Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe used funds from her own substantial fortune to have a Victorian cottage built in Hartford, Connecticut, the state of her birth. The house had twelve rooms, plumbing, heating, a study for her husband, and no dedicated writing space for a woman who penned at least ten novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is one of the most influential books of all time and which today is often disingenuously criticized for not being written by a woman with the progressive ideological lens of 2020.

Cute house. If you don’t mind that it’s in Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5846038

And then in 1874, Stowe got a new neighbor. Missouri-born Samuel Clemens built a much larger, more ostentatious home with twenty-five rooms, sweeping international décor, and a man cave of sorts that contained both a dedicated writing desk and a billiards table. As you may recall, he also wrote a few books, including several you probably read in school and that were written at his home in Hartford between billiards games.

Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would want to make the move from beautiful Missouri to Connecticut, a state that as far as I could tell on my one brief visit boasts little more than Lyme disease and the kind of astronomical day-use state park fees that inspire picnics in gas station parking lots. But I wouldn’t mind a billiards table in my dedicated writing space. Also, I’d like to add my apologies if you are from Connecticut. I’m sure it has its charms.

It is a pretty cool looking house, but it’s still not in Missouri. Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT. By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21778275

It did for neighbors Harriet and Samuel and a whole host of movers, shakers, and big thinkers who made Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood their home. If the history books can be believed (and I am by no means suggesting they can) these were not neighbors who necessarily agreed all the time. But it was allegedly a pretty congenial place to be with open doors, stimulating conversations, and high-minded and friendly debates among respectful friends.

In the time my family and I have lived in my current neighborhood, for about seven-and-a-half years now, our street has tried to foster a similar sense of congeniality. We hold an annual Christmas open house, occasionally set up outdoor movie screenings in the cul-de-sac, wave from front porches, freely loan and borrow tools, and visit one another’s garage sales. I’m even trying to get comfortable with a neighbor popping in for a visit without feeling too flustered by last night’s dishes stacked up in the sink. I have a lousy maid. Also, she’s me.

Despite the fact that we don’t all vote the same or worship the same or root for the same baseball team (There’s just one inexplicable Yankees holdout. We’re working on it.), our neighborhood is a good place to be. And this week is particularly exciting because we have new next-door neighbors that just officially moved in.

It was a comfort knowing there were so many gnomes keeping watch over the neighborhood. And a little bit disturbing. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

Well, this isn’t entirely exciting, because the neighbor who moved out was a kind ninety-something-year-old obsessed with yard tchotchkes. I think I might kind of miss the flamingos, and gnomes, and frogs, and angels, and butterflies.

I’ll miss my quirky neighbor, too, who always attended the Christmas party in a brightly colored suit, snake-skin boots, and bling that would make most rappers jealous. He’s moved on to a retirement facility closer to his family, where he’ll get along much better than he did alone in a big house.

The place will be different without him, but our new neighbors seem nice. They are ultra-marathoners and vegans, and they have two very small dogs that compensate for their diminutive size with over-large attitudes. The newcomers have also have expressed in no uncertain terms that they are not fans of garden gnomes. I’m going to have to rethink the contents of the welcome basket.

But even though I think running is stupid, I love a good steak, and I have a relatively mild-mannered, medium-sized dog who right now is losing his mind over the canine interlopers next door, I think these new folks are going to fit right in. In fact, I already pretty much love them.

Oh, hey! If you’re not busy tomorrow night (10/9), check out Friday Night Reads presented by Title Wave Books, Revised and author Ryan P. Freeman, who will do a Facebook live reading from my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

A Pretty Good Citizen for an Emperor

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the ascension to power of the first and only emperor of the United States. On September 17, 1859, San Francisco newspapers carried the declaration of Joshua Abraham Norton that “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States,” he was officially declaring himself emperor.

Today it’s probably fairly obvious, as it was then, that this “Emperor Norton” was most likely dealing with a mental health crisis, but the declaration captured the attention of the boom-or-bust, gold-crazed city for a couple of reasons. First, prior to an investment three years earlier that hadn’t panned out, Norton had been a somebody of importance in San Francisco.

