Tag Archives: Jokes

A Market Tale, Part II

By the early 1960’s the era of the small neighborhood market had come to an end.  All of the neighborhood kids would gather on the east side of Fairmont Avenue and watch as great vehicles came in and picked up and moved the best houses, while others tore down the rest and hauled what had once been kitchens where wonderful dinners had been cooked, living rooms where Bret Maverick and Marshall Dillon had been watched while eating those dinners on TV trays, and bedrooms where couples made love and then placed the sleeping results of their efforts in cradles and cribs, to an inglorious dump somewhere beyond the edge of town.  New machines cleared and leveled the ground, dug ditches for pipes, poured a foundation that looked like a concrete football field to us, and then began erecting walls.  In a few months a gigantic (for then) Safeway store occupied half of the block between Fairmont and 43rd Street, Landis and Wightman.

“I’ll never stop going to Jim’s” my mother stated, and she was as good as her word.  We had been shopping at Jim’s Market Spot, which occupied the opposite corner of Landis and Fairmont, since we moved into our house in 1952, and Mom liked Jim and liked Jim’s store.  The problem was that Mom did most of her grocery shopping on the naval base and paid prices not even Safeway could compete with, and she only resorted to Jim’s when some item was used up between monthly shopping trips.

Other residents of the area who did not have access to the Navy base were content to stretch their dollars further at the Safeway, and Jim noticed a trickle at first and finally a flood of his customers crossing the street, stepping on the big rubber mats which activated the automatic doors, and disappearing into the air-conditioned vastness that was the Safeway supermarket.  At length Jim heard the bell tolling and closed his market.  I was told that he was crying when he locked the big double front door for the last time but I don’t know if that is true; I wasn’t there to see it.

As I recall, the building remained vacant from then until I entered the Army in 1966.  Many businesses rose and fell along Fairmont; burger joints, pool halls, auto repair operations and plumbers and the like, but Jim’s old building was either too big or too small for whoever came along trying to start a business, so it sat shuttered, quiet, and lonely for my remaining years of childhood.

When I returned home from the Army however things had changed.  Jim’s Market Spot was now a lounge called “Granny’s”, and the place was doing a brisk business indeed.  I never went in there at first, since one of my old neighborhood friend’s father owned a bar a mile or two up El Cajon Boulevard, and my hours of sitting on my butt on a bar stool and piddling away my time and a large percentage of my Army severance pay were largely spent there.  A couple of years later however I had occasion to venture into Granny’s and found, to my surprise, a place very much to my liking.

Granny had an L shaped bar with the short segment angling to the left as you entered the front door; the same front door that Jim had locked a decade earlier, and the long segment continuing straight toward the back of the building, where the beer cooler from which I had tried to purchase a beer for my father once stood.  To the right were tables in a murky darkness where couples or small groups would be lost in their own conversation or listening to the juke box when live entertainment was not to be had.  But live entertainment was almost always there to be had.  Just behind the short segment of the L, the one which stretched off to the left, was a piano, and behind the piano on any given night was Freddy.

Freddy was a piano player and a singer, but equally important she was an entertainer.  I have seen many acts and have come to place musical performers into two categories: musicians and entertainers.  The Beatles were musicians.  Fabulously gifted, they wrote and played wonderful music.  When they got on a stage however they would mostly just stand there (or sit, in Ringo’s case), shake their moppy hair every once in a while to make the girls scream, and do their songs.  The Rolling Stones on the other hand were entertainers.  Oh, they were (and still are) musicians, to be sure, but in addition they, and primarily front man Mick Jagger, were amazing entertainers.  Mick would strut, gyrate, twirl the mic stand like a baton, and pout and point and leer at the people in the crowd and utterly hypnotize the audience.

