My grandmother, Hilda Weissberg, was an extraordinary person. She was a loving woman, who spent most of her golden years raising two boys, my brother and me. She was a fifth grade teacher and later a principal while serving on several boards and committees. Still, she always had time for us. We always had a hot breakfast and a balanced dinner. She was a help to anyone in need. To me, she truly seemed to be all things to all people. Above all, I like to remember her as an educator.
To her, everything was an educational experience. At a young age, I was exposed to all manner of culture. We went to concerts, plays, museums, and anywhere else where there was an opportunity to learn. We not only watched the news, but discussed the important issues of the day over dinner. Our house was filled with any type of art supply or scientific equipment that you could imagine. And, of course, there were the books. Encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries, reference books, you name it.
My grandparents also subscribed to several newspapers and magazines. Like many families, we received Life and National Geographic, but we also got to read Ebony and Mother Jones. It was quite common to walk into a room and find her doing some sort of bizarre experiment. One time, she was trying to use heated air to suck a hard-boiled egg into a milk bottle. Another time, it was baking pine cones in the oven to make them open for some project.
Boredom was never an option. On long car trips, we would make up songs. On rainy weekends, she would make up card games or show us a new art technique. I still know how to make giant flower stalks out newspaper as well as hats and papier-mâché. Every question we had was met with a thorough and logical explanation. We watched Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts together.
My favorite memories are the times when she used education to solve a problem, usually without us even knowing it. If we asked for French toast for breakfast, she would often substitute a different type of bread from a different country. Pumpernickel was German toast, English muffins were English toast, and hot dog rolls, if you can believe it, were Belgian toast. She would serve our breakfast and tell us all about the country that the delicacies came from. We learned quite a bit of geography and history this way. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that she only did this to cover up the fact that we were out of white bread. Even when we were deprived, she made us feel privileged.
The absolute best example of my grandmother’s commitment to education was when she came home from the hospital after having a hysterectomy. She entered the house holding a medium sized jar. Inside the jar, was her uterus floating in formaldehyde. We were all at first shocked, disturbed, and disgusted, but she explained that she asked the doctor for it. She figured that she might be able to use it for educational purposes.
The uterus stayed under our bathroom sink for a few decades, only coming out when my cousin Alison and I would bring it out for family gatherings. After my grandmother’s passing, I was helping my grandfather clean out the house. Not only did I find the uterus, but also her tonsils in a small brown jar in the basement. It seems that even as a teenager, she was committed to the educational ideals. I asked my wife if she minded if I kept the uterus under our bathroom sink and an homage to my grandmother, and a bit of comedy for our kids.
Believe it or not, my kids showed it to Meghan, one of their baby sitters who was in high school at the time. It turns out that Meghan was working on a project relating to reproduction. We let her borrow the uterus to bring in to school as part of her project. It was a big hit with her classmates and teacher, but more important to me, it allowed my grandmother to provide one more educational experience.
I have recently completed my third novel. Like the first two, it is a (hopefully) comedic mystery. The writing process is fun for me, but I am continually frustrated by the fact that reality is often so completely ridiculous that it can be funnier than fiction. Fortunately, these instances are available for my blog.
Here is an example. I live in South Florida, while my eldest daughter Lilly lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Lilly is finishing her PhD at NC State and does research in the area of food access. A few weeks ago, I called her. It was morning and I’m sure that I had some typical inanity to report. I was fortunate to catch her on the way to campus. She told me that she only had a few minutes as she was heading in for a meeting. Suddenly, she blurted out, “Oh, my God.”
“What happened? Are you okay?” I asked.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “I just drove past a house where a guy was standing on his porch playing with himself.”
I followed this with what in hindsight was a pretty stupid question. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. He certainly wasn’t polishing the bannister.”
This reminded me of a similar incident a few years earlier. A friend of mine, who lives in Miami, called to tell me about it. He was driving with his partner on Alton Road in Miami Beach on his way to the New World Symphony for a concert. They passed a bench at a bus stop. Sitting on the bench, was what he described as a rather large woman. It seems that she had her dress lifted up and was, sans underwear, trimming her pubic hair with a small pair of scissors.
