Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Here, Birdie, Birdie

As I have mentioned on occasion in previous columns, I have been trying to attract cardinals to my bird feeder since Columbus first set foot on American soil. But alas, while other people rave about the “gorgeous red birds” at their feeders, I’ve never seen anything red at mine unless something was bleeding.

Originally, and I know I’m in the vast minority, I put up a feeder for the sole purpose of feeding squirrels. While most people spend years trying to think up new and diabolical ways to keep squirrels away from their feeders, I actually wanted to attract them to mine.

The reason why I decided to feed the squirrels was because I noticed a scrawny, emaciated-looking family of squirrels in my back yard one day. Their tails were scraggly, their ribs were showing, and they looked hungry enough to gnaw on just about anything edible, even moldy old bread.

While I’m sure I could have dug up some moldy old bread to feed them (my bread box has been known on occasion to contain enough mold to require harvesting), I instead went out and bought them an assortment of gourmet treats: shelled sunflower hearts, chopped peanuts, cracked corn, and walnuts.
I think I might have overdone it, however. Within a few weeks, those same anorexic-looking squirrels looked as if they should have been making appointments to have liposuction.

I was perfectly content to feed my squirrels and watch them frolic in my yard every morning …until my friend Carol told me about the cardinal in her back yard.

“You’re not going to believe what happened!” she said. “I had a beautiful cardinal at my feeder this morning. I wish you could have seen him…he was so red, so pretty! Anyway, a little while after I saw him, I walked down to the store for a couple things. For some reason, with the very last two dollars I had with me, I decided to splurge on two lottery scratch tickets. And guess what? I won $10,000! I’m convinced the cardinal brought me good luck!”

That did it. From that moment on, I was determined to lure a cardinal to my feeder. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to go about doing so. And I wasn’t even sure what a real, live cardinal actually looked like. As far as I knew, they existed only on Christmas cards.

“How do you think I can lure a cardinal to our feeder?” I asked my husband one night.

“Buy a bag of cardinal chow,” he said, not looking up from his magazine.

So I went to a feed store and bought everything that had a picture of a cardinal on the bag. I not only filled my feeder with the stuff, I spread it all over my yard for good measure.

The next morning, my yard looked like a cafeteria for birds. There were mourning doves, blue jays, crows, chickadees, and squirrels gathered in groups all over the lawn, as if they were attending some sort of wildlife convention. And when they weren’t stuffing their little feathered or fuzzy faces, they were making enough noise to wake the dead (a.k.a. my husband). Still, I put up with the ruckus because I was bound and determined to see a cardinal.

After doing everything short of putting on a cardinal costume and performing a mating dance, I still saw nothing red at my feeder. Needless to say, it was pretty discouraging. It even was more discouraging when a flock of pigeons began to fly in for breakfast every morning.

“What’s a bunch of old city pigeons doing out here in the middle of the country anyway?” I muttered to my husband after yet another cardinal-less day had passed.

“They probably saw our name on the top-ten list in the AAA dining guide for birds,” he said.

I gave him a dirty look, even though I knew the point he was trying to make was a valid one. I was spending way too much money on fancy bird food and treats. I knew I had to start cutting back before we became so broke, we’d have to eat the bird food ourselves to fend off starvation. As much as it pained me, I switched to inexpensive, generic birdseed.

A few days later, I was out in the yard when one of the neighbors called over to
me, “You had two bright red cardinals at your feeder this morning! They were SO gorgeous! I watched them for about 15 minutes!”

I glared at her. She had seen MY cardinals. And now she, like my friend Carol, would be the one who would have all the good luck.

All I can say is that if I ever find out that my neighbor won a bundle in the lottery, I’m going to demand a percentage…or at the very least, ask her to reimburse me for all of the money I spent on bird food.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Howard, I Miss You

I know I’m probably not alone when I say this, but I really miss the bright orange roofs of the Howard Johnson restaurants whenever I travel.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the highlight of any of my journeys, especially after riding for hours on endless, boring stretches of highway, was seeing an orange roof up ahead. For one thing, it meant yummy ice cream (of which I became intimately acquainted with every flavor) scooped into fancy sugar cones, not those flimsy, run-of-the-mill, flat-bottomed cones.

