The last tomato

I stopped at the local fruit and vegetable market to check out the tomatoes on my way home from an afternoon walk in the marsh.

The tables out front, displaying baskets of tomatoes in recent months, were now covered with pumpkins and other unsightly squash. Not a good sign.

I’d sliced half of the last one at home for a sandwich at lunchtime. 

“Do you think there are any more field-tomatoes at Herridge’s?” I called out from the kitchen.

“No, they’re all gone,” Linda replied. 

I held out hope she was mistaken, without unleashing one of my usual tirades about supermarket produce being mostly garbage. 

Living in southern Ontario, tomatoes are my autumn groundhog. No more tomatoes means winter is coming soon and another year of inedible hothouse frauds. 

I didn’t care about tomatoes when I was growing up in New York. My dad was the only one in the family who liked them, so they were rarely at the top of my mother’s shopping list. 

I followed her lead when it came to fruits and vegetables. 

She preferred her vegetables raw – broccoli stalks and kohlrabi,  peeled and salted, peas scooped out of the pod, crisp celery.

Her taste in fruit ranged from tart red plums to tart Granny Smith apples.

As a teenager, I struck out on my own, developing an affection for nectarines after hearing the 2,000 Year Old Man

“Fruit kept me going for 140 years once when I was on a very strict diet. Mainly nectarines. I love that fruit. It’s half a peach, half a plum. It’s a helluva fruit. It’s not too cold, not too hot. Just nice. Even a rotten one is good. That’s how much I love ’em. I’d rather eat a rotten nectarine than a fine plum, what do you think of that?”

– Mel Brooks

My annual obsession with tomatoes did not begin until we moved into our first house in Clarkson, soon after Jodie was born in 1983, and discovered Herridge’s market.

These tomatoes were not orbs with rock-hard, white innards, or the ones that oozed green slime. These were as red on the inside as on the outside, firm yet juicy, carrying  the subtle scent of earthly ambrosia.

I’d start stopping by Herridge’s in late July – “Have any field-tomatoes yet? – and keep going back until its crop was exhausted. 

For a couple of months, there would always be a half-dozen or so red beauties on the kitchen counter, auditioning for the next meal.

For lunch, two thick slices , dabbed with mayo, sitting atop roast turkey or tuna salad or Balderson cheddar on fresh bakery bread.

At dinnertime, I’d slice a couple more for a side dish, drizzle them with Newman’s Family Recipe Italian dressing, maybe add chunks of cukes, also fresh-picked in season.

“What would you think of having real tomatoes year-round?” my friend Mike said to me one winter afternoon, sitting on the dock of the bay on Sanibel Island.

“Is this one of those if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon-why-can’t-they questions?”

“Precisely,” he said. “Only this question has an answer.”

Mike and his wife Geneva had built a large house on San Carlos Bay, just down the beach from the modest cottage Linda and I rented for winter vacations for more than ten years starting after Lacey was born in 1986.

He’d retired from a corporate career in Chicago and, as the story went, struck it rich when he backed the inventor of microwave popcorn.

His tomato brainstorm involved farms in Chile, a fleet of jets, and dedicated grocers in the big cities across North America. “There is no reason we have to be satisfied with inferior tomatoes for all but a few months.”   

 But, though we saw each other in Florida every year, his tomato plan never came up again. His death notice arrived in the mail sometime in 2003.

Anyway, I stopped at Herridge’s last week, walked down the vegetable aisle – don’t tell produce merchants that tomatoes are a fruit – and frowned at the pale imitations where the real ones had been.

I meandered around the market for a few more minutes, shaking my head. “See you next year,” I said to no one in particular as I left.

The next day, at lunchtime, I sliced some Balderson cheddar and the last half of the last tomato.

My book,The Expat FilesMy Life in Journalism, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Taking a page from the late Hunter S. Thompson

“Members of the press – what the fuck? It’s these questions that you know the answers to.”

– Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke

Que carajo? Beto. Why’d you waste the best line of the campaign, the most bang-on riposte in the annals of the press-pol circle jerk, on a couple of reporters in El Paso? I know you were pissed after the Trumpiac went on a murder spree at a Walmart in your hometown.

But you could have saved it for one of the Democratic debates, live in primetime.

Q: Has the president inspired racist mass murderers?

A: What the fuck?

Q: Does Trump deserve to be impeached?

A: What the fuck?

Q: Is it okay for an American president to shake down a foreign leader to smear a political opponent?

A: What the fuck?

Q: Who was better on Dancing with the Stars? Rick Perry or Sean Spicer? 

A: Who gives a shit. 

Would be a nice break from Elizabeth Warren lecturing, Biden phumphering, and Bernie trying to hail a cab.

What does this have to do with Hunter S. Thompson?

What the fuck? We’re only 150 words into it. HST’s Rolling Stone wrap-up of the 1972 election didn’t mention George McGovern in the first 1,166 words and Nixon’s name didn’t come up for 8,849 words. 

This year, I’ve watched all sixteen of the Dem debates, where a panel of TV stars nitpick wannabe successors to a nitwit who has turned the White House into a criminal enterprise.   

Yesterday, I finally got around to the latest show and right off the bat had to hit pause and freeze it. Who the hell is the guy from the New York Times sitting with Anderson Cooper and whatshername from CNN?

Went to Google. Sent me to the Times site, something called the Reader Center. 

Over his 20 years at The New York Times, Marc Lacey has worn many hats: a White House correspondent, a foreign correspondent who has reported from dozens of countries, the editor of the weekend news report and, now, the national editor.

Then, the Times got to the Q&A, which included celebrity-magazine-style questions that would have sent Abe Rosenthal screaming down 43rd Street.

What’s something that readers would be surprised to learn about you?

“I ride a motorcycle – not a particularly mean one, but a motorcycle nonetheless. This is very much counter to my image, which is why I don’t sell it.”

How do you spend your time when you’re off duty?

“I have a dog named Sandy who greets me at the end of each workday with so much enthusiasm that I forget all the hostile tweets I might have received that day. The debate’s going to be great, I have no doubt, especially to my labradoodle. To her, no matter what happens onstage, I will have won.”

Lacey’s star turn came about 20 minutes into the proceedings, asking Warren the same question she has ducked in the previous seventeen debates and in 256 interviews: “Will you raise taxes on the middle-class to pay for (Medicare for all) – yes or no?”

Whoa – yes or no? Snap to it, Lizzie. The gentleman from the New York Times demands an answer.  

Warren did her usual dipsy-doodle around the question, leaving Sandy the labradoodle frowning.  

The three-hour extravaganza was as predictable and revelatory as a Sarah Sanders press briefing.  It concluded with a Barbara-Walters’-type-if-you-were-a-tree question for the dozen Dems – a debate, or whatever this was, at this juncture of the campaign should not include more participants than defendants at the Chicago Seven trial – something about Ellen DeGeneres, George W. Bush and the Dallas Cowboys. 

CNN should have had Chris Cuomo instead of Cooper asking questions. “Let’s get after it.”

  • Vice President Biden, if you’re really an average Joe from Scranton, Pa., why did you give your son an elitist name like Hunter? Why not Gus? Or Daryl?
  • Senator Warren, what are you going to do if you are the nominee and the president comes out on the debate stage wearing a Comanche headdress and war paint?
  • Senator Sanders, is it true that Jackie Mason was once your voice coach?
  • Mr. Yang, how much cash money will you give every member of the audience right now to vote for you? 
  • Mr. Castro, how do we know you are not your twin brother Joaquin?
  • Senator Booker, can you name every person who lives in your Newark neighborhood?
  • Senator Klobuchar, can you name every state in the Midwest, its capital, its state bird, and sing all their state songs?
  • Senator Harris, how much pot did you have to smoke before you finally came around to supporting the decriminalization of marijuana?    
  • Congresswoman Gabbard, is there anyone on this stage you could not overpower and kill with your bare hands?
  • Mayor Buttigieg, you are mayor of South Bend but you never talk about Notre Dame. Do you have something against the Irish?
  • Mr. Steyer, is this really you or a hologram from a commercial? 
  • Beto, c’mon, curse me out. Right here. Right now. Dare you.