Being Miami, this did not terribly shock me, but since both of the witnesses were gay men, I felt compelled to ask the same ignorant question, “Are you sure”? My friend assured me that he had seen enough of the female form in his near fifty years of living to be quite sure.
Another thought occurred to me with regard to the Raleigh incident. It was late winter. I asked Lilly the temperature. She told me that it was about fifty degrees. When I speculated that fifty might be a sufficiently low temperature to keep the average man from performing such an act, she told me in no uncertain terms that the gentleman was clearly making every effort to keep his junk warm. I decided not to ask if he were wearing gloves.
Lilly asked me what she should do. After quickly rejecting the first several dozen responses that came to mind, I suggested that she call the police. She agreed and disconnected with me to do so. I thought about Lilly’s continued level of luck. While she is a star at life in general, and makes her own luck on the big things, on the small things, she is basically Ziggy or Charlie Brown. This is even more problematic because her sister is more likely to find an unattached twenty dollar bill on the street than a sexual deviant.
Lilly called me later to sarcastically thank me for my advice. It seems that the police started by asking for a description.
“I really didn’t get a good look at his face. I assume that he was smiling.”
“Miss, can you describe his clothing?”
“Well, his pants were around his ankles. I imagine if you hurry you might still be able to catch the end of the show.”
“Do you have the specific address?”
“No, but it’s on the south side of Hillsborough about three blocks east of campus. The house either has a dude pleasuring himself on the front porch or a puddle of DNA evidence. Look, I’ve got to go.”
I figured that this was it, but three weeks later, Lilly told me that a detective called her and asked if she might come in to look at some pictures.
“Pictures of what?” I asked.
“I was afraid to ask,” she said. “I politely declined.”
This should have ended the incident, but when I later related this tale to my friend Tyrone, we both lamented that reality was often funnier than fiction. I felt that if I wrote this scene into a novel or script, a publisher would throw me down the stairs for being unrealistic. Of course, that made me want to try it. While everything above is true, everything below is fiction. Send me an email and tell me which story you like better.
Dragnet SVU – Episode #1 – Hardened Criminal
Munch: The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Friday: This is the city…Boca Raton, Florida.
Munch: In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In Boca Raton, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit.
Friday: (Annoyed) These are their stories…My name is Friday. I carry a badge. (sings a la Dragnet theme) Dum-da-dump-dump
Munch: (Again, two notes from Law & Order): Dump-dump
Interior of 1960’s era apartment. There is a woman in a gingham dress and apron washing dishes. General Hospital is playing on a small black and white television with rabbit ears. The doorbell rings. The woman turns off the water and dries her hands on a dishtowel. She makes a highball and lights a cigarette. She walks into the living room, stopping in front of a mirror to adjust her beehive hairdo. She opens the door. Standing before her are two men in suits.
Friday: Good afternoon, Ma’am. My name is Friday. This is my partner, John Munch. We’re detectives. We received a report that someone here witnessed a crime taking place.
Lilly: Thank goodness y’all are here. It was just horrible.
Friday: (Looks at notebook) I take it that you’re Mrs. George Wentworth, Ma’am?
Lilly: Why yes, yes I am.
Friday: May we come in, Ma’am?
Lilly: Oh, where are my manners? Of course, come in, gentlemen. Can I get either of you a sweet tea or a lemonade?
They enter the apartment.
Munch: No thank you, Ma’am. We’re on duty.
Lilly: Y’all don’t sound like you’re from around here.
Friday: No, Ma’am. I just transferred from Los Angeles.
Munch: And I’m on temporary loan from New York, via Baltimore.
Friday: About the incident? Just the facts, Ma’am.
Lilly: Of course. I was driving home from the market this morning.
Munch: Tell us what you saw.
Lilly: It was awful. A man was standing on his porch. He was touching himself.
Friday: Yes, Ma’am, we’ve had a rash of this type of crime.
Lilly: Oh, he didn’t have a rash. He did have a little ole’ beauty mark on his—
Munch: Maybe we should go down to the station.
Lilly: Don’t y’all want a description?
Friday: Ma’am, we have a variety of new technologies to help us with this sort of thing.
Lilly: Well I suppose…as long as I’m home in time to provide a scrumptious dinner for my husband.
Fade out to commercial break.
