Tuesday, May 22, 2012

If The Shoe Fits

My mother once ordered a pair of shoes from Fredericks of Hollywood. They were black velvet stilettos with cut-out toes and straps that snaked up her ankles.

Filling out a form from a catalog she snitched from her gynochologist’s waiting room, she then attached a note to Frederick’s. “Please deliver the package wrapped in plain brown paper.” After that, she crumpled the catalog into a baseball-size wad and set it on fire. I come by my craziness genetically.

Mama was paranoid that Mrs. Brewer, her next-door neighbor, might drop by, find the catalog lying around and tell everybody in town. And since our mailman delivered to the entire neighborhood, well ... you do the math.

Daddy had recently become a policeman so he and Mama planned to attend their first Policeman’s Ball at the National Guard Armory. For two weeks after she placed the shoe order, Mama went to a local department store and sifted through dressy dresses in hopes of finding a match. She was naturally plump but had recently added a few extra pounds. We hadn’t seen her in anything but navy blue or black since Dr. Cone told her to go on a diet, which she didn’t do.

The Policeman’s Ball was two nights away when she found the sleek black dress of her dreams: Size 14 with silver sequins trailing down the arms and wide seams that could be let out if she gained any more weight. It was love at first sight.

She primped all afternoon on the day of the Ball. At five o’clock, I went to her room. “Mama, when are you gonna fix supper? My stomach is growling.”

She cocked one eye at me, the other remaining stuck between the vise-like grip of an eyelash curler. “I’m not cooking tonight. Heat up some fish sticks if you’re hungry.” She squeezed the curler over her other eye.

“Fish sticks? Mama, I’m starving to death.”

She gave me the parent stare she had made a point of perfecting before I was born. “Then eat some potato chips. That'll keep you from dying.”

My brother and I were feeding fish sticks to the cat when Her Majesty swooped down the stairs in a pretty good imitation of Loretta Young. There was no resemblance to the woman who had driven us to school that morning.

My brother’s eyes got big as Coke bottoms. “Holy Cow,” he exclaimed. It was a good thing he didn’t say Holy something else. That would have landed us both in the bathroom trying not to swallow a mouthful of Ivory Soap.

Mama looked so glamorous that we could only stare. It was my first lesson in what my mother regarded as urban renewal.

Her smile was wide and her teeth sparkled in contrast to the bright red lipstick she wore. Fishing for a compliment, she asked, “Do I look okay?” We quickly responded with the adulation she hoped to hear. She was preening at the foot of the stairs while we gawked when Daddy made his entrance. One glance at him and Mama’s big smile turned into a scowl so fast it was like a magic trick.

“Harold,” she gasped. “White socks? What on earth were you thinking?”

Daddy, decked out in a black tuxedo rented for half-price at J.C. Penny’s, looked down at his feet. His pants were an inch too short, but except for his poor choice of socks, I thought he looked like a movie star.

“What’s wrong with white socks,” he asked. “They match my shirt.”

I thought Mama might swoon. Her eyes rolled and she heaved a dramatic sigh. “Go put on black socks right now, Harold, and make it snappy. We're already late.”

Daddy pinned an orchid corsage on her shoulder strap and then they strolled out the door. Mama took baby steps as though walking on ice in her new shoes while Daddy’s steadying hand never left her waist. They were young and happy, like kids going to their first prom.

The next day, Mama rewrapped her shoes in plain brown paper taking pains to hide the Frederick’s logo. She then placed them up high on a shelf in her closet where they would never again dazzle the eyes of her children or dance till dawn with the love of her life.

Long after I was grown, she admitted to having blisters, bunions and swollen feet the day following her enchanted evening at the Policeman's Ball. Smiling conspiratorially, she added, “But if the shoe fits, it’s probably orthopedic.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hot Diggity Dawg!