What does this have to do with Hunter S. Thompson? And the debate was more than a week ago.  Isn’t it old news?

The HST opus I mentioned, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in ’72, was in the July 5, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone, seven months and 28 days after Election Day. 

I remember picking up a copy, as hot off the presses as it took to get to Vancouver, at a newsstand on Granville Street. Walked down the hill to my office, the UPI bureau in the Pacific Press Building, and read from beginning to end.

The opening scene was set in the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco, on a cliff above the Pacific, with HST missing deadline after deadline, month after month.

One afternoon about three days ago the Editorial Enforcement Detail from the Rolling Stone office showed up at my door, with no warning, and loaded about 40 pounds of supplies into the room: two cases of Mexican beer, four quarts of gin, a dozen grapefruits, and enough speed to alter the outcome of six Super Bowls. There was also a big Selectric typewriter, two reams of paper, a face-cord of oak firewood and three tape recorders – in case the situation got so desperate that I might finally have to resort to verbal composition.

There is a comfortable kind of consistency in this kind of finish, because that’s the way all the rest of my presidential campaign coverage was written. From December ’71 to January ’73 – in airport bars, all-nite coffee shops and dreary hotel rooms all over the country – there is hardly a paragraph in this jangled saga that wasn’t produced in a last-minute, teeth-grinding frenzy. There was never enough time. Every deadline was a crisis. All around me were experienced professional journalists meeting deadlines far more frequent than mine, but I was never able to learn from their example … From time to time they would try to console me about the terrible pressure I always seemed to be laboring under.

 Any $100-an-hour psychiatrist could probably explain this problem to me, in 13 or 14 sessions, but I don’t have time for that. No doubt it has something to do with a deep-seated personality defect, or maybe a kink in whatever blood vessel leads into the pineal gland . . . On the other hand, it might easily be something as simple & basically perverse as whatever instinct it is that causes a jackrabbit to wait until the last possible second to dart across the road in front of a speeding car.

I went on for another 15,326 words. I savored every one of them.

I read the hardcover book too, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail  ’72. Bought it as soon as it came out later that year, the Rolling Stone piece reprised in the 505 pages. 

It didn’t matter that it was ancient history, that Watergate had already swamped the White House and Nixon was up to his neck in the crooked shitstorm he had unleashed to get re-elected.   

Thompson was writing as fast as he could to keep up with the onslaught of developments in the downfall of the president and his gang of thieves and thugs.

But every burst of Gonzo was worth waiting for.

Now … 

Editor’s Note: It was at this point the writer began raving, spitting out words: “nothing worth waiting for … nothing worth waiting for … click … Times … nothing worth reading … click … Post … nothing … click … click … nothing … nothing … Rick Bragg … banished … Rolling Stone … Esquire … Village Voice …  zip … zilch … zero … Tom Wolfe … New Journalism … Joe Eszterhas … Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse … Mailer … dead … Breslin … dead … HST … Woody Creek … .45 … BAM! … ashes … gone …”

Eventually, the writer had to be physically restrained by hired muscle from the Walden Circle Retirement Home, and sedated with tranquilizers prescribed for a  neurotic standard poodle.

My book,The Expat FilesMy Life in Journalism, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Who’s on first?

A fellow American, an auld acquaintance not entirely forgotten, called to ask about Monday’s Canadian election.