I mean, he kind of looks like someone with authority. Unknown author / Public domain

London-born, he’d spent most of his early life in South Africa where his father operated a highly successful shipping business. Joshua Norton made and lost a good deal of money himself in that part of the world before moving to San Francisco in 1849 after suffering the deaths of both parents and two siblings.

Despite these setbacks, Norton didn’t seem to have any trouble building up his fortune once he reached California where he became an influential presence among influential people. So, when he went bust, then quiet, then reemerged as the Emperor of the United States, people were interested in the story.

Newspapers certainly were. They continued to print Norton’s imperial proclamations including a series which abolished the Congress, by force of the Army, because in its actions he saw that “fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled.”

This after Congress had failed to respond to his summons to convene in San Francisco in order to “make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring.”

The United States of Emperor Norton’s day was one of great political upheaval, with a rapidly expanding western frontier and a war between states that pitted cousin against cousin and brother against brother.

If Emperor Norton could have had a Facebook account, I’m betting this would have been his profile picture. Beinecke Library / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

And that brings me to the second reason I think the proclamations got play in the media. Because I think the reading public sort of got what he was saying.

If he’d had a Facebook feed, I have no doubt it would have been filled with people he loved and respected screaming at each other over their differing political ideologies. That’s enough to threaten the stability of anyone’s mental health. And I mean, really, who of us hasn’t, at one time or another, thought it might just be easier to declare ourselves emperor, abolish Congress, and start from scratch?

Not that I want the job. Just to be perfectly clear. But the sentiment? Well, there are days.

Emperor Norton’s reign extended beyond the immediate violence of the American Civil War and his proclamations, penned at the Mechanic’s Institute Library on Post Street in San Francisco, continued to find their way into print.

Oakland Bay Bridge. All thanks to Emperor Norton. Kind of.

Over the years he called for public school and public transportation access for African Americans, fair treatment of Chinese workers in American courts, and the extension of numerous rights to Native Americans. He even proclaimed the need for a bridge to be constructed between Oakland and San Francisco, of the variety that definitely exists today.

He regularly participated in political meetings, attended lectures, and spent time getting to know his community while attending the theater and frequenting local saloons. For an emperor, Joshua Norton was a pretty good citizen. When he died, penniless, in January of 1880, his funeral was allegedly attended by more than ten thousand people, and San Francisco’s business community made sure Norton was buried in style.

Because that’s what you do for an emperor.

Hat Smashing Shenanigans

School has begun, Labor Day has come and gone, the pumpkins have ripened too early, and there’s a hint of cool in the air. Despite the calendar’s insistence that there are still eleven more days of summer, it’s starting, in my corner of the world, to feel a little bit like fall. That means it’s time to put out the scarecrows, trim up the flower beds, and think about trading out your straw hat for one made of felt or silk.

These are the kind of big, beautiful pumpkins that will make great Jack-o-lanterns. Too bad someone forgot to tell them that Halloween is still almost two months away.

Or at least that’s what you would have done had you been a gentleman living in the US in the first couple decades of the twentieth century and you cared about such things. Most men didn’t. Not really anyway. But there was a fun tradition highlighted by an article from the Pittsburgh Press in September of 1910 in which stockbrokers jovially destroyed one another’s straw hats if their colleagues were careless enough to wear them after September 15.

That’s all in good fun, I guess, if you find that sort of thing amusing. But the same article mentions an incident in which the police had to intervene on behalf of the straw-hat-wearing average Joe on the street who occasionally found himself unexpectedly bareheaded.

By 1922 the straw hat smashing shenanigans had risen to a new level. On September 13 of that year, two days prior to the unofficially official straw hat smashing day, a group of boys decided to get the party started at Mulberry Bend in the Five Points Region of Manhattan.

So wait, how do the scarecrows get away with such a blatant fashion faux pas? Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

As factory and dock workers left work for the evening, the boys began yanking straw hats off passersby and smashing them in the streets. Probably not surprisingly, some of the hatless victims got upset and a brawl broke out.

The police managed to bring the crowd under control without much more than a couple of arrests, but the conflict didn’t end there. Over the next few nights, riots broke out all over the city. There were more arrests, a lot of angry parents accompanying their teenage children home from jail, and some pretty brutal beatings in the streets. Many men were treated for injuries and least one was hospitalized. Over straw hats.