Freddy was no Mick Jagger.  I never saw her do a handstand or sling her microphone like Roger Daltry of The Who.  What Freddy did however was play popular songs from multiple genres, most if not all of which we were familiar with, and some that we even knew the lyrics to, and draw the audience into the performance.  Being a person of an ebullient nature I would even sometimes sing along, as would some of my friends depending on how many pitchers of Granny’s suds we had already sent down the hatch.  Freddy’s venue was small, but she played it to perfection and Granny’s became a favorite watering hole for me and a good many of my friends.

On one particular evening five of us were perched on our bar stools along the short segment of the L where Freddy sat before her piano.  My brother Brad was to my right and long time friend Was to my left.  To the left of Wes were two friends from the construction crew of which we were all a part.  Charlie Pietermeeder sat next to Wes and Monkey star next to him.  Monkey’s real name was Andy Bandrill, and as every drywall hanger in our crew knew, Bandrill sounds like mandrill, a monkey of the Family Cercopithecidae, Genus Mandrillus, Species Mandrillus sphinx.  At least they knew it once I figured it out and shared it with them.  Anyway, all of that quickly boiled down to Monkey, and so there sat Monkey on the end of our chorus line.

It was a good night.  Freddy was on her game, the beer was flowing, we were all laughing and joking with each other, and Wes was flirting with Freddy.  Freddy was a good deal older than any of us but certainly not ready to be put in the rest home and, in an odd way, attractive.  How to describe her?  Well, plain I guess.  But plain taken to its best potential.  Her hair was well done, and although her figure was a bit more full than the willowy sweetheart whom I had waiting for my dissipated ass back at our house, she was not at all unattractive, and Wes was a man who was not afraid to make an advance to an attractive lady.  Freddy was on duty however, and while she obviously enjoyed the attention she did not materially abet Wes in his efforts.

Eventually the effects of several glasses of beer drove Brad to make his way to the men’s restroom in the back of the establishment.  Brad posted up in front of the urinal in the usual manner and was routinely taking care of his business when the door to the men’s room opened behind him and he heard the rustle of skirts.  Addled somewhat by the beer he had consumed, it took Brad a moment or two longer than it normally would have to register that skirts in a men’s room is not a combination that one comes to expect.  A quick look over his right shoulder confirmed that the rustle was indeed that of a skirt and that the skirt was being worn by Freddy, the piano player, who was at that moment disappearing into a stall in the men’s room.

This discovery produced an initial pucker, and Brad shook off the last few drops and hurried back to his stool after coming uncomfortably close to catching something in his zipper in his haste.  As soon as Brad had reclaimed his perch he leaned over and whispered to me “Freddy’s a guy.  Don’t tell Wes.”  I was initially stunned, but recovered quickly and guarded Brad’s secret.  Soon after that Freddy returned to her post and Wes took his turn in the restroom, which gave Brad and me the opportunity we were looking for to share this intelligence with Charlie and Monkey.

Those two worthy gentlemen were also surprised to learn this fact, but oddly enough nobody was put out by it, even though this was 1973 and attitudes toward this sort of thing still trended toward a hard line of opposition.  We all tended to be interested in our own business however and were not inclined to interfere into that of others, and so as long as Freddy could play a good piano and sing a good song we couldn’t care less whether her chromosomes were xx or xy.  We all agreed to keep the secret from Wes however.  We were a bunch who loved a joke, as I have written elsewhere, and the possibilities here were delicious to contemplate.

At length Wes returned and reclaimed his perch right in the middle of our line and right in front of Freddy.  Wes’ flirtation was not aggressive, in fact it was more like a fun way to play for an evening than a strong pitch to make it more than that, although one never knew where such things could lead and Wes was always up for the game.  Wes flirted with the girls in the same manner that fish swim, birds fly, and spiders are ugly; it was just his nature.  On this night however Wes’ advances generated increasingly ill-concealed chuckles from the rest of us, who were trying with all of our might to talk about the Padres’ baseball season or the war that lingered in Vietnam or the degree to which Harvey Black, the crew foreman for Earl Thurston Drywall and Finishing, was shorting our paychecks; any mundane thing to try to keep us from cracking up right there at the bar.