It also meant chicken pot pie. For some reason, I became hooked on Howard Johnson’s chicken pot pie. If we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s three times in one day, I’d order chicken pot pie all three times. I never grew tired of it, even when the crust was a tad on the soggy side or the cubes of chicken were a bit rubbery.

But alas, over the years, those familiar orange-roofed buildings slowly began to disappear and fast-food joints popped up in their place. I guess busy motorists no longer wanted to waste precious time stopping to order a sit-down meal. They wanted places where the employees would be standing outside flinging food at them as they sped past at 65 miles per hour.

So all I have left now are memories of my favorite Howard Johnsons. I’ll never forget, for example, the night an elderly man was upset because the cook burned his grilled-cheese sandwich. The waitress, in her starched blue and orange uniform, apologized and took it back, but the second sandwich turned out to be even blacker than the first one.

“That does it!” the man shouted, pounding his fist on the table. “I demand to see Howard! And I’m not leaving here until I do!”

Everyone within earshot started to giggle. The poor waitress, not wanting to further upset the man, struggled to keep a straight face as she explained that Howard Johnson wasn’t on the premises. But the poor old man was adamant about speaking to Howard. In fact, he still was sitting there waiting for him when we left.

I also remember the Howard Johnson restaurant at the intersection of Route 3 and 28 Bypass in Hooksett. My husband always took me there when I whined about needing my pot-pie fix, so it became our second home. One night we walked into the place and it smelled as if something had died in there.

“What smells?” I wrinkled my nose and asked the waitress after we were seated. I secretly prayed it wasn’t the evening’s blue-plate special.

“Don’t worry, it’s not the food!” she said brightly. “The septic system is backed up!”

Somehow, that didn’t make us feel a whole lot better.

The Howard Johnson’s near the Queen City Bridge in Manchester also had a distinct odor…like bleach. That’s because it was attached to a motor inn that had an indoor heated pool that must have had a couple tons of chlorine dumped into it.

The only thing I didn’t like about the Howard Johnson restaurants that were located right off major highways was that they attracted buses. It seemed as if every time we pulled into one of the parking lots, a busload of tourists would be right on our bumper.

“Quick! Run!” my husband would shout, leaping out of the car and bolting toward the door so he could beat the crowd.

But by the time I’d gather my coat, my handbag, check my hair in the mirror and apply a fresh coat of lipstick, we inevitably would end up standing in line behind about 75 people, most of whom were engaged in a conversation that sounded something like this:

“Hey, Martha, do you want raspberry ice cream?”

“Nah…I’m really not in the mood for raspberry. What other flavors do they have?”

“Chocolate…strawberry…vanilla…coffee…maple walnut…pistachio…”

(28 flavors later) “I guess I’ll have the butter pecan.”

“Do you want sprinkles on that?”

“What kind of sprinkles do they have?”

By then, my husband would be giving me looks that were scary enough to instantly melt Martha’s butter-pecan ice cream.

At one time, there were over a thousand Howard Johnson restaurants, most of them along the East Coast. Now there are only 10. Someone recently told me that there’s one in Springfield, Vermont.

Heck, that’s only an hour-and-a-half drive from here. The next time my husband asks me where I want to go out to eat, he’ll be in for a big surprise.

I can taste the chicken pot pie already.

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

How Sweet It Wasn't

I found an old book in my bookcase the other day. It was called, “How to Get Ahead With Your Boss,” and was published in 1960.

As I flipped through the pages, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the advice the author gave. The one that struck me the funniest stated: “Did you have a good idea today? Did you do something right? If you did, it was largely because of your boss and his good management of you. Pass all of the credit onto him and he’ll be only too happy to share it with you. Do NOT try to hog it yourself! So start thinking of what you did today that you can credit to your boss tomorrow morning.”

The more I read the book, the more I was reminded of my first full-time office job, which, coincidentally, took place during the same decade in which the book had been written. Maybe if I had taken the book’s advice and buttered up my boss more, I would have lasted longer than four months at the place.

After high school, I attended a computer college. Computers were the size of gymnasiums back then and used punch cards, which basically were cards made of oak-tag that had a bunch of holes punched in them. The holes formed patterns that told the computer what to do. I had heard that computer programmers earned big bucks, like $10 per hour, which was a small fortune back then, so I took every programming course that was offered.

