Friday, May 31, 2013

Book 'em, Betty. Murder Mysteries One.

One of the annual Rites of Spring in State College is the annual AAUW Used Book Sale. In our post-modern, sustainability-infused world, it’s the love child of and a recycling extravaganza where our old books go to meet new bookworms. In the process, the local chapter of AAUW raises a tidy sum to support its good works, of which, all kidding aside, there are quite a slew.

The AAUW (American Association of University Women) is an old fashioned women’s club. Well, not exactly. I am not sure that they play bridge, eat triangular tea sandwiches from which the bread crusts have been trimmed, and talk about genealogy. I mean, when would they have time? The book sale requires endless hours upon hours of work. But really, if they wanted to throw back a few in search of the perfect Old-Fashioned, no one would blame them. All those books can make a girl thirsty.  (Bess Truman's recipe for an Old-Fashioned: bourbon and ice. That's it. Skip all the fluff.)

What is old fashioned is the annual used book sale itself. Books? They're so last century. And the one before that. And the one before that. Well, you get the idea. The used book sale has been around since the dawn of time, and fortunately, seems to be holding its own against the Kindles and Brand X e-readers of this world.

The women of AAUW accept donations of books from anyone who can open a large plastic bin and put a book or even a box of books in it.  The AAUW-ers then price and review the donations and make sure that there’s not a hidden treasure map stuck between the leaves of a book no one has opened in forever. They recycle some books right away—they don’t think there’s much of a market at the sale for the 89th copy of the Fifty Shades of Gray.  They keep the decent books (and trust me, they have catholic tastes when it comes to decent) and then sort them according to category of subject matter. At the end of the intake process, the books are put into specially marked heavy-duty fruit and veg boxes that they’ve been saving for years.

Two days before the sale, the event committee arranges for a small army of volunteers and a fleet (OK, five or six) trucks to transport the books from the AAUW warehouse to Penn State’s Snider Agricultural Arena, several miles away. A crew of manly men at the warehouse location loads trucks, and then another crew of volunteers unloads trucks at the Snider Ag arena. I’m on the unloading crew.

The sawdust floor of the arena—where livestock usually trots around and so on—is covered with black Tyvek-like fabric. The arena is then filled with a sea of identical sturdy tables. Each table is reserved for a specific subject matter—the more popular subjects get more tables.

It takes about five hours to fill the arena with books.
Over five or so hours, my fellow volunteers and I unload trucks and gradually fill all the tables with books, toting each box to the table reserved for that subject matter. It's about a kabillion books by my math. Four-thousand and some odd fruit boxes of books weigh about what you think four-thousand and some odd fruit boxes of books would weigh: a lot. I work up a sweat. It’s hard work for an old geezer like me.

The women of AAUW never seem to get beyond a healthy glow as they unload the books from the boxes the volunteers tote to each table. One woman is in charge of less popular genres, such as biographies, while it may take a few to handle more popular areas like children’s books.

Back in the olden days, when I’d just started helping, there were PSU Navy ROTC students on the unloading crew. They were hard workers though they did spend a serious amount of time preening and flexing and trying to attract girls or perhaps boys if they were in a don’t ask/don’t tell situation. Even then, if you asked nicely they’d probably tell you, and perhaps even show off the resulting tattoos, all in the strictest of confidence, of course. 

Today much of the help comes from kids from the local alternative high school. Some of them are good workers, like the boy who carried boxes of books on his head, but others seemed to have cut the class about the Meaning of Work. They show up in flip flops and muumuus and aren’t really there to work, but instead come hang out with other kids in flip flops and muumuus and collect the community service hours necessary to earn a State High diploma. I’m sure some of them would be OK with close supervision (as in on a chain gang), but this year, there was no close supervision. Exasperated, I even resorted to exercising my first amendment rights by telling a gaggle of them to cut the tomfoolery and get back to work. Big surprise: it didn’t work.

Unlike the high school kids, some of the women of the AAUW aren’t so young. In fact, I’ve even heard them refer to each other as “old biddies” in a tone not reserved for terms of endearment. It occurred to me that a couple of the women might have dated Guttenburg, as in Johannes not Steve, but  some of them could have done Steve too. After all, according to Steve Guttenberg’s modestly titled autobiography, The Guttenberg Bible, he had plenty of conquests. I would not be surprised that at least one of the AAUW women had a moment with the star of Police Academy where she took off her glasses as she unpinned her bun and shook out her greying but not yet blue tresses. And then, in a voice redolent of Sanka, Dewey Decimal numbers, and an occasional Thursdays-only hit of Milk of Magnesia, purred “Steve, I don’t want you to think of me as just an old biddy from the cookbook section of the AAUW booksale…”