Wes was only a casual Casanova and his attention was far from being directed only at Freddy.  He too was interested in the Padres, the war, and getting cheated, and he joined into our general conversation.  But when his bent returned towards amorous attention to Freddy the thinly suppressed giggles became more and more obvious and impossible for him to ignore.  Wes could clearly see that it had something to do with his flirting but he knew that we had never behaved this way before, and this was far from the first that Wes, or any of us for that matter, had flirted in a bar.  Not willing to make a stink in front of the object of his attention he waited until Freddy exited her stage to go and take a break.

“OK you shitbirds, what’s so damned funny?” Wes asked as soon as the coast was clear.  At this our suppressed laughter erupted from where we had tried to cage it for the last hour.  “Man, Freddy’s a guy!” Charlie blurted out, and we all laughed harder.  Wes looked at Monkey, Brad and me, and we all nodded our affirmation.  “Yeah man, it’s true” I said.  “Freddy came in to use the crapper when Brad was taking a leak.  He saw the skirt hit the floor in the stall.”  At this point Charlie chimed in “It’s OK man.  We ain’t judging” he said and slapped Wes on the back.  “To each his own.”

Wes got red as a beet and just sat on his stool, unsure of whether he should hit somebody or just get up and walk out of the joint.  Ultimately he did neither.  Wes knew he had to face us on the job site the next morning and there was nowhere to hide.  Also, Wes could play a joke as well as the next guy, and it slowly sunk in that it was just his turn to be the butt of one.  I extended the pitcher and refilled Wes’ glass and we all had one more laugh, including Wes, and went back to enjoying our evening.

Her break concluded, Freddy returned to resume her work for the evening.  Wes’ attentions were now dramatically muted and Freddy figured out quickly that the jig was up.  We all genuinely enjoyed her music however and had no inclination to leave.  This became apparent to Freddy who discerned that nobody was going to get weird on her this night, and we all enjoyed ourselves greatly until we went home far later than we should have.

That old building continued as a lounge for a few more years, and then changed hands and became something much more unsavory, and I will go no further in describing that sad history.  At last, the old building was torn down sometime in the last thirty years, along with a couple of the adjacent houses, and now a Mexican seafood restaurant occupies the space.  In my mind’s eye however I can sometimes see the place in a vision.  It’s after closing time and when the traffic has settled down.  The neighborhood rests in the dead of the night, gathering strength for the next day’s frenetic activity at parks, schools, and businesses that have transformed the place where I grew up.  A thin, ethereal outline of an elderly woman pulling a wire shopping cart on two wheels walks arthritically through the big doors of Jim’s Market Spot, past five idiots sitting at a bar when they should be home with their wives and sweethearts.  She selects her weekly groceries as a little boy pulls a quart of beer out of a cooler.  The vision brings a smile to my face, and sometimes maybe a small tear in my eye.

The Joke’s On You, Part I

When I was young I lived in a neighborhood of practical jokers.  There were some who’s mischief ran to the malicious, to be sure, but by and large our pranks and practical jokes were harmless if occasionally quite shocking.  Almost all of the kids in my neighborhood were long-time residents, so any prank would probably be pulled on a neighbor who’s lawn one might cut for a few dollars on a Saturday morning or who one might deliver newspapers to in the afternoon, or who – worse case scenario – might go to bowling league with one or more of your parents.  Getting caught pulling any prank on one of these neighbors might easily result in retribution from Dad with his belt.  Getting caught pulling a malicious prank would result in a fate that would be much, much worse.

Also deterring us from pulling really bad pranks was Officer Alphabet.  Officer Alphabet grew up in East San Diego not more than 150 feet from my house.  His family was Polish, and his name contained nothing but C’s and Z’s and Y’s and a gob of other letters in unpronounceable combinations.  The real pronunciation of his name was something like “Shemshack”, but it certainly didn’t look anything like that, so we just called him Officer Alphabet.