What began as kind of a quaint tradition used by businessmen to razz one another at work became a serious public safety issue in New York over the next several years when September rolled around. 1924 saw the first murder attributed to the unforgivable sin of wearing a straw hat out of season.

I’m sure that like me, and any other reasonable person, you find this picture completely infuriating. Maybe even worthy of a riot. Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Fortunately, the straw hat rioting eventually died out. In 1925, then President Calvin Coolidge commented that he didn’t much care about switching hats, which seemed to calm everyone down a bit. It also helped that straw hats fell out of fashion and so it wasn’t long until no one was wearing them anyway. Then the Great Depression hit and people had more important things to worry about.

But for a while in US history, the kind of violence and destruction that shutters businesses, damages property, and endangers innocent people, occurred at the literal drop of a hat.

Boy, I sure am glad we’re past that.

I Can Can. Can You?

It was the promise of 12,000 francs that first inspired French chef and confectioner Nicolas Appert to experiment with food preservation methods in 1795. Napoleon Bonaparte astutely realized that keeping an army fed was a good way to ensure its success and offered the pretty substantial (my very rough calculation suggests maybe around $150,000 in today terms) reward.

It took fifteen years of effort, but Appert eventually claimed the prize with his method of sealing food into glass jars with cork and wax and boiling them. He then went on to produce the world’s first recipe book focused on canning preservation. It’s called L’Art de Conserver les Substances Animales et Végétales, in case you speak pretty good French and don’t mind a good case of botulism.

When I read that Appert was a confectioner by trade, I pictured this, although it would take a lot more than a sealed lid to preserve candy in my house.

Even though his method heated food to flavorlessness and is no longer deemed entirely safe, Appert was onto something, and earned himself the title of “Father of Canning.” He believed the enemy of food preservation was air exposure, but along the way discovered that it was actually heat that prevented spoilage, a good fifty or so years before the “Father of Microbiology” Louis Pasteur explained why.

While Appert was busy jarring up fruits, vegetables, and in one case the meat of an entire sheep, Englishman Peter Durand translated the process to less breakable tin cans, which only two years later spawned the canned food industry in the United States as well.

Initially slow to produce, and hard to open since the can opener wasn’t invented for another forty years, canned foods eventually lined grocery store shelves. That is until March of 2020, when canned goods became almost as difficult to find as bread and toilet paper.

Ladies at a home demonstration meeting learning that they can can. By Cornell University Library. No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81522280

There are still a few quirky products that don’t seem to get restocked, but food supply lines in my corner of the world have pretty much stabilized by now. I don’t think they were ever seriously threatened, except by the fear of the average hoarding consumer. Still, the combination of barren canned soup aisles and more time spent at home with more people out of work and fewer places to go anyway, has led to a growing interest in food preservation skills.

My local stores now contain plenty of mushy canned peas and spring water packed tuna, but there’s not a Ball Mason jar or Kerr sealing lid to be found, nor can you order a set for a reasonable price from Amazon.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think this is a huge problem. I don’t live on a homestead out in the middle of nowhere and have to rely on my own homegrown preserved veggies and my root cellar to get me through the long winter. But we do have a few prolific apple trees and last fall, my husband canned a whole lot of applesauce, something neither of us had ever done before. It’s been nice to have it throughout the year.

It really is excellent sauce.

It’s been so nice, that I even decided this summer that I would give it a try with some excellent sauce made from our garden tomatoes and some pickled peppers as well. I admit, it’s kind of made me feel like a bit of a superwoman, or like maybe I could live out in the middle of nowhere and rely on my homegrown preserved veggies and root cellar to get me through the long winter.

Home canning surged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then fell off when refrigeration became more prevalent. The skill enjoyed a brief resurgence in the DIY movement of the 1970s, and it seems to be experiencing a similar resurgence now.

As long as home canners are carefully sanitizing and following recipes and boiling times exactly, I think that’s great. It does maybe concern me just a tiny bit that historically, cases of botulism rise whenever the prevalence of home canning does, and that in 2005 a USDA survey found that 57% of home canners weren’t using safe methods.

And I’m a little saddened that now that I know that, it might take the modern-day equivalent of 12,000 1795 francs to motivate me to trust myself enough to eat my excellent tomato sauce. Maybe it’s not so bad that I can’t find all the lids and jars I want. It’s possible I’m not quite ready to move to a homestead in the middle of nowhere after all.