She first introduced herself and quickly reminded me that the last time we saw each other, the last time we spoke, was in the parking lot of a cheap motel in upstate New York on an autumn morning in 1966, when she was a freshman in college. 

Then, she brought me up to date with too many details of her marriage and divorce and professional life. “I own a nursery and don’t have any kids,” she said, laughing at a line she had undoubtedly used often and still found hilarious.  

 She sounded drunk at three o’clock in the afternoon.

She said she’d recently read my book, discovered I’ve lived north of the border since the early 1970s, worked as a journalist and covered a couple of Canadian elections going back to  Pierre Trudeau.

“Are things as fucked-up up there as they are down here?” she asked.

“If you’re talking about politics and government, it’s nowhere near as fucked up as it is down there.”

“So, what’s with Justin’s fetish for wearing blackface?” she asked.

“The media here call it brownface.”

“Why?”

“Probably for the same reason they spell color with a U.”

She pressed on. “Doesn’t he know it’s racist?”

“He’s confused because he played with a black Barbie doll when he was a kid.”

“What?”

“His parents were very avant garde.”

“You knew them, right?”

“If you call arguing with his father and chasing after his runaway mother knowing them.”

She laughed. “Do you think Justin has something going on with Melania?”

“The current prime minister does not confide in me,” I replied. “The last time I saw him was at a distance – when he was three or four years old.”

There was a pause in the conversation. I was starting to regret answering the phone, something I rarely do, but had been intrigued by the familiar 516 area code.

The sounds coming from Long Island suggested she was either refreshing a drink or taking a piss. 

“Who’s running against Justin?” She was back.

I hesitated. Didn’t want to explain the parliamentary form of government to another American. I’ve done that too many times over too many years.

“Look,” I said, “like I wrote in the book, I’ve pretty much tuned out Canadian news since I stopped working in the news business and teaching journalism seven, eight years ago.”

“Yeah, but you must know who’s running.”

“Look,” I tried again, “Canadian politics is boring. Might as well be Who’s on First.”

“What?”

“What’s on second.”

She didn’t get it. But didn’t stop talking. “I’m really interested. I really want Justin to win.”

“Why?”

“Because Obama likes him and Trump hates him.”

“I sighed, “Trudeau’s main opponent is the Conservative, Andrew Scheer.”

“He’s the one like Trump, right?”

 “He’s whiter.”

“But he’s a right-winger, like the Republicans?”

“I think he’s from Saskatchewan and only campaigns at Rotary Club meetings – so he’s more like a kid from North Dakota who wore an I Like Ike button in the 1950s.”

“Isn’t there a third-party candidate.”

“Yeah,” I said, “a third and a fourth and maybe a fifth and a sixth.”

“Any of them have a chance?”

“Not really, though the third most popular party, the NDP, is led by a guy with a turban who says his first name is pronounced JUG-MEAT.”

“That’s sexist – and disgusting.”

“Sorry, that’s all I know about him.”

“So, Justin’s going to win?” 

“I Don’t Know … is on third.”

“What?”

“Is on second.”

“Who is second?”

“No, Who’s on first.”

She finally got it. Giggled. “Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.”

 “Abbott and Costello.”

“Who?”

“The first baseman.”

“I don’t watch baseball,” she said before taking another pause to pour another drink  – or take another piss.

“Well, it was nice talking to you,” I said when she was back.

“Are you writing another book?”

“Maybe after the next seventy years.”

She laughed.

“I’ll call it The Girl in the Motel Parking Lot Who Grew Up, Had No Kids and Owned a Nursery.” 

This story, to borrow a line from Kris Kristofferson’s The Pilgrim – Chapter 33, is partly truth and partly fiction.

My book, The Expat FilesMy Life in Journalism, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

The day real news seemed fake

Fifty years ago, I was sitting in a café in Geneva, reading the International Herald Tribune, when I discovered the Mets had won the World Series.

I missed most of that 1969 season, living in Switzerland, but I would have hid behind the Iron Curtain if it would have put me beyond the reach of this particular piece of news.