Officer Alphabet had been a big kid while growing up in our midst and he grew up to be a big police officer, and he was assigned to patrol our neighborhood.  This presented big problems to us prank-loving kids, as Officer Alphabet knew every passageway between houses, every path through the canyons which laced through our neighborhood, and every hedge, tree or shrub big enough to provide cover to a hiding prankster with judgement hot on his heals.  Officer Alphabet had used all of those passages and hiding places himself when he was a kid pulling pranks.  Officer Alphabet couldn’t be in our neighborhood all of the time, but when he was there the place stayed pretty quiet.

We had all levels of tricksters living in our midst, and many were not all that creative.  Draping toilet paper over trees and shrubs and family autos parked in front of somebody’s house so that the morning dew would virtually plaster the paper to whatever it was draped over was a favorite of the unimaginative, as was scooping up a pile of doggie doo into a paper bag, placing it on a porch in front of the door, lighting it on fire and ringing the doorbell, hoping that the occupant of the home would answer the door, see the burning bag, and stamp on it to try to put out the fire.  That prank was so old that few people fell for it, but it still generated a lot of laughs on the rare occasions when it worked.

I belonged to a higher order of trickster, however, and enjoyed hours of entertainment with my friends as we raised hackles, ire and Cain throughout our neighborhood for many years without any of our jokes bringing significant retribution upon ourselves.  What follows are a few examples of our better efforts at creating good natured havoc with out neighbors in East San Diego in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

My third all-time favorite prank occurred one summer evening in 1963, I think it was.  Some friends and I, all fans of sci fi and monster films and all bored, came up with the idea of transforming me into “The Mummy” from the Boris Karloff 1932 movie of the same name.  We went to my house where we cut a hole out of a cotton pad and taped it over my right eye, covering up eyebrows which I wished to keep.  We then taped an intact cotton pad over my left eye and covered my close-cropped hair with a piece of rag from a bag of such things which my father kept in the garage.  We then proceeded to tape my head and hands completely with gleaming white adhesive tape until I was eventually doing a pretty good imitation of Mr. Karloff’s character.  I pulled on my black turtleneck shirt and we walked the short distance to the recreational center, which we called ‘The Park’, where all of the neighborhood kids hung out.

My friends hid behind shrubs while I strolled across the asphalt towards the center’s office over by the basketball court, dragging my left leg ever so slightly in homage to Karloff.  The effect was electric.  One of the girls gave off a stifled scream, or more like a swallowed squeak, when she turned and saw me approaching.  Everyone else simply stopped in their tracks and stared as I shuffled further into the light.  I made my way to a bench where most of the kids were sitting and took a seat which a couple of the kids had just quickly vacated.  I sat down, faced them, and then began to laugh through the tight slit which we had left for my mouth.  At this point my friends emerged from the bushes behind which they had been hiding and we all had a good laugh after a few punches in the shoulder from the guys and pushes from the girls, all of which I received with delight being a kid who was rarely the center of anything.

After a while Sonny Abacha, one of the newer kids in our group, suggested that we take our show out into the neighborhood.  We devised a plan to have one of the kids walk up to a house who’s owner we didn’t know, with me in tow, and ask for directions to a mythical house number on a street a few blocks away.  We all agreed on the plan and chose a house about a block away from the park.  Since our scheme was Sonny’s idea he was chosen to take me up to the first house.  We mounted the steps, rang the bell, and waited as we heard the steps of the approaching resident.  The porch light came on and the door was opened by a short, grizzled man in dungarees and a stained undershirt.