We hold these truths to be self evident: every mother’s spaghetti tastes better than anybody else’s, and every hometown has a hot dog dive serving up the best hot dogs on the planet.
No argument on the spaghetti issue, although honestly? MY mama's spaghetti can beat YOUR mama's spaghetti. Also, the Dairy-O hot dogs in Orangeburg, South Carolina, really ARE the best anywhere.
It’s only natural for folks to claim their hometown eatery to be better than anybody else’s because being loyal to hot dogs, apple pie and barbeque is the American way. Nowhere is that more true than south of the GnatLine.
In Orangeburg back in the day, there were two hot dog dives, one with curb service and one without. The place on Broughton Street was truly famous for hot dogs served to you in your car. They were ugly dogs, but who cared? A Julius’s hot dog, even today, can resurrect saliva glands in a corpse.
In Babe’s Pennsylvania hometown, folks show up at Bailey’s when they crave a taste of yesterday. Nailed to the walls are hundreds of football, basketball and wrestling team pictures, some going back as far as the Forties. Bailey’s sells all manner of fast food, but their made-to-order hot dogs topped with a secret sauce, is what keeps people coming back for more.
Bailey’s puts out a pretty good dog, but … not as good as the ones served up at Orangeburg’s second most famous place:  the Dairy-O. It’s impossible for me to pass through the burg without stopping for one or two.
In Hendersonville it’s Hot Dog World, touted as one of the best restaurants in North Carolina. I know a fellow who, when on vacation in the mountains, heads for Hot Dog World before he unpacks his suitcase. There was even a couple that hosted their wedding reception at Hot Dog World. (I didn’t make that up.)
Close to Duke University in Durham, Pauly’s Dogs rule. Each one, created by Pauly himself, is named appropriately. The Southern Belle is the standard h.d. with mustard, catsup, onions and Pauly’s special sauce. Aunt Jamima is a breakfast hot dog topped with maple syrup, and Cap’t Crunch is topped with .. you guessed it. I don’t think there’s one named Fido.
St. Simons Island’s hot dog claim to fame is Hot Dog Alley. The owner set up his business on a corner fifteen years ago, a cart on wheels normally seen at flea markets. I call them Roach Coaches, but that’s just me. He eventually bought the building on that same corner next to an alley and voila! Hot Dog Alley was re-born. A pretty good dog, but not great. My opinion is obviously jaded due to past eating experiences at the Dairy-O in Orangeburg, SC.
Walterboro SC has Dairyland and my kids, raised in that small lowcountry town, claim it to be the very best. Ehhh …
When I was a student at USC in Columbia, SC, we used to go to the old Sears store in Five Points to gobble up the best slaw dog ever made. Sadly, the little annex hot dog joint hooked onto the big Sears building has been gone for more years than I can count. Only the memory of that special taste is left. But oh, what a fine memory it is.
I am currently on a quest to find where if there is a hot dog to equal the Dairy-O dog. Next week, I plan to go to Hendersonville and chow down on one at an appropriately named place: Piggies. I am told it is so good you can’t stop with just one. We’ll see.
In any case, today is America’s official National Hot Dog Day, so why not stop for a moment and think about that special dive you knew as a kid, the one that floods you with memories. Cook up a bunch of the puppies and serve them to your kids and grandkids while telling them about that special place in your hometown back in the day that served the best hot dogs on the planet.
I double dog dare you to name one of them FIDO.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Who Was That Masked Man?

“When confronted by a difficult problem, you can solve it by reducing it to the question, ‘How would the Lone Ranger handle this?’“

A few weeks ago, I asked Mr. Breedlove, a professional photographer I’ve known all of my life, to restore and enlarge an old photo of Mama and Daddy. Today, he stands before me having just handed over the results of his meticulous work. He is preening and grinning like Miss Texas.

“It’s beautiful,” I exclaim before slipping on my reading glasses to look at it in more detail. I gasp. “Mr. Breedlove? Who is that man?”

