Archive for June 2008
The last time we got together I mentioned something about trying to sell Ecko Hope Chests on the streets of Washington, DC. Don’t try it, it doesn’t work. It didn’t work in 1973, and it won’t work in 2008.
My first job after being discharged from the service was selling pots and pans. Our “product” included glassware, china and silverware, but the meat of the sale was Ecko waterless cookware. The ensemble was touted as the answer to the dreams of all “single working girls,” and the job was to essentially accost young females on the streets of Washington during their hurried lunch break, and convince them to allow me to bring a free gift (plastic “rain bonnet”) to their premises some evening, to hear my pitch about what they might need for their future domestication. If you are following me, you know this won’t work.
My “supervisor” was a really cool fellow. He was charged with training me to get the necessary number of appointments to make a living. His name escapes me (since I knew him all of 15 business days, 35 years ago), but I do recall he was cool. I’ll give him the name Freeburg, not for any particular reason, but it’s silly, and that’s my purpose in life.
Freeburg had long blonde hair, a hip mustache (not necessarily a Fu Manchu, but long) and he wore sunglasses. He was a Hippie in a suit. Now, my interest was in providing for my family, but Freeburg was there to get lucky. And he did. Quite a few times (it was the era of free love). The ladies of the time liked the look, he was intelligent and spoke very well, and he was always stoned, so his mellowness apparently was a draw.
I wanted to learn my trade, and quite honestly I really sucked at it. Freeburg often disappeared into the nearby alley to toke on a small pipe. Once he was sufficiently high, he would direct me how to talk, but somehow it wasn’t particularly intelligible. My animated, freakish mumbling at the women who walked by seemed more like Quasimodo communicating with Esmeralda.
Picture this. It’s 1973, and everyone had long hair. I, on the other hand, had short, closely cropped bangs (think Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber); being out of the military for just over three weeks. Combine that sight with my pencil-thin mustache, which looked more like groomed nostril hairs and you have a pretty good idea of my handicap. Take your pick; the contemporary, handsome, long blonde-haired guy, stoned and mellow, with sunglasses and a cool mustache, or the jittery dork, with the sneaky-looking nose hairs, wearing a polyester suit and platform shoes, desperately seeking a dollar, who looks like he just fell off the lettuce truck. As you can guess, there weren’t many appointments in my future.
I did get one. She probably felt sorry for me. Either that, or she really needed a rain hat. That evening, I went to Debbie’s (I remembered her name) apartment in Wheaton and knocked on the door. During my last few months in Taiwan, I had several suits tailored (very cheaply) in the finest polyester double-knit fabric available. My duds were proudly displayed on my slim body. That particular day, I was wearing my rust-colored, maxi-patterned, plaid suit (similar to the picture). The shirt was beige; accented with a fine, matching non-silk tie. In my left hand dangled the handle of my sample case. One of her roommates came to the door and fingered my lapel and said, “Really nice,” in as sarcastic a way as he could. But, he invited me in. This was the opening scene in Death of a Salesman.
He immediately and proudly showed me the marijuana plant growing in the hall closet. “I suspect you don’t know the purpose of my visit,” I thought. So I nodded and said, “It looks very healthy (as if I knew).” But, I was thinking, “I need a sale.” Debbie walked out of the kitchen to greet me, and two other female roommates came out of the bedroom to say hello. The Botanist was the only male living with three women, all very cute. Then they asked if I wanted to party. Tempting as it was, I had to leave. There was no way a sale would be made among this group, and it didn’t really matter why my prospect agreed to allow me to come by (even though it was intriguing). I pulled the packaged rain hat out of my suit pocket and gave it to Debbie, but Botany Man grabbed it, peeled off the wrapper, and put it on his head. “Really nice,” I said in as sarcastic a way as I could, politely thanked everyone for their time, and left.
That was my first and last appointment. As ridiculous as it was, I had fun in a weird sort of way; however, that was not the job for me.
Still, I always wondered if the waterless cookware really worked.
Bake My Fish
“Marco! Polo!” is to swimming pools what “Wait a minute . . “ is to ice cream trucks. They are universally interpreted to mean whatever they mean, and all children say them the same way (you’re probably hearing them in your head right now).
