there was no way to clean up. It was a hopeless mess. I turned my back on the grove and left.

I came slinking into the house. My conscience was hurting. I'd disobeyed, crossed the street, taken the pomegranates; worse I'd wasted as much as I'd eaten. My face and hands were stained juice and guilt.

Mom's radar was on maximum. It was dusk, too late to be getting home, she was waiting for me. My furtive slump shouldered skulk towards my room tipped her off. She took one look at me and knew something was wrong.

"Dennis, what is it?" that was all she needed to say.

"I, uh, I ... crossed the street ...took pomegranates.... stole them I guess."

My story tumbled out. My shame at wasting so many of the farmer's pomegranates demanded a confession. It was a relief to deliver it.

For some reason Mom wasn't really upset with me. She actually had a smile on her face as she nodded her head and told me not to cross the street again.

I never returned to the pomegranate grove. I never took another of the farmer's pomegranates, even when Judy brought me an extra. I'd lost my taste for pomegranates and the ones bought at the store just weren't the same.

Hawaiian Bumble Bee

To Bee or not to be?

One of the most vivid memories I have of Hawaii is of a huge, black bulbous bumble bee floating menacingly over my head while I listened to band playing a concert in the park.

The Royal Hawaiian Band was dressed in Gilbert & Sullivan Military cut white uniforms. Each musician sported a red Hibiscus the size of a dinner plate in the button hole of a starched lapel. The eyes of every musician locked on the conductor as he dramatically pumped his arms. Each player wore a brilliant white pith-helmet. The conductor's helmet sported a golden badge that flashed under the tropical sun. Like a marionette, the conductor stood ramrod strait, arms raised, head and hands twitching and flicking. He jerked out his connections to Souza. The conductor was high above the lazy crowd on an elevated bandstand. The lawns of the park were fresh cut, you could taste the green tang with each breath. The faint perfume of flowers was a base beat on the air.

A Polo game clacked in the background. The riders far enough away that the sound of their ponies' hooves was lost in the marching boom of Souza's tuba and trumpet chorus.

The crowd was slow and appreciative. They lay scattered about the lawns, lounging on a checkerboard of picnic blankets, sipping cool drinks and enjoying a slow lunch. The white band played on enthusiastically, Sousa's vigorous marches, a contrast with the "one, two, three days I be there" mentality of the islands. We had picnic lunched and cool drinks as the band played on.

The bee carried on buzzing through the crowd. A ripple ran through the field. The bee was huge easily as large as a small child's fist. It seemed impossible that the frantic, high rev thrumming of its tiny wings could keep that bloated body afloat. The insect staggered through the air in ridiculous counter point to the banging drums and blaring trumpet of the band.

Panicked people swiped at it with seat cushions and sun hats. The buzzing black-bomb rode the air unsteadily, banking and swooping and swooping and banking. Diamond Head was eroding quietly in the background.

A sunburned mainland matron tented in a flowered MU-MU finally connected with a folder newspaper. The bee shot in a solid line drive straight at the band conductor. The bumble bee stuck him in the neck like a well aimed dart. His mechanical interpretation of Sousa became manic. But kept tempo, and ended with a properly choreographed clash of symbols & brass.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Open Wide

Dr. Hyde, Painless Dentist

Dad, by the time you read this they'll have taken your teeth. For years we joked,  "The teeth are fine, but the gums gotta go."

Hard to joke now. Dentists were people mom taught me to fear. My earliest recollection of dentistry is of the waiting room at the kiddie dentist. There were rocking horses, and a combination corral-play pen, the walls were covered with wild west wallpaper. The corral was full of toys, each worn down by the compulsive handling of little kids who played desperately trying to forget that they were waiting to see the doctor.

Seeing the doctor wasn't fun. I always had a cavity that needed filling, and that meant the needle, the high pitched whine of the drill, the numbness and the helplessness. No matter how hard I brushed I always seemed to have cavities. I could sit out in the wild rest room counting the cowboys and Indians on the wallpaper, nervously thumbing through the HighLights Children Magazines, fidgeting my wait time away while hope lived that this time he'd say "No Cavities!".