So, About King George . . .

1774 was a pretty big year for George Washington. He co-authored a call for the recognition of the fundamental rights of colonial British citizens in the midst of fallout from the Boston tea party. He did some important Continental Congressing. And he built a pretty fantastic porch onto his ever-expanding house.

That’s a great porch. Mount Vernon.
By Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28359040

Washington designed the two-story piazza at Mount Vernon to look out over the Potomac and catch a breeze off the river on a hot Virginia summer day. It’s where he often welcomed guests and served lemonade to friends seated in Windsor chairs, while grumbling about King George III.

The piazza was not an entirely unique structure. The iconic columns were based on the designs of Englishman Batty Langley, and the idea of an expansive outdoor space connected to a home has roots in Ancient Greece. But prior to Washington’s porch addition, such an expansive space was uncommon in America. It inspired some copycats.

The popularity of the porch has waxed and waned a bit throughout the history of the United States, reaching its height between 1880 and through the 1920s, when people sat in the evening to catch a cool breeze, wave hello to a neighbor strolling by, or even invite a friend to sit for a spell and enjoy a glass of lemonade while the kids played together in the front yard.

Another great porch!
Image by Gretta Blankenship from Pixabay

Then as the family began to gather in the evenings around the radio and later the television, porches began to sit empty a little more often. Pretty soon, house designs became less likely to feature a front porch, or at least certainly not a wide one with columns and a porch swing, or even a collection of simple Windsor chairs. Still, although we may have gotten a little distracted, I don’t think the appeal of the front porch has ever really gone away.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I love watching real estate shows on HGTV. I’m sure you know the ones. I heard them described once as those shows where people want to buy a house and then they do. There are a lot of versions—House Hunters, Tiny House Hunters, Hunters Off the Grid, My First Place, Lakefront Bargain Hunt, House Hunters on Vacation, etc.

I have to assume the show just fails to mention that at least one of the buyers is also the sole heir to the fortune of his elderly Uncle Moneybags. I hope. photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)

I love them all, from the introduction in which we’re told that she’s a preschool teacher and he’s a part-time barista at Starbucks and that they have a budget of $4.7 million for their second home in Southern California, to the moment this couple with highly questionable financial judgement makes the wrong choice.

I love seeing the houses and thinking about the priorities of the buyers. I appreciate seeing how home considerations vary in different parts of the world. And though I’m happy with my home, I like dreaming about what I might be looking for in a house several years from now when my family enters a different phase of life.

I’ve noticed one thing that remains fairly consistent in the episodes. The majority of these home buyers, regardless of budget or location, are looking for great views, outdoor space, and a gathering spot. In all the episodes I’ve watched (a truly embarrassing number), not once have I seen a potential home buyer make a negative comment about a porch. In fact, they are overwhelmingly positive about such spaces and often spin dreams of hosting friends and neighbors on mild summer evenings with glasses of lemonade while the kids play together in the front yard.

I could go for some of that.
Image by graywendya from Pixabay

My current house doesn’t have much of a front porch, but many of the homes in my neighborhood do, and over the last many months of pandemic and social distancing, I’ve seen more neighbors sitting on them, waving hello to passersby.

The front porch seems to be experiencing a resurgence, I think probably because we humans miss each other. Social distance, that has at times felt more like isolation, has made us realize that even if we don’t always agree or sometimes get annoyed by one another, we really benefit from face-to-face interaction.

And outdoor spaces remain some of the safest places to spend time with others. A great big, expansive porch with simple, individual Windsor chairs will fit the bill. So, grab a glass of lemonade and sit on the porch with me. We probably still can’t share a swing, but we’ll catch a breeze and chat. We might even complain about King George and that ridiculously catchy song from Hamilton that’s been stuck in our heads for months.

Everybody . . .

The Greatest Travel Monkey Ever

It’s finally here—that wonderful time of year when my family’s crazy, busy, fun summer days wind down and my kids head back to school. My sons are in high school and middle school now, so we’ve done this a few times, but this year, of course, has been different.

