Sunday, October 14, 2018

The last jeans I'll ever buy

I am oblivious to fashion trends. It’s not that I don’t care how I look. It’s just that I don’t care enough to make an effort to stay abreast of what’s in and out of style. 

If I’m going to a wedding or funeral, I look online to see which of my two suits I should choose  — the one with the wide lapels or the one with the narrow lapels. Same with ties. I have to look it up to find out which of my two neckties I should wear.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I wear shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. My closet contains only a few pairs of long pants and all of those, with the exception of a pair of jeans, are tropical weight khakis.

This week my wife and I are flying to Iceland, a jeans and flannel shirt kinda country where everyone looks like they just came back from hiking a glacier, climbing a volcano or harpooning whales. "You’re going to need new jeans,” my wife said. “Yours look ridiculous.”

She’s right. I bought them in 1997 in South Africa. The label on the backside says Woolworth’s — a department store there, not the dime store you may remember.  Like me, they are showing their age — frayed bottoms, some mysterious stains, a missing belt loop.  And they don’t fit any more. Since I bought them I have lost my ass twice — once in the stock market crash and again sometime over the last ten years. The flesh on my back side has for some inexplicable reason disappeared so where-ass I used to fill the jeans out, I no longer do. There’s lots of extra fabric that sags over the area where my butt used to be.

So yesterday I went to the outlet mall to buy a new pair. I figured it would take, at most, 10 minutes because, unlike clothes that go in and out of style, jeans are jeans, right?


My first stop was at H&M. I read somewhere that H&M, a Swedish chain, is a good place to buy jeans. And it is, provided you're a guy with a waist the size of my miniature dachshund’s. There were racks and racks of jeans, with signs designating various styles — Skinny, Super Skinny, Slim, and my favorite, Skinny Carrot. The men browsing those racks were all a) young enough to be my grandsons and b) disturbingly emaciated. I was in and out of that store in two minutes flat. 

I went to Eddie Bauer. I wear size 36 jeans so I tried on a pair that size. Two of those people from “My 600 Pound Life” could have easily fit into them, with room left over for Michael Moore. I tried on a size 34. That pair could have accommodated two Moores. Even the 32s,  a size I haven’t worn since my twenties, were way, way too big. I suppose I could have continued to try successively smaller sizes until I found a pair that actually touched my hips but I’d lost faith in Eddie Bauer jeans so I left.

The Nautica store featured jeans that, like H&M's, are made for men with eating disorders. 

The jeans at the Bloomingdales outlet contained more holes than denim. Even I know that’s the style but I don’t get it. Totally impractical for someone traveling to the Arctic in late October. 

I stopped at Lucky. The designations there were as bizarre as H&M's — Skinny, Slim, Drainpipe and Athletic Slim, “for athletic slim men or those who want to be.” I want to be athletic and slim but don’t want to pay $79 for a pair of jeans I’ll wear for a week then consign to the back of a guest room closet. It’s a sure bet none would have fit anyway.

Brooks Brothers had nothing in in my size. 

Leaving that store, I rounded a corner and was relieved to see a Levi’s shop. I had never noticed it or I would have gone there in the first place.

Last time I bought Levi's, there were, if I remember correctly, two styles — 501s with a button fly and 505s with a zippered fly. I read years ago that west coast men prefer button jeans. The rest of the country prefers zippers.

Levi's no longer has two basic styles.  The selection was overwhelming. In addition to the 501s and 505s, there are now (I looked ‘em up when I got home) 502s (Regular Taper Fit), 510s (Skinny Fit), 511s (Slim Fit), 512s (Slim Taper Straight), 513s (Slim Straight), 514s (Straight Fit), 517s (Boot Cut), 519s (Extreme Skinny), 527s (Slim Boot Cut), 541s (Athletic Fit), 545s (Athletic Fit Utility), 550s (Relaxed Fit), 559s (Relaxed Straight), 560s (Comfort Fit as opposed to Discomfort Fit) and 569s (Loose Straight, not for Loose Gays or Loose Transgenders). 

A clerk asked if I needed help. “Yes,” I said. “What do you have for someone my age that will make me look virile, hip and outdoorsy while disguising the fact that my butt is missing?”