“Why, it’s your daddy.” He peers over my shoulder. “Isn’t it?”

I shake my head. “Mr. Breedlove, I don’t know who that is. I always thought it was Daddy because of the hat but now that it’s enlarged, I see that it’s not. I’ve never laid eyes on that man.”

I continue to stare at the beautifully restored, hand-colored portrait of what I had previously believed was Mama and Daddy. “He looks almost like a cowboy.”

 “Let me see!” Mr. Breedlove snatches the photo from my hands. I’m too confused to get all huffy over his blatant rudeness. Holding the 10 x 12 enlargement out as far as his arms will stretch, Mr. Breedlove stares at it. When his mouth drops open, he looks like he’s witnessing the Second Coming.

“As I live and breathe,” he mutters in a tone akin to a prayer. “It’s the Lone Ranger.”

 My turn to snatch the photo. My mother was beautiful, still turning heads way past her 70th birthday. Daddy looked good too, but where Mama was photogenic, Daddy couldn’t take a good picture to save his soul. I quit looking at him in photos long ago, preferring to remember him in the flesh rather than a possum in the middle of the road.

Maybe that’s why I never looked hard at the stranger standing next to my mother until Mr. Breedlove enlarged the photo. The original was small, badly wrinkled and yellowed with age. I blink a time or two before peering again at the photo. “Holy Cow! I can’t believe I never noticed this.”

Mr. Breedlove jumps like a frog in a Mark Twain tale. “What? Is there somebody else? Is it Tonto?”

“Calm down, Mr. B.,” I say quietly. “Before you call the National Enquirer, you need to seriously chill. Nobody in this photo is famous. It’s not the Lone Ranger or Tonto and it's not Roy or Hopalong, either.”

 “Then why did you yell ‘Holy Cow?’ You made my blood pressure soar.” God help me if Mr. B. has a stroke.

“Sorry I yelled. Take a look at the man’s eyes. They are hooded with dark circles underneath. It makes him look like he’s wearing a mask.”

“It’s him I tell you!” Mr. Breedlove jerks the photo from me again and studies it as though it’s a silver bullet. This yanking back and forth is making me dizzy. Mr. B. shakes his head like a wet dog.

“That mask is very significant, if you ask me.”

My first thought is that he’s got to be kidding. My second is that Mr. B. doesn’t know how to kid. I smile as though he’s making a lick of sense, then I slap my forehead and feign a Eureka! “It’s coming back to me. Now I know who that man is!”

“You do? Is he a cowboy from the other side?”

Mr. B is starting to scare me. Somebody needs to tell him to ease up on caffeine and late-night TV.

“The other side? Naaah.” I reach over and gently take the photo from his trembling hands. “It’s Uncle Mac, my mother’s step-brother! I didn’t recognize him because I only met him once when I was little. He lived on an oilrig and didn’t like people and only came to see us two or three times. Shoot! I forgot all about him.”

Mr. Breedlove looks as though I’ve snatched away his one reason for living. He purses his lips, raises an eyebrow and sniffs. “Was it necessary to lead me on like that, missy? I’m a professional and I don’t like being the butt of one of your jokes.”

 Just wait till he reads the column I’m going to write.

“Now, Mr. Breedlove, you’ve known me for years. You can’t think I would do that, can you? I’m as shocked as you are to find Uncle Mac in that photo instead of Daddy.”

He is still grumbling so I lead him out to his car. If he’s going to pitch a fit, I’d just as soon not watch him do it. “Thanks again, Mr. B., for the beautiful restoration. I just wish Mama could’ve seen it. She’d have been pleased.”

I am talking to his taillights as he sticks his nose up in the air, directs his eyes to the road ahead and drives away in a huff. I wave goodbye. He does not wave back. I slam the front door, snatch up the picture and stare at it again.

Who in the heck is that masked man standing next to my mother? I don’t have a clue, OR an Uncle Mac.