Oh, the sound of those bells and the kids singing, “Wait a minute,” as they rush into their houses for some change. “Mom! Mom! The Ice Cream Man is here!! Hurry!!!” I like to remember chasing down the Good Humor truck with my friends, but the best memory was driving one.
In 1973 my discharge from the Air Force came through. It was exciting, until I thought, “Now what?” My skill was reading and delivering secret messages. There weren’t an abundance of jobs requiring cryptographic training, and I planned to attend college in the fall, using the GI Bill. I needed something quick to take care of my 3-year-old family. Having a wife and two kids, with no income, can cause anxiety for everyone involved, so I had to find work. Any work.
After a month attempting to sell Ecko Hope Chests on the streets of Washington, DC, and not even sniffing the possibility of a sale or income, the time seemed right for a different venture. My parents’ apartment was closing-in on us, so I began a relationship with the Washington Post classifieds.
I can’t quite remember how the advertisement read. There was mention of Good Humor Ice Cream and driving; two things I like. So I hopped into my new 1973 red Chevy Vega (don’t laugh) and drove to the plant in Hyattsville for the job interview. It was a short question and answer session, which included inquiry about my driving record (having been out of the US for the last four years, I didn’t really have a chance to soil it) and a quick run of the mirror under my nose to see if I was breathing. They gave me the job. Whew!
The truck you see to the right was the typical style of the late 60s – early 70s. Mine was slightly different. It required dry ice (good for entertaining when a puddle was nearby) for the freezer, rather than being plugged-in overnight. And, I got out of the truck from the driver’s side, since it was a two-door cab. But, the chimes worked great. Ringing those bells while driving around the neighborhoods gave me the chance to be an inspiration to the children and a screen-scratching irritant to the parents. I yanked on the chain as rhythmically as possible. The louder and sing-song jingly I could make it, the more ice cream that was sold. I got “Jiggy wid it,” and pulled in a pretty decent wage.
Ice cream-seeking children are disciplined. They have an internal clock that notifies them it is time for the Good Humor Man. After one or two weeks of conditioning, they knew where and when I would be stopping. At the designated corner, they fidgeted excitedly with money in hand, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Lord of Frozen Treats. It is one job where being late means lower income, because if Mister Softee is lurking nearby and the Good Humor Man makes a habit of not arriving on time, soft serve will be sampled (my family’s Sheltie loved it). A child’s loyalty only survives one or two disappointments.
Most of the Good Humor drivers had their first names on the side of the truck just over the freezer door. Mine read “Menjie.” Usually the kids would ask, “Is that your name?” I would answer, “Yes, I am Menjie Rovasfringle.” Their heads tilted slightly like a puppy, while they wondered if it was true. My answer always remained the same, “That’s my real name.” A little white lie, but it entertained them, as they forked-over their nickels.
The favorite part of my route was the end. I always finished-up at the Fort Belvoir barracks in the evening. The soldiers ate dinner about 4:30, so by the time 7:30 came around, they were ready for pints, quarts and half-gallons; all packed away at the back of the freezer to be sure there was a ready supply. Young GIs, with the munchies, usually emptied the truck, which made for a good drive back to the plant, carrying lots of cash and having plenty of room for tomorrow’s wares.
School started for me in August, ending the experience as a Good Humor Man. Many of the drivers drove taxicabs in the off-season, and I was directed toward Yellow Cab in Marlow Heights for weekend work, while going to school. The parent company, Unilever (Lipton Tea), made a decision in 1976 to abandon direct sales, opting to distribute Good Humor® through grocery chains. By 1978 all the official company trucks were parked, and eventually sold to other ice cream distributors. The Good Humor Man was no more.
Although, I only worked for the company a few months, it is a memory that will live on forever. Hold on a second, that sounds like the Mister Softee truck. I have to go.
“Wait a minute . . . .”
Bake My Fish
In June of 1976, The Gong Show came to TV. It only ran a little over two years, but there is no doubt of how much it has influenced today’s entertainment. How popular is American Idol? It’s the same show, with Simon acting as the Gong Guy. Sure, the talent level of American Idol exceeds that of any act on The Gong Show, but American Idol doesn’t have porn stars as hostesses (Paula’s hot, but I don’t think she has acted in any naughty movies).