She pulled a half dozen pair off the shelves and handed them to me. Over the next hour I tried on — I kid you not — 14 pairs. Not only did they all fit differently, all of the 36 jeans except the 501s were way too big. Even many of the 34s were too big. When I asked why, the clerk explained that most jeans these days are made with denim that stretches. That’s why the jeans at Eddie Bauer and, to a lesser extent, at Levi’s, didn’t fit like the traditional stiff jeans I was accustomed to.

I finally found a pair of 505s — the same style I wore back in college — but softer, made with stretch material, that looked halfway decent. Sized 34/30, they’re a bit too big in the waist and about a half inch too short in the leg but I was, at that point, desperate to get the hell out of there.

“Do you want give me your email so I can send you a coupon for 20 percent off your next purchase?” the cashier asked.

“God no,” I replied. “These are the last jeans I’m ever going to buy.” 

And that’s the truth. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A visit to North Korea (with palm trees)

A poster featuring Fidel in the Havana City Forest:
"That human life be preserved! That children and young people enjoy it
in a world of justice. That parents and grandparents share with them 
the privilege of living!" 
Eight of us were sitting around at Happy Hour last month when out of nowhere one of us— I don’t remember who — mentioned cruising, travel or Cuba. I said I had that very morning received an email from a travel agency promoting four-day cruises to Cuba from Miami being offered at dirt cheap prices in September.

“Let’s go,” someone piped up. Everyone agreed that was a swell idea. All of us were, at that point, on our third drink. Florida bartenders that time of year tend to be extremely generous; like the Maytag repairman, they yearn for company so the drinks were extra large. I promised I’d dig out the email and send everyone details.

Within 24 hours all of us were booked, along with three more couples. The next week another couple returned to town and they booked, too. 

And that is how, on Wednesday morning, my wife and I, along with 14 friends, found ourselves on a luxury liner pulling into Havana harbor. 

The view from our ship as we sailed into Havana harbor.
Note the crumbling buildings.
I’ve traveled to every continent (except Antarctica) and visited many places that can fairly be described as third world including Namibia, Colombia, Mozambique, Morocco and Mississippi. 

Cuba makes all of them look like Beverly Hills.

While it’s impossible to judge a country on a quickie visit — we were only docked in Havana for 20 hours where my wife and I along with another couple took a six-hour tour conducted by a guide we had found on Trip Advisor — it’s safe to say all of us were impressed but not favorably. 

The country is beyond poor — the average citizen earns $30 a month. The government controls almost every aspect of their lives but has, since the death of Fidel, loosened up a bit — Cubans can now buy their own homes. That may seem like a move in the right direction but the fact is, the new owners have to maintain their homes out of their $30 paychecks, so home ownership isn’t a prescription for prosperity as it is in other societies. Roads, sidewalks, buildings, even the terminal at which we docked, are crumbling. All the businesses are government owned. The tourist industry is controlled by the Cuban military, a non-sequitur our guide likened to a branch of the government responsible for education controlling sewage disposal. 

Havana, as you know, is known for its ancient American-built cars. I figured those were the exception — a gimmick to attract car aficionados — but no, they’re the rule. Once the Commies took over in 1959, private ownership of cars was forbidden unless you already had one. That is why, today, Havana’s pot-holed roads are filled with finned, chrome-laden cars from the 1950s and late 1940s. All have been repainted many times —often in their original, distinctive, two-toned colors, and refitted with new engines. 

Our wheels for the day: a 1954 Buick with a
Mitsubishi diesel engine

The 1954 Buick in which we toured was equipped with a Mitsubishi diesel engine. The ’58 Buick friends were driven around in had a Mercedes engine. There are thousands of those clunkers in Havana alone and many more, I assume, throughout the country. Most of the original owners have died but the government, in its generosity, allowed them to pass the cars on to their descendants. Any car built after the revolution  — the Kia and Hyundai taxis and the two newer Mercedes I saw — are either owned by the government or by diplomats who find themselves unfortunate enough to be assigned to a country that has been described as “North Korea with palm trees.” 