Open to Police Station interior. Lilly, Friday, and Munch walk down a short hallway to an office with the words “Suspect Identification” stenciled on the door. They enter to find a table and chairs surrounded by bookshelves containing several loose leaf binders. There is an officer seated at the table and Detective Munch hold out a chair for Lilly. She smiles and sits down.
Friday: Ma’am, this is Officer Flynt. Larry, can you show Mrs. Wentworth some pictures of our sexual deviants?
Flynt: Sure, Joe.
He reaches for a binder.
Lilly: But I didn’t see his face.
Flynt stops and slides the book back on the shelf. Instead he pulls one out wrapped in brown paper. He removes the paper and opens the book.
Flynt: You see here Ma’am, each suspect has two pictures, one from the front and one showing the profile. Instead of a vertical scale showing the suspects’ height, these have a horizontal scale showing the…um…well, you get the idea.
Lilly: Wow…some of them are so…big.
Munch: (Looking at his notebook.) Ma’am, you identified the perpetrator as Caucasian. You can skip over those ones.
Lilly: (Leaning into the photos.) Well, I certainly want to be thorough.
Munch and Friday look at each other and nod as they leave the room. Fade out to commercial break.
Open to corridor. The three enter an office with the words “Sketch Artist” stenciled on the door. There is a man sitting at a desk holding a large sketchpad.
Friday: Ma’am, this is our sketch artist, Bob Mapplethorpe.
Lilly: I’m so sorry that I couldn’t find the right picture. I looked at them three times.
Munch: We appreciate your thoroughness, Ma’am. Your perp might not have a record, yet. Bob, here will ask you to describe the creep and he will create a sketch for us.
Mapplethorpe: Did the man have a beard or a moustache?
Lilly looks at Munch and Friday.
Friday: Sorry, Bob. This is a sex case.
Mapplethorpe: Oh, I see.
He turns his pad from a portrait to landscape orientation. Munch and Friday look at each other and nod.
Munch: This looks like it may take a while. Let’s get a cup of Joe, Joe.
Friday: Sure thing, John.
They leave the room. Fade out to commercial break.
Open to Sketch room. Mapplethorpe shows Lilly the picture.
Lilly: Oh, yes. That’s it. Yes…yes.
She lights up a cigarette. Friday and Munch burst into the room.
Friday: We caught a break. They’ve brought in a suspect.
Lilly: You mean you caught him?
She is folding the police sketch and putting it in her purse.
Munch: We’d like you to view a lineup.
Lilly: A line-up? Is that absolutely necessary?
She takes a mirror out of her bag and checks her hair.
Friday: It would really help us out, Ma’am.
Lilly: I suppose we all must do our civic duty.
She begins to apply lipstick. They leave the room and cross the hall into a room with “Line-up Viewing” stenciled on the window.
Munch: In a moment, Ma’am, a shade will go up and you will see six suspects. They will not be able to see you. If you see anyone you recognize and tell us where you saw them.
Lilly: Sure, sure, let’s get this show on the road.
Munch taps on the glass and the shade goes up.
Lilly: Hmm, can you ask them to pull their pants down?
Munch hits a button on the wall.
Munch: Pull down your pants.
Lilly: Hmm, can they turn to the side?
Munch hits a button on the wall.
Munch: Everyone, turn to the left. Come on Number Four, back up half a step.
Lilly: Hmm, can they hold onto it?
Munch looks at Friday, who shrugs and nods.
Munch hits a button on the wall.
Munch: Grab your junk with your right—
Lilly: He was a lefty.
Munch: Correction, left hand.
Lilly: Okay, I got it. Number one, Chili Cook Off, Number two, Regal Cinema, Number three, Mizner Park, Number four, confessional at St. Bartholomew, Number five, this morning, Number six, Walmart bathroom, no wait, it was Home Depot! How did I do?
Munch: Um…fine, Ma’am…just fine. Hold Number five.
Voiceover: On July 11th, a trial took place in the fourth circuit court of Palm Beach County…in a moment, the results of that trial.
Fade out to commercial break.
Open to man in prison garb standing next to Mrs. Wentworth.
Voiceover: The defendant was convicted of misdemeanor indecent exposure. He served sixty days in a county correctional facility and subsequently married the former Mrs. George Wentworth.