“Excuse me sir, can you tell me where I can find Myrtle Street?”  asked Sonny in the most polite manner which he could summon up.  The man stared at me for a moment and then looked back at Sonny,  “Huh, what’d you say?” he asked.  “We’re looking for Myrtle Street sir. I need to get my friend to a home where he will be taken care of but I must have read the map wrong.  Can you tell me if that street is anywhere around here?”  “It’s two blocks down the street that way” said the man, pointing with his chin.  “What the hell happened to him?”  Sonny didn’t miss a beat.  “Fire, sir.  He was in a car crash and got burned.”  The man stared a moment longer and then said “Hell of a bad break.  Well, Myrtle’s that way”.  This time he pointed with his thumb and shut the door as Sonny thanked him for his help.  Sonny and I held our laughter until we reached the sidewalk and the group of kids who appeared from behind parked cars and trees, and then we enjoyed our prank to the limit.  We repeated this scenario with different boys, and girls too, walking me up to the front doors, always to be greeted by gasps, stares, and frequently expressions of condolence.

The success of our little joke led us to try our luck with a larger audience.  The two main business streets in our neighborhood were Fairmont and University Avenues, with University being the most commercial of the two.  We decided to head towards Fairmont first where there was a hamburger stand at which we were frequent customers.  We pretended not to notice the stares of motorists who drove past us as we walked up to that business, and when we arrived Linda Stevens, one of my oldest friends, took me up to order.  Linda was a very pretty girl, and the boy working at the window was our age and always gazed longingly at Linda when we went there for burgers or taquitos or whatever.  Tonight he just stared at me, like everyone else, and then asked Linda “Who’s your creepy friend?”

“Arlen, that is a terrible thing to say” Linda scolded.  “This is Joseph, my cousin.  His family died in a fire and he was terribly burned.  Now he’s living with us and I would appreciate it if you would be a little bit nicer to him”.  Arlen stood behind the screened window apologizing to Linda and me for his poor choice of words while I stood beside Linda thinking that it would be worth getting burned for real to elicit that much attention and sympathy from her. Linda and I were good friends, it was true, but I would have loved to elevate that status if there was any way that my shy personality would have allowed it.

Linda went to pay for the two sodas which she had ordered for us but Arlen wouldn’t dream of taking her money.  Linda thanked him and handed me my soda.  I inserted the straw into the thin slit which we left open over my mouth and slurped some of the soda in an exaggerated way that forced a laugh out of Linda.  Arlen just stood behind his window looking stupefied as I limped beside Linda toward the kids who were watching from a darkened parking lot across the busy street.  Linda and I crossed the street easily, as every car braked instantly upon seeing me.

One block away was the corner of Fairmont and University Avenues, and this was a major hub in our corner of the city.  We were very aware of the stares of the drivers and pedestrians whom we passed by, and were busy planning our next act in this comedy when a black and white police patrol car slowed down as it passed us and then rolled to a stop by the curb a little bit ahead in the direction that we were walking.  As we pulled adjacent to his car the officer called us over to him.  “Is that dressing the real thing?” he asked.  It never entered my head to lie.  “No sir” I answered.  “Then what is this all about”?  “It’s just a joke sir” said Sonny.  “We’re just having a little fun.  We haven’t done anything wrong, have we”?  Well, actually you have”  replied the officer.  “You’re not allowed to wear a mask outside except on Halloween.”  We were stunned by that knowledge.  “Why is that?” I asked.  “Well,” the officer drawled, “how do we know that you aren’t going to rob some business or do some other bad stuff?  If people just all ran around with masks all of the time there’s no telling how many crimes would be committed and with no way of identifying the criminals”.

That made sense to us and so we promised to remove the tape.  The police cruiser pulled away and we walked around the first corner that we came to and plunged back into the darkness of a residential street.  We hated the idea of ending the joke, but as it was my rear end that would be in a sling if the policeman returned to check up on our level of compliance I made the decision to shed my disguise.  The tape came off, along with generous amounts of hair which I had not managed to adequately cover, and we all returned to the recreation center sharing a lot of laughs along the way.  We waved goodbye to The Mummy as I dropped the tape and accessories into a trash can just on the other side of the tennis court.

And that is the story of my third favorite neighborhood prank.  My second favorite will be told in my next story.