Really, it just snuck up on me, because it’s been a strange summer. For one thing, the boys have been at home since early March. Also, there haven’t been a lot of traditional summer activities. Camps were cancelled, family get-togethers went digital, and time with friends slowed to a trickle. There wasn’t any baseball for most of the summer, and now that there finally is, it’s weird and a little uncomfortable to watch.

Steve chased a lot of waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.

Even our long-planned family vacation had to get indefinitely postponed. But thankfully we did get the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a smaller trip together. We rented a fairly isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, which isn’t a terrible drive for us, loaded up the family truckster, grabbed our travel mascot Steve the Sock Monkey, and away we went.

We had several good days of hiking and playing in chilly mountain streams. We did our own cooking, played games, and spent good family time together, because, you know, we’ve had so little time to spend stuck together as a family lately. So yes, it was pretty much like our routine at home, except with more mountains and a greater threat of bear encounters. It was a nice getaway.

After a few days of mountain exploration, we dropped down to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Space & Rocket Center, which none of us had visited before. At the museum you can get up close and personal with the Saturn V rocket, walk through a replica of the International Space Station, and take small steps and giant leaps across a fake moon surface, pretending you are in league with Stanley Kubrick and the mass hallucination of 400,000 of the most rock solid conspirators in the history of the universe. The museum is well worth a visit, and at limited pre-ticketed capacity, felt very safe and spacious.

After exploring a replica of the International Space Station, Steve is ready to volunteer to become the first US sock monkey in space.

We all had our favorite parts, even Steve. If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may have encountered Steve before. He got his start as a family travel mascot when the boys were small, and my husband and I left them with grandparents to enjoy a trip to Hawaii without them. We posted pictures of Steve’s Hawaiian Adventure for Grandma to share with the boys each day we were gone.

The monkey was a hit, not just with the boys, but with our friends and family tuning in on Facebook. Since then he’s been all over the place, telling the stories of our adventures, both when we travel separately and when we all travel together. He’s been to every corner of the continental United States and has left the country a few times.

But he’s never made it to space, and unbeknownst to us, this had apparently been bothering him a little. So on this trip to Huntsville, Steve was really excited to learn about the greatest travel monkey ever, Miss Baker.  

I’m pretty sure Steve just wants the fame and glory.

Baker was a squirrel monkey who, along with Rhesus partner Able, became the first US animal to successfully launch into space and return unharmed to the earth. Chosen from among twenty-five squirrel monkey candidates for her ability to remain pretty chill while confined to a small space connected to a bunch of electrodes, and because she looked really good in a tiny space helmet, Miss Baker went to space on May 28, 1959.  

When she landed, the slightly bewildered squirrel monkey was given a cracker and a banana before she took a well deserved nap. Then it was on to Washington DC for a press conference and fame. Along with Able, who sadly passed away a few days later during a surgical procedure to remove electrodes, Baker posed for the cover of Life magazine. Always gracious, she later received a Certificate of Merit for distinguished service from the ASPCA.

Steve didn’t know he was supposed to bring a banana. Next time he’ll be prepared.

After her big trip into space, she lived for about ten years at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida where she met and married her long time companion Big George. The happy couple moved to the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where Baker delighted scores of fieldtripping school children until 1984 when she died a very old squirrel monkey.

Today she rests on the grounds of the museum that was her home. Steve got to pay his respects to his hero, where admirers often leave a banana or two as a thank you for her service.

Steve does realize that as well traveled as he is, he’s unlikely to make it into space. But as he spends a lot of his time stuffed into a backpack, he’s pretty chill about small spaces. He also loves smiling for the camera. And he would definitely rock a tiny space helmet. Who knows? It’s been a strange year.

Shake It Off

On Friday, January 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York, Alastair Galpin and Don Purdon shared a really long handshake. Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina were there shaking hands, too, attempting to set the new world record for longest handshake recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The two pairs decided after thirty-three hours and three minutes that they would all four share the record, and then hopefully washed their hands.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

It’s a pretty impressive feat, if you’re one to be impressed by such things. Personally, I’m just curious how one words his status as handshake world record holder on a resume or brings it up on a date, which I’m guessing doesn’t last that long after such an impressive credential slips into the conversation.