Of course we found out later that the doctor had the disturbing, but lucrative, habit of drilling & filling healthy teeth.

Of all the dentists I've had, Dr. Hyde stands out. Here was a man a young boy could hardly forget. Perhaps he was a strange man, with a name that conjured images from Robert Louis Stevenson. He was an intense, short, dark, with hairy forearms. He had thick but dexterous fingers with beautifully manicured fingernails. Hyde's bulging hyperthyroid brown eyes were usually laughing, he always seemed to be so close to your face. Inside the comfort zone, grinning as he picked and probed with those awful stainless steel hooks. His sarcastic, facetious, patter would make me laugh, even with a numbed mouth full of cotton and cavities.

I liked Dr. Hyde, as much as any patient could like a dentist. It was mom's belief that Hyde was a "painless" dentist that made me a believer. Dr. Hyde was the only dentist mom really trusted. I just rode with her faith, accepting Hyde as a dental saint -- blind belief made it easier for me to go see him.

Like all kids I was terrified of the needle. I noticed how it was always kept out of sight, hidden away from the patient’s eyes, kept secret and segregated from the other shining chrome picks, probes, packers and mirrors. It was supposed to dampen the patient's anxiety to keep that needle out of sight. What you can't see... I knew Hyde was preparing the syringe when he'd turn his back to me. I'd be racked out in the chair, a bitter plastic drainage vacuum hanging from the side of my mouth like a cane hung from a rack. The hollow sucking sound echoed in my ears as the saliva drained from my mouth. The acrid smell of filling compound drifted faintly on the breeze, as the hissing concentric swirl of the spit-sink babbled in my ear.

With a few expert furtive moves Dr. Hyde would prepare the needle, a bit of banter, his free hand misdirecting my eyes. He had a special way with the shot, jiggling the gum and cheek with his thumb and forefinger he would slip that needle in and numb the area before you could shrink from the spike. "Say Ah now Dennis, that's right, let me just grab...." and he'd begin his patented gum and cheek shake, the chrome cylinder flashed past my free eye quickly, the simple patter, the big fingers shaking my cheek, a thin cold faint pain deep in the jaw fading immediately to tongue swollen numbness.

That's how it usually went; except for one unforgettable visit.

It was a typical six month checkup. I'd been through the cleaning, and x-ray.

The offending bit of dark foggy decay had been waved in front of my face on the film. I was now stretched out and waiting. I'd been picked, and probed. The dreaded cavity had been found! So I lay there, open mouthed and passive, waiting for the needle. Hyde turned his back as usual, the nurse presented the tray. His hands moved preparing the Novocain.

Suddenly Hyde is in my face, we were eye to eye, the antiseptic smell of his breath predominated. With a wink he produced the silver syringe and held it directly before of my eyes. It was a huge ballistic chrome barrel topped with a hand-sized plunger. I was mesmerized, the needle was immense.

Hyde's smile was crooked, grinning he asked, "How'd you like one in the eyeball?"

Before I could squirm my cheek and gum were jiggling and I was numb.

The doctor had a memorable sense of humor.

Tube City Chronicles II

I've found out how to post photos in my blog. Just reference the location of the image somewhere on the web.

Here's a picture of the Nightgod, a bronze sculpture done by my father Jack O'Connor.


Check out his website at:


Tube City Chronicles

Down the tubes
Veg in front of the tube
Find the inner tube

Lots of takes on an important word.


Sort of round, with meaningful content, easy to transport, daring to digest.

Welcome to Tube City!

The name Tube City was inspired by the family pre-occupation with hot dog consumption. We've been fans of Cupid's Dogs for years. At one point my dad Jack, opened his own hotdog stand which we nick named Tube City. The best day he ever had was when a drive through customer winged the side of the building and paid him 90 bucks cash not to report it on her insurance. That business (like a few others) when 'down the tube'.