The fucking Mets. World champions.

What else did I miss during my six-month sabbatical from American sports? 

A clown car winning the Indy 500? 

Don Knotts knocking out Muhammad Ali?  

Mister Ed winning the Kentucky Derby?

Before 1969, in their first seven seasons, the Mets never finished higher than ninth in the 10-team National League. They were a laughingstock, a freak show. Bad ballplayers playing bad baseball. 

The only fellow New Yorkers I knew who welcomed the Mets were my dad and Jimmy Breslin.

Dad had grown up in Brooklyn a Dodger fan. I inherited his devotion to Dem Bums and shared his devastation when that money-grubbing bastard Walter O’Malley shipped the Dodgers to L.A. after the 1957 season.

When the Mets came along in ’62, they filled dad’s need to see  National League baseball and root, root, root for a home team that was not the damn Yankees. 

I had other interests. Mainly girls, getting through high school, and trying to be cool. 

The Mets were uncool. 

They hired a guy with a papier mache baseball head they called Mr. Met 

And they had a theme song – not exactly Sinatra singing New York, New York at Yankee Stadium, or Neil Diamond revving up the crowd at Fenway with Sweet Caroline.

It was a stupid jingle cooked up by old-hat mad men on Madison Avenue.

Meet The Mets.
Meet The Mets.
Step right up and greet The Mets.
Bring your kiddies,
Bring your wife.
Guaranteed to have the time of your life.
Because the Mets are really socking the ball,
Knocking those home runs over the wall.
East Side,
West Side,
Everybody’s going down,
To Meet the M-E-T-S Mets,
Of New York Town.

After the Mets first season, Breslin wrote a book called Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game. The title was a rare coherent quote from the ancient manager, Casey Stengel.

Breslin managed to massage his trademark working-stiff-hero worship into the comedy of errors at Coogan’s Bluff:

You see, the Mets are losers, just like nearly everybody else in life. This is a team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn’t maneuver himself to lunch with the boss enough. It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like. And it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner in a t-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married. The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurence Rockefeller?” 

And then there was this: People did not follow the Mets. They loved the Mets.

I didn’t know who these people were. They were not my friends. Not people who loved the game. Not baseball fans. 

They were hangers-on who brought their own participation trophies to the ballpark.

Met fans tried to match JFK’s “vigor” but couldn’t spell it. 

The bozos with their homemade signs at the Polo Grounds, and later at Shea Stadium, were pioneers in the look-at-me approach to fandom, the first generation to buy a ticket betting on a chance to get their mugs on TV. 

The Mets’ organization encouraged the exhibitionism in the stands –perhaps to divert attention from the performance of the home team– and further sanctioned fan participation with Banner Days, pre-game shows with fans parading on the field.

But that wasn’t enough for some. They wanted to stand out from the crowd.

In the Mets first season at Shea in 1964, Sign Man showed up, caught the attention of the cameras, and became a Flushing celebrity.

A few years later, a guy started beating a drum in the bleachers in Cleveland and hasn’t stopped since.

Fans in Atlanta got in on the act with the nauseatingly monotonous  tomahawk chop.

The need for attention spread to other sports: the ghouls in the Black Hole at Oakland Raiders’ games, the mutts in the Dawg Pound snarling for the Cleveland Browns.

 Mr. Met, the original sin of baseball mascots, morphed into the San Diego Chicken, the Phillie Phanatic, and all their creepy cousins in every major league ballpark.

As Casey Stengel said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

My book, The Expat FilesMy Life in Journalism, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Acts of atonement

 “Do you know about kapparot?“ my cousin Brian, the rabbi, asks, then explains the ritual performed by some Orthodox Jews at Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Tuesday. 

“They take a chicken, sling it over their head to break its neck, transferring all of their sins onto the chicken.”

What do they do with the corpse of the sin-infested chicken?