One person that would definitely not have been impressed to see such a triumph would have been nurse Leila Given, who in 1929, lamented in the American Journal of Nursing that handshaking had become the preferred greeting style in the United States. She argued that shaking hands transfers disease agents from person to person and she recommended that we all keep our hands to ourselves.

There’s plenty of handshaking in Homer’s work and not a single mention of hand sanitizer. What a dangerous world it was. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the handshake is certainly not the only human greeting behavior in the world, it has long been one of the most common. Its roots reach as far back as the 9th century BC when Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and an unidentified Babylonian ruler sealed a deal and someone grabbed a quick carving for posterity. Homer mentions handshaking in the Iliad and Odyssey. If Ancient Greek funerary art is to be trusted, the Greeks shook hands a lot.

Many historians suspect that the primary motivation behind the development of the handshake was to both indicate that one was not bearing a weapon and to check that the other guy wasn’t either. It’s possible, even, that the up and down motion of the handshake developed as a way to shake loose any weapons that might be hiding up sleeves and that might cause an otherwise friendly encounter to sour.

In America, the handshake took hold as the dominant form of friendly greeting probably as a result of the Quakers in the 17th century, who favored it over forms such as bowing or hat tipping, which often indicated an inequality in power.

Of course, in recent years, as we have become a bit more germ-aware, some have favored the fist bump. Though it has been shown to transfer fewer germs from hand to hand than does a traditional handshake, it does look vaguely ridiculous and occasionally causes inexplicable, and much more definitely ridiculous, explosions.

Friends Winning GIF by Pan Pivo

I assume it’s because of this that many people are now opting for the elbow tap, including politicians and the fully grown men who play professional baseball. I have to say, as silly as it looks in the latter group, it definitely beats the maybe too friendly tap on the backside.

But I suppose all greeting behaviors take a little getting used to. We’ve been shaking hands for a long time. In the post-Covid world of someday, maybe we will shake hands again. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe, ninety-years later, we’ll finally heed Leila Given’s warning.

The last time I shook someone’s hand, more than a month ago now, was at an outdoor book signing. Both of us used hand sanitizer immediately after contact. It also didn’t last thirty-three hours and three minutes, but I am secure in the knowledge that neither of us had any weapons up our sleeves.

An Unexpected Need for Change

It was sometime in the early 1900s when an educated and highly intelligent young man from Austria-Hungary known by the name Victor Lustig embarked on a renowned life of crime. Aboard numerous transatlantic vessels this sophisticated gentleman successfully schmoozed would-be investors into supporting his non-existent Broadway Musical project. Then later he successfully sold a number of people his fantastic “Rumanian Box,” a small mahogany trunk containing two slots and some levers that worked to duplicate currency bills.

The con was pretty simple. Lustig, who tended to introduce himself as a count, happily demonstrated by asking his mark to provide a large denomination of bill, usually $100, and explained that it took six hours to make a perfect duplicate that would be accepted as legal tender by any bank. Then six hours later, Lustig’s miraculous contraption yielded two $100 bills, both of which would be determined to be genuine.

Lustig is the fella in the center with the trustworthy face. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because they were. Of course Lustig planted the bill, and several more until the mark was thoroughly convinced and willing to cough up an awful lot of money to own the box. Lustig timed the con carefully so that he could be far away by the time the mark figured out he’d been had.

It is so simple, in fact, that one might wonder why any reasonably intelligent person might fall for it. Obviously, Victor Lustig was a pretty charming kind of guy, who gave off a trustworthy vibe. He allegedly put together a list of ten commandments for conmen that actually make me kind of like him, despite his questionable sense of morality. He’s also the same man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, which was neither on sale nor owned by him or anyone he ever represented, and who once conned Al Capone out of as much as $5,000. 

Lustig allegedly pulled off this creative scheme at least twice.

But I think the Rumanian Box scheme had something else going for it. On the dresser in my bedroom I have a basket where I sometimes throw the coins from the bottom of my purse, and where my husband might drop the loose change from his pants pockets before sending them through the ever-revolving laundering process.

If you have a similar spot on your dresser or nightstand or kitchen counter, you will probably not be surprised to read that this little collection of coins seems to multiply. Logically, I know this is because we add to it every time we find a few pennies in the couch cushions or clean dimes out the cup holders in the car or remove clattering nickels from the washing machine that slipped through the initial pocket-emptying process.