Fresh out of computer school, I landed a job at a large company that supplied wholesale groceries to stores. The company also had a state-of-the-art computer, which I was dying to get my paws on. The personnel manager told me that I wouldn’t be starting out as a programmer, however, but would work my way up to the position in a short time if I proved to be a good employee.

Well, my job turned out to be a punch-card reader. For eight hours every incredibly long, dragged-out day, I just sat there looking at the holes in the cards. I had to make certain that the girls who worked at the keypunch machines, which punched all of the holes, hadn’t made any mistakes. By the end of the first day, my eyes felt as if they’d been popped out of their sockets and rolled in salt, and then reinserted. The worst part was that I was earning less than $2 an hour.

Because my job was so boring, I was easily distracted. If someone sneezed, I was the first one to yell, “Bless you!” just so I could hear my own voice. And if I overheard any of the office girls talking, I’d stop what I was doing and eavesdrop on their conversation, just to break up the monotony.

My boss, however, felt that my hole-reading was beginning to suffer, so he did something he thought would improve my concentration…he banished me to a private room where he thought I wouldn’t have any distractions. Of all places, he banished me to the candy display room.

So there I sat, the biggest sweets-aholic since Willy Wonka, alone at a table in the middle of a room that was lined with shelves that displayed just about every brand of candy ever created. I stared at the boxes of Sugar Babies, red licorice and Junior Mints and wiped the drool from the corners of my mouth. I walked over to one of the shelves and inhaled the intoxicating scent of Hershey bars and Almond Joys. I couldn’t have been more distracted if Elvis Presley, wearing only a thong, had come strolling into the room.

It didn’t take long for the isolation of the candy room to begin to drive me crazy. I even began to hear the candy talking to me…“Come on, Sally, open one of our boxes and sneak a few candies, then put the box back. No one will know the difference. We’re only display boxes, so no one’s going to buy us anyway. Our candy is just going to rot and get wormy if someone doesn’t eat it!”

Thus began my life as a secret candy-snatcher. Staring at holes in cards all day wasn’t quite so bad when I had M&Ms and Hershey’s kisses to ease the pain. The only problem was, I soon began to gain some serious weight…and a few zits.

There also was the constant stress of knowing that at any time, there was the remote possibility that one of the salesmen might come into the room to show the candy to a prospective buyer and in the process, would pick up one of the boxes and discover it was empty. Then he’d turn to look at me, see a telltale smear of chocolate on my face and faster than I could say, “Nestle’s Crunch,” I’d be standing in the unemployment line.

After I had been at the job for three months and my clothes were so tight, they were beginning to cut off my circulation, I asked my boss when he thought I might be able to start programming.

“It won’t be much longer,” he said. “Just hang in there, okay?”

So I hung in there another month. Only two things kept me from screaming and tossing all of the punch cards out of the nearest window: the supply of free candy and the fact that I was going to be a $10-an-hour computer programmer in the very near future and never would have to stare at a bunch of holes again.

One Friday afternoon at work, after I’d just stuffed a Tootsie Roll into my mouth, the biggest bigwig at the company, “El Presidente,” came walking into my room. I swallowed the Tootsie Roll so fast, I nearly needed the Heimlich maneuver. Next to him stood a young, dark-haired man.

“We have decided to hire another computer programmer,” El Presidente said. He had my immediate attention.

“This is my son, Norm,” he continued. “He really wants the programming job, but doesn’t know a thing about computers. I was told that you know a lot about them, so I’m going to have you teach him how to program so I can put him in the position as soon as possible.”

I just stared incredulously at him. But back then, just as the book, “How to Get Ahead With Your Boss,” said, good employees didn’t contradict their bosses or their godlike wisdom, so I just nodded and forced a weak smile.

And later that afternoon, when the clock struck five and my day of hole-reading was over, I grabbed a family-sized bag of jelly beans, walked out of the front door…and never returned.

Believe it or not, I never so much as looked at a computer again until 30 years later. And now, for some reason, whenever I’m near one, I get a wicked craving for Milky Way bars and Snickers.