I thought about buying this for my college chum Peggy who used to buy all the books critical of the Kennedys--in hardcover--just to make Rose Kennedy ("Rose Toes, in Peggy-speak) mad.
Most of the women are the life of the party and are glad you’re there helping, even the quiet woman in biographies who always wears headphones as she works and has so far resisted my suggestion to create a special section devoted to Princess Diana. However, there are also women who aren’t very nice. I mean, they’re not exactly mean, but lots of them don’t say thank you and act as if it never would occur to them that the box toters read books, too. Lots of times I’ve walked to a table with a heavy box of books and the woman-in-charge, a who no doubt spent her senior year in high school as a state officer in Future Prison Matrons of America, will point and bark “Just put ‘er there.” When that happens I see her as her  film noir doppelganger who smells faintly of Vat 69, with the ever present cigarette balanced on her lower lip. As she sorts books, her Benson & Hedges menthol bounces up and down with each syllable, its impossibly long ash about to fall onto a well-worn copy of  Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. Before her ash falls, the moment is gone. I chuckle to myself and go back for another box of books.

This year I overheard one of the women correcting someone. “That’s fewer, not less. Use fewer when it’s something you can count”. I shared with her that my mother's pet peeve was using the word "raise" when someone really meant "rear".  I don't think she shared my mother's sense of outrage.

Yes, this book was really written by Dr. A. Willy and "other authorities". I'm assuming one of those authorities is Dick Hertz.
Since I’m partial to history and bio, I asked the volunteers in history what the most unusual book they’d seen. “Something about Napoleon’s Privates. It was pure pornography!” “Oh my!” was all that I could manage as a made a mental note to go back to look for that. Once I found it, of course, I had to buy it. In case you’re wondering, in the index under John Dillinger, it says, "Penis as relic….p. 39”. According to Napoleon's Privates, 2,500 Years of History Unzipped by Tony Perrottet, the story about Dillinger's uh, big weapon, being stored in a shoe box at the FBI isn’t true. Yeah, right.

Once all the books are unloaded volunteers are given about 30 minutes to shop before the arena is locked for the night. Although I’m not typically in the mood for books after carrying so many, I do a jiffy tour through the histories, bios, and art/architecture books to see if there’s anything worthwhile.

Two days later the event opens to the public in a feeding frenzy that makes the Oklahoma Land Rush look like a slow moving line receiving line at Koch Funeral Home. When the sale is over a few days later, the AAUW has done State College a huge service. Lots of great and not so great books have found new homes, high school kids have completed some community service project, and the AAUW has earned a ton of money to fund its good works.  I have some sore muscles, and if I'm lucky, a few books to enjoy know that that some day they may go back to the plastic bins at AAUW where they will start their lives all over again.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Blooming of the Moose

I went to Bloomsburg the other day to do some consulting. Yes, someone finally asked me to teach a seminar on how to put a Whoopee cushion under one's mother. Once they met my exorbitant price of dinner and some gas I was all over the offer like a cheap suit.  Let me point out that the gas was for my truck; gas from dinner is just a lagniappe that comes from a tasty repast of central Pennsylvania cuisine. 

I don’t know that I’d been to the heart of Bloomsburg before. For me, Bloomsburg was too far away to be a convenient jaunt and too close to be an exotic destination. However, I’ve driven by on I-80 and looked at placemats promoting the Bloomsburg Fair lots of times. Now that I’m older and wiser, well, OK, older, I’ve kicked myself a million times for missing all those opportunities to see the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show at the Bloomsburg Fair.  

For those of you who aren’t white trash conversant, back in the day when red blooded American males spent time souping up American muscle cars, Joie Chitwood and his pals had an automobile daredevil show that traveled around on the county fair circuit. In one of his more bizarre stunts, on May 13, 1978, Joie Chitwood set a world record when he drove a Chevrolet Chevette for 5.6 miles on 2 wheels. Like you, I didn’t know that there was a world record for driving a Chevrolet Chevette on 2 wheels, but since there is one, I’m glad the record holder is Joie Chitwood and not some Brand X daredevil. 

I arrived in Bloomsburg a tad early so I walked around downtown for a bit before my appointment.

I loved the neon sign at the Bill Hess Tavern. Someone opened the door when I walked by and wow, the smoke-belching steel mills of 1930s Pittsburgh had nothing on this place. I don’t think they allow you in there unless you  chain smoke, and not just anything, but preferably the Three Stooges signature cigar, the LaStinkadora or as Shemp said, “Oye, a Lasting Kadora!”). 

Smelling like an ashtray and a distillery seemed like a bad idea so I didn’t stop in for a restorative before my consulting gig.

A head shot from Michelangelo’s David definitely says top drawer to me. Interestingly enough, Michelangelo's David didn't wear any clothes, high fashion or otherwise.