“Give it to the poor.”

I imagine poor, hungry people in Brooklyn and Beersheba dining on poultry tainted with lies, deceit and illicit sex. 

I recall a joke told on the playground in Queens when I was a kid. The punchline: “And, on Yom Kippur, Jews blow the chauffeur.”

No need to expound on the ritual of blowing the shofar or speculate on who transfers sins to whom in the homophone.  

But I will say a dirty play on words was hilarious after a hard-fought game of stickball.

I was born a Jew in the 1940s, raised a Jew in the 1950s, and drifted into uncertainty, agnosticism and cynicism in the 1960s.

In the early ’70s, I left New York to live among the gentiles in Canada. Over the years, I was periodically reminded of the flipping of the Hebrew calendar on Rosh Hashanah when my mother would begin a telephone call with, “Happy new year.” 

I’d usually respond with the same wiseass crack: “I didn’t know it was January already.”

My Jewishness does not stretch beyond the occasional hankering for a pastrami on rye and a taste for such Yiddish words as mashugana, schlemielschmuckschnorrerchazer, putz and goniff, all of which apply to the current president of the United States.

The last time I went to synagogue on Yum Kipper– which is how we New Yorkers pronounce it – was probably the month before I was bar mitzvahed in 1959.

What I mostly remember about the Day of Atonement is Sandy Koufax not pitching the opening game of the 1965 World Series and my father annually ending his sundown-to-sundown fast with the triumphant pride of Lindbergh landing in Paris.

Disdainful yet curious about the notion of acts of atonement, I called Brian, my Deep Throat on all things Jewish.

Not that I was planning any atoning. Like most Jews, I stockpile guilt as a natural byproduct of breathing. 

I just wanted the skinny on what others did beyond not eating, drinking, working and fucking.

From books and movies, I was more familiar with the Catholic concept of confession, saying Hail Marys in exchange for absolution, which seems like a pretty sweet deal.

Duval and De Niro in True Confessions (1981)

Brian, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and two kids, is not your traditional rabbi tied to a synagogue and religious dogma. (More on his Religion Outside the Box later.)  

He probably offered the chicken-slinging story because it would get the conversation off to an outrageous start.

We soon settled into Brian describing his typical Day of Atonement. “I get phone calls from people I haven’t spoken to for most of the year, and they say, ‘Listen, Brian, did I do anything wrong to you this year? And if so, please tell me.’”

Truths are told. Apologies accepted. Hurts healed.

“And you find out if there is restitution that needs to be made. And you can negotiate on all parts of it. Like, ‘Okay, you’re asking me for that, I can’t do that, but I can do this, is that enough?’”

He paused. “It’s Jewish.” 

There is another high-holy-days happening in Rabbi Brian’s world. 

“Traditionally, there’s an A through Z that’s done. The way I do it is I sit with my group, and we list all the A words (sins) … from being an asshole to committing adultery, or advocating the wrong causes.”

People don’t confess their sins, just all the possible transgressions – from A to Z – that could have been committed by someone in the group over the past year.

“It’s taking on the guilt as a group.”

Also, he says, “there’s something ritually cool about spelling out the list of things we all may have done and say, ‘Shit, we fucked up.’ And we can forgive each other.”

It’s certainly less messy than slinging chickens.

* * *

A few more things about my cousin Brian. 

When he was young, he did magic tricks for my daughters, Jodie and Lacey, in our backyard. 

When he was a rookie rabbi, in June 1994, he officiated at a remarriage ceremony for my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary.

A couple of years later, when he was living in L.A. and I was in the wilds of Northwestern Ontario trying to write a novel, I enlisted his help with the dialogue I needed for a scene with a rabbi

A version of that fiction and stories on Brian and the other more interesting members of the family are in my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer

Finally, as promised, here’s a link to Brian’s services – weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc. – his writing and other cool spiritual stuff at his Religion Outside the Box site.