I could swear it multiplies.

When I occasionally think about it, I might grab a few coins from this basket and make an effort to spend them at the store, but I rarely do think about it. I’m often not using cash at the store these days anyway so I don’t really worry much about exact change.

And it turns out that’s true of a lot of Americans, particularly right now in this strange era of Covid-19. We don’t go to as many physical stores or use as many vending machines or stuff as many parking meters or travel as many toll roads or walk into as many bank lobbies as we used to.

Our tossed aside pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are sitting, multiplying, in the baskets on our dressers. The businesses that are usually part of the chain that reintroduces those coins into circulation, aren’t handling as many. In fact, there’s a shortage.

First toilet paper. Now this.

As a result, the Federal Reserve has been rationing coins, and signs are starting to pop up in retail spaces asking people to use either exact change if possible, or an alternate form of payment. It’s almost as weird as not being able to find toilet paper and canned soup.

It sounds like the problem just kind of snuck up on us. I suppose it is difficult to anticipate all of the ramifications of shutting down an economy on a scale we’ve never attempted before. Fortunately, according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the shortage is most likely pretty temporary and should sort itself out as more parts of the economy open up.

But if it doesn’t, I have a solution. I think the US should consider investing in some of these fancy dresser-top baskets so many of us have sitting around. I’d part with mine for the right price. Oh, I’m also working on a Broadway musical in need of investors. And I happen to have a tower for sale.

Plastic Faces and Great Hats

On November 5, 1854 French tailor Alexis Lavigne filed the world’s first patent for the mannequin, though by then he’d been perfecting its use for a number of years and had displayed a prototype as early as 1849 in the Industrial Expedition in Paris. As the industrial revolution had begun to make itself felt and the metric system took over most of Europe, Lavigne understood the shifting of the clothing industry away from individually tailored items toward those which could be mass-produced.

Armed with a flexible tape measure, which he invented, Lavigne set out to study human body types and measurements and produce mannequins that could approximate them, reducing the need for large numbers of fittings and increasing productivity in the fashion industry. And that was a pretty great use for mannequins.

This mannequin doesn’t creep me out, but it would still probably look better in a dress than I would. Image by AnnaliseArt, via Pixabay

Known in the fashion industry as Professor Lavigne, the founder of the famous French fashion school ESMOD, the inventor was not the first person to ever make a vaguely creepy fake person, even for the purpose of modeling clothing. Dating back to 1350 BC, King Tut had a mannequin of himself tucked away in his tomb, that some scholars have suggested may have been used for assembling fashionable pharaoh garb.  

Of course, plenty of artists, too, including Marie Tussaud modeled life-size, and much more lifelike, sculptures of people. When mannequins began to make their way into the department stores of the twentieth century, they became more lifelike, too.

Materials changed from wax to papier-mâché to plastic and female mannequins went from busty to boyish and back again to reflect trends in ideal body shapes. Headless busts gave way to pronounced facial features complete with realistic hair and pouty lips, which then became bald and faceless forms or even unfortunate mannequins who had once again lost their heads.

I would not look as good as this fake person does in this real hat. But I would occasionally blink. Image by KRiemer, via Pizabay

But regardless of the trend, there’s probably always been something just a little unsettling about mannequins. As lifelike as they can sometimes be, mannequins don’t move. Instead they openly stare at anyone passing by in a way that is so unnatural that in the right lighting, or on the set of a horror film, it can appear frightening. They are the silent observers, who in some ways, are just a little bit superior to their human counterparts.

Mannequins are more fashionable than most of us, are much better at holding that perfect awkward pose to best show off their hemlines, and they are completely comfortable in their clothing choices. They’re slimmer than most of us, slightly more ideal in proportion than most of us, and they always look good in hats. They are these disturbing, often quite pretty, pieces of art that stand in the place that should be occupied by people.

And now they are going to restaurants and baseball games, occupying even more spaces that should belong to living and breathing human beings.

Apparently in Taiwan, where baseball is in about as full swing as any of us is likely to see this year, the stands are filled with mannequins. And at least one popular restaurant in Virginia is seating stylishly-dressed mannequins at tables that would otherwise remain empty for social distancing purposes. And yes, even though mannequins are notoriously bad tippers, if you go, they will probably still be served before you.