Then there was the Arcus Brothers resale emporium. It may be a resale shoppe, but wow, it really feels like a performance art installation. I did a jiffy tour through the inside and had to get out before I asked if they happened to have Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls on 8 track tape, as read aloud by Merv Griffin. (I'm sure they had it.) It seemed like a treasure trove of weird sports memorabilia (no doubt there’s a Steve Blass bobble head in there someplace), used musical instruments, and old-fashioned flotsam and jetsam. Had I the patience of a born shopper I think I could have found the Village People’s movie on European format videodisc. (Just what I always wanted...How nice!) Just as I was leaving a woman brought a in laundry basket filled with stuff that Goodwill seemingly rejected. She seemed all set to cash in on her like-new Donald Trump Board Game  and Marie Osmond signature Sony Walkman cozy.  

My meeting was at a place called the Moose Exchange. It had been the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge No. 623, but the days of the Moose in Bloomsburg had long since passed. The Moose had been the ne plus ultra of Bloomsburg’s fraternal societies when it opened its mid-century modern lodge on June 1, 1950 in a gala attended by many of the Moose’s 3,000 members not to mention more than a few of the 500 Ladies of the Moose. (Isn't a female moose a cow?) The story of the Loyal Order of Moose brought back memories of Fred Flintstone and the Water Buffalo Lodge.

For quite some time Bloomsburg Moose Lodge No. 623 was the place to be. Its grand public spaces—including a big ballroom with a semi-circular bar—were the scene of many local proms and other events of note. But as the building aged, fraternal organizations lost their allure. The world passed Pennsylvania’s aging downtowns by, and guys found out that they could get laid without investing in a corsage, a couple of whiskey sours, and an evening of dancing with the GF to accordion music at the Moose.
The Moose hibernated for some time before being rescued by a herd of concerned locals. Now it’s the Moose Exchange, and has a more artistic slash Brooklyn-hipster identity. During my visit a gallery in the building was hosting the mandatory photo essay on the Marcellus shale, which I sort of skipped over.

The best stop on the tour was the hermetically sealed bowling alley in the building's basement. It looked as if nothing had been changed since the day the alley was installed in the 1950s. It had been cleaned up and polished just a bit when the Moose was unloosed not long ago. There were six lanes and it looked just like Amenara Lanes, where I learned to bowl as a kid.

My host, Oren, took me into the back of the alleys (as opposed to into the back alley, the place where illegal abortions take place) and gave me a quick tutorial on how pin setting machines worked. It’s all really very easy, the gizmo is attached to a thingy, and then this arm comes by and well, pretty soon the pins are all where they’re supposed to be. And nothing is computerized. It was quite the triumph of mechanical engineering and lubrication, kinda like a visit to a San Francisco S&M club.

As I watched the machine go through its motions, I felt as if I was in an old Industry on Parade newsreel, watching the widgets go along an assembly line while the narrator intoned about Yankee ingenuity and then moved right into the feel-good anti-commie message at the end of the show. Even today, I know that if a bunch of Ruskies came to the Moose Exchange to bowl a few frames, the Godless Commies would be no match for the happy, contented Protestant workers of Bloomsburg when it came to the seven/ten split.

There was a rack of bowling balls by the wall of the alley. They were completely unremarkable.  All of the bowling alleys I’ve been to have had racks of bowling balls. Oren, made sure that I saw them. 

“See those bowling balls over there?”


“In the business they’re called dead men’s balls. Guys left their bowling ball here and never came back for ‘em.”

He didn’t quite have the flat affect of Sgt Joe Friday or Clint Eastwood but he was close. He spoke as if he uttered the phrase Dead men’s balls every day, which given his situation, perhaps he does.

The business. I wasn’t sure what business he was talking about. Surely there weren’t enough people rehabbing old Moose clubs to qualify as "the business" but what do I know? 

I thought about telling him that when I was at Park Forest Junior High, Rich Ackerman swore to me that there was an article in Readers’ Digest called I Am Joe’s Balls and I pretty much believed him. Oren hadn’t bought my dinner yet, so I thought I was best to save that anecdote for the demitasse course. In the new, post-modern hipster online Reader’s Digest there’s probably an article called I Am Dead Joe’s Ball written from the bowling ball’s perspective. 

By the time dinner was over, I’d shared everything I knew about deploying Whoopee cushions in nice restaurants and even a little stuff about art festivals, too. Bloomsburg seemed like a pretty nice place, and as former Moose lodges go, theirs seemed to be one of the best. I’d spent a couple hours at the Moose Exchange and no one mentioned Captain Kangaroo’s friend, Mr. Moose, or even the practically local, Mike “Moose” Mussina, the former pitcher for the Yankees and Orioles. Then again, if I were in charge, I’d have called it the Moose (and Squirrel) Exchange, pronounced, of course, in a thick Russian accent. I chuckled at that idea repeatedly during the my drive back to Happy Valley. I’ve always been good at amusing myself, and that doesn’t stop just because I’m waiting to download I Am Dead Joe’s Ball onto my Kindle.