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call Carol Connors a hostess. I’d say she was more like one of those girls in spiked heels, carrying signs at fighting matches reminding of which round we are watching. She just didn’t have the sign, replacing it with a sexy purr, while introducing Chuck Barris to the viewing public. Carol Connors is also the mother of Thora Birch, who starred as the daughter of Kevin Spacey in the multi-Oscar winning Best Picture of 2000, American Beauty.
It always cracked me up when Chuck Barris said “tee wee” for TV. He was a hoot. Apparently, he was a very shy guy on stage. You never would know it. Although he seemed a little wasted, I doubt it.
There were a few acts on the show that were regulars; particularly Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic. They would play a certain tune, and everyone knew Gene Gene was coming out in his green sweat jacket, doing something like the Mashed Potato, or Pony, or whatever kind of dance it was. It was funny. Sometimes the judges and crew would throw things at him, while he grinned and cut a rug.
In 1979 I hosted a Gong Show in Greenbelt, MD with the Jaycees to raise money for the Greenbelt Arts Center. Our show was titled “A Salute to Tom O’Bedlam,” and my stage name was Menjie Rovasfringle (the same name on the side of my Good Humor truck six years before). Our judges were Greenbelt Mayor Gil Weidenfled, Miss Prince George’s County, and University of Maryland star running back, Charlie Wysocki.
Eleanor Roosevelt High School contributed a huge Gong used by their band, but the stipulation was it could only be played by a skilled Gonger. He came in a tuxedo, with a beard and horn-rimmed glasses; looking every bit the part of a professional Gongophile. When one of the judges wanted to “thumbs-down” an act, they signaled to Gongman and he banged the Gong.
We planted several sure-to-be-gonged losers in the lineup, hoping for good comic relief and healthy laughs. In the program, we identified those acts as “not competing for prizes” with an asterisk and disclaimer. One of the Jaycees was instructed to encourage the judges to gong them (they were so pathetic there was no need for encouragement), but not the Ungrown Comic; my seven-year-old son. The communication to the judges was to gong all the planted performances.
Sean had diligently practiced his skit. During the show his routine was to jab at me with insulting quips, kind of like “Menjie is so stupid, he rolled down the car window to yell for help because he locked himself in.” Those types of jokes. The audience was laughing loudly. And Sean was cute. He was smiling under the bag and getting a real kick out of smacking his Old Man around. Part of his act was shooting me with a banana (if you click on the picture, you can see the fruit in his pockets). The banana went empty, and he was planning to peel the one in his pocket and use it to replace the spent yellow tube-fruit. Because of the miscommunication, he was gonged. The audience sighed, awwed and booed the judges, and I stared into two shocked and pitiful eyes through the A&P grocery bag, of a youngster who at the moment felt betrayed by his “Pops” (tell me about it, all you parents out there). I’m sure he wanted to kick me in my exposed shins. But, we had a show to do.
So, I egged him on. “Go ahead and finish,” I mumbled, trying to make it look like I wasn’t. He obediently attempted to continue and pulled the reserve banana, but because he had been gonged, one of our guys came out and picked him up by the seat of his pants, and dragged him off the stage, kicking and screaming. My heart sank, but as the host I had to see the show through. But, it was hilarious. As he was being yanked off, I threw a rubber hand from the back of my almost-a-straight jacket toward him and said, “Let’s give the kid a hand!” It sounds planned, but the hand wasn’t for him. It just worked out that way.
At the end of the show we gave away door prizes. Our first prize was a door. The lady who won was really pissed because we told her she had to take it (the guy holding the door kept pushing it toward her), and we were embarrassing her in front of 300 people. After just a couple of minutes of torture, she was given the real prize . . . . dinner for four, donated by Beefsteak Charlie’s.
It really is a lot of fun to write about things that happened in the past, but I want to make you aware in the very near future Adam Sandler’s The Gong Show will be coming to Comedy Central on July 17th. Dave Attell will be hosting, and based on his Insomniac series, my guess is it’ll be good. If the new show is as silly as the original, I will be very pleased.