This family is all ready to go to the hockey game. But I can’t tell if they’re excited.

I suppose it’s a creative solution to the problem of discomfort created by empty spaces once occupied by people. Humans are social creatures by nature, and even the most introverted among us often crave communal experiences. But I’m not convinced that this is a great use for mannequins because regardless of how good they look in hats, I don’t think they can give us that.

Instead, I fear we will find ourselves surrounded by frozen, emotionless faces made of plastic and will be reminded even more starkly that the community we crave is at home in its pajamas.

And I think we might all feel just a little bit lonelier for it.

So, I’m curious. What do you think? Would you want to dine with mannequins? Or watch them sitting in the stands cheering for your favorite teams in your stead?

No One Can Say I Didn’t Dance

In 1943, famed music lover and singer Florence Foster Jenkins was involved in a car accident while in the back of a taxi. Frightened, Jenkins let out a scream so shrill, she retrospectively identified it as the first time she’d ever managed to hit an F above high C. It was, however, unlikely the seventy-some-year-old correctly identified the note when she later checked her memory against a piano, since according to Stephen Pile, author of The Book of Heroic Failures, she was the “world’s worst opera singer.”

From a young age, Jenkins loved music, was a talented pianist, and longed for the stage. But when it came time to pursue a formal musical education, her father denied her the opportunity, possibly because he knew she wasn’t very good. Rumor has it she wasn’t great with rhythm. Or pitch.

It wasn’t until her father’s death that Jenkins, then in her early forties, began to seriously pursue a music career. By then she’d survived a short-lived marriage that resulted in a lifelong battle with syphilis, but she also had both plenty of money to become a celebrated patron of the arts in New York, and a champion in her new love, St. Clair Bayfield.

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This does look like it might not sound so good. But it also looks fun. Image via Pixabay

Known by her friends as Lady Florence, she began giving concerts to highly selective audiences, some of them celebrities like Cole Porter and opera singers Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, and Lily Pons, and all of them gracious. Music critics were never invited. That would have spoiled the fun.

Because making music should produce joy, no matter the caliber of one’s talent. It should be an emotional experience, one that should often produce dancing. Again, no matter the caliber of one’s talent. And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling like right now, the world could use as much singing and as much dancing as it can get.

One of the wonderful side effects of this otherwise difficult time of social distancing is that our family has spent more unhurried time together. Yes, more togetherness often produces some irritation, but for the most part our little family of four has handled it all fairly well. We’ve played games and watched movies together. We’ve cranked up the tunes and sung, badly, at the top of our lungs together. And we’ve danced.

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In my head we look like this. And there’s a chandelier in my living room. Image via Pixabay

Or at least my husband and I have. Now, I should preface this next bit with the acknowledgement that my husband is really a very good dancer. He’s smooth and graceful, expressive and confident. His dance partner, on the other hand, just tries to keep up.

I am not a great dancer. I do have rhythm and oh how I love to dance, but for the most part I’m stiff and awkward, clumsy and embarrassing. Or at least my children seem to think I’m embarrassing.

There was a day when that didn’t bother them. Mom danced and they did, too, jumping and spinning until we were all sweaty and dizzy and giggling. Now when the dancing begins, they are much more likely to shake their heads and seek out some alone time in another part of the house.

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Actually there’s no chandelier in my living room and we probably look more like this. Also, one of those two statements is true. photo credit: Pat McDonald Together via photopin (license)

Still, I think that even if they don’t want to join in, it’s important that my children see their parents dance. Because someday, when Covid-19 is as much a part of the past as are their carefree days of childhood, there will still be dark days and it will do them good to remember that they can crank up the music, sing badly at the top of their lungs, and dance and jump and spin until they are sweaty and dizzy and giggling.

Florence Foster Jenkins had it right as far as I’m concerned. She loved to sing and so she did. She finally held a public concert not terribly long after her car accident, and as it turned out, not long before her death. Lady Florence sold out Carnegie Hall faster than anyone before her had done and at least two thousand people were turned away. The critics, now impossible to keep out, were not kind. But as she once said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

My friends, no one, least of all my children, can ever say I didn’t dance.