I’m just glad my son forgave me for 1979.
Bake My Fish
My favorite holiday is Halloween. It’s not even a holiday. No government offices close, banks and other companies conduct their normal business, and all schools remain open. Yet, it’s considered to be a holiday. That’s what you think, right? It has that celebratory feel. Maybe we should just label it a Cause For Celebration, since it doesn’t get the official holiday treatment. I’m not even sure I should capitalize Halloween.
Regardless of whatever the plan for decorating my house happens to be, I usually take the day off in anticipation of all the little tykes soon to be scared half-to-death. I probably shouldn’t confess playing hooky on an unholiday. Please don’t tell anyone. Yeah, I’m the guy in the neighborhood children either can’t wait to encounter, or the house they stroll past nervously. The candy I give is the good stuff, but they have to work for it. If it’s a really good night of fright, there is a lot left over for the office.
My parents started it. It’s all their fault. On Halloween they put on a show. The best year I remember, Mom took out her teeth and played a Witch, and Dad got up on the roof and dropped a sheet-covered broomstick on a rope in front of the kids as they ascended the steps. They gave the best treats, so all the kids wanted to make the stop. That particular year my father was a driver for Rock Creek, and he gave out bottled sodas to the costume-clad loons. Glass bottles. If anyone gave me a glass container of pent-up fizz, it would be tossed in the air to watch it break in front of me. That would be cool. So, my father unwittingly probably contributed to bad behavior. Nevertheless, receiving a sugar-infused soft drink is a nice treat. Fortunately, when my Dad drove for Sinclair Oil, he didn’t give away bottles of gasoline.
So, I was hooked. Now, Halloween can’t come soon enough. I want each year to be more outrageous. The creepy music, screams, shrieks, blubbering, chimes, bells, howls, cackles and other haunting tracks blast out of the upstairs windows, probably making a few neighbors hate 2034.
Although, it is really neat to be the house treat-seekers want to hit before the end of the night, my most successful gig was in 1983 while living in an apartment in Columbia, MD. I had this really hideous, horse-faced mask of Richard Nixon. The picture (not my mask) you see here does not do justice to the fear my face-cover extracted. During that day in the office where I worked at the time, the mask was worn for our Halloween celebration. I popped up from behind a cubicle in front of one of my bosses, and got him good. The fright on his face was priceless. And, he was a Republican. If he were a Democrat, he probably would have made a quick trip to the bathroom.
Then that evening, the haunting began. It was a perfect night. Monday Night Football was on and the Redskins were playing. A bottle of tequila (the last one ever) was my friend, and my children were with me.
We tied a cord to the handle of the door of the apartment and rigged the knob so it could be opened without turning. I stood in the foyer under a green light, with my head covered by the mask and wielding a plastic Psycho-style knife. My kids took turns yanking the door open at the sound of a knock, and I did my best Norman Bates impersonation, while shrieking and thrusting the blade downward. It never failed to do the trick. The only time I regretted the prank was when a father, holding his infant, screamed like a girl, then laughed. The baby did not think it was funny and cried pitifully. Causing seven-year-olds to crap their pants was good. Scarring a child for life is not. My divine punishment was too much tequila. Eventually, I just pointed to the television and said with an idiotic slur, “Rrredshkinz,” then slowly shuffled sideways into my bedroom, got sick and passed out. To this day my son and daughter rag on me about the episode. “Tequila, you are no longer my friend. Be gone, and take that silly worm with you.” One good thing that happened was the Redskins beat the Chargers 27 – 24.
Some people might think at my age being obsessed with Halloween is a bit odd. I’ll never stop. We’ve lived in this neighborhood for 22 years. The kids expect the crazy guy at 2034 to do something goofy and weird. I have a reputation to uphold. Several months ago, while getting my hair washed before the cut, the shampoo girl was talking with me about where she grew up. She was referring to my neighborhood. We started discussing Halloween and she mentioned the fear of walking up the driveway of the house with the loud eerie music, and the man who always dressed up, and usually jumped out from behind something. I probed a bit more, and guess who? We had a big laugh. Endorsement by unsolicited testimonial.
My life is now complete.
Bake My Fish