Vintage cars (and one government-owned Mercedes)
at Revolution Square
Our guide, Raul, met us in the square opposite the dock. An articulate, outgoing guy in his late twenties who speaks near-perfect English, Raul told us he once worked as a government tour guide. He explained that passengers on our ship who took guided tours offered by the cruise line were, unwittingly, being shown exactly what the government wants them to see. Raul took us places most tourists don’t see including a “rations store” where citizens can redeem coupons for small bags of rice, beans and the occasional roll of TP when available. The shelves were mostly bare.

He took us to the National Hotel, perched high atop a hill overlooking the sea, which opened in 1930. Mob boss Meyer Lansky in the mid-1950s convinced the Battista government to cut him in as an owner. Castro seized it in 1959. 

In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the army built a bunker in the hotel garden from which volunteers scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for U.S. warships. The bunker now houses a small museum dedicated to the crisis. I asked Raul which side won. “The Soviets,” he said without hesitation. “Khrushchev had to remove his missiles from Cuba but Kennedy had to take American missiles out of Turkey.”  I had forgotten that if, indeed, I ever knew it. I was 10 years old at the time so I can’t say I stayed abreast of, or understood, every development, but Americans are taught that JFK heroically stood his ground, refused to blink, and the Soviets were forced to remove their intercontinental ballistic missiles from Cuba and schlep ‘em back to Russia, so we won.  When I got home I looked it up and Raul was right. JFK caved as much as Khrushchev. 

The National Hotel
The bunker was the highlight of my trip because I’m convinced the Cuban missile crisis is the primary reason we Baby Boomers are as screwed up as Generation Xers and Millennials like to claim we are. Many of us were in grammar school. Watching Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports about the crisis, in which the two superpowers threatened to blow each other and the rest of the world to oblivion, was traumatic enough. More damaging to our tender young psyches were the drills during which our teachers ordered us to practice hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from the fallout the mushroom clouds would inevitably generate. We may have been young but we weren’t stupid. We watched Mr. Wizard. We knew the radiation would melt us like the milk chocolate in the hand that wasn’t holding M&Ms.  

And so, expecting to die tomorrow, we have gone through life denying ourselves nothing, knowing there was a good chance we’d be dead before we had to pay for it, which is why many Boomers who would like to retire haven’t saved enough and will have to work until they fall dead from exhaustion rather than fallout.

For six hours Raul and his driver, a silver haired gentleman who spoke no English, took us around town. The cost of the tour was $130. Raul told us they had driven to Havana that morning from a town two hours away and would be making the return trip once our tour was finished.  The two men traveled four hours and spent six additional hours with the four of us. Assuming they split the $130 in half, they each earned a whopping $1.62 per hour from each person in our party and that doesn’t even include the cost of fuel which, Raul told us, comes from Cuba’s BFF, Venezuela. We tipped him generously and stopped en route back to our ship to buy a “Cuba” t-shirt  — but the vendor only had a dozen or so and, of those, only one fit and it was a misprint.  

I promised Raul I would write a glowing review on Trip Advisor, in the hopes future travelers will book tours with his company and ask for him by name, and he said he would be grateful. I wrote it last night. If you’d like to read it, and find out more about what we did and saw, click here:

Enough about our trip to Cuba.  There’s something I want to say to many of my well-intentioned friends and family members who think socialism is swell.  

On paper, the concept is kind and commendable — a government ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are taken care of —but, ultimately, the 90 percent who have the ability to take care of themselves in the first place wind up being oppressed, and the 10 percent who don’t would have been better off being taken care of by a democratically elected government.  

I am ashamed to admit I voted for a socialist, Bernie Sanders, in the 2016 Florida Democratic primary. I’m not really a Democrat. Neither was Bernie. I’m not a Republican either. I’ve switched parties four or five times and now firmly believe both are controlled by lunatics so there's no reason to keep switching. When I registered to vote in Florida, I had to choose one so I said I was a Democrat, which gave me the right to vote in that primary. I knew Sanders couldn’t possibly beat Hillary, whom I have always detested which is why I voted for him, but if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t. (I wouldn’t vote for Hillary, either. I would write in Rupert, my dachshund, who is not only more more personable but has a better grasp of basic economics than either of them.) For those of you about to delete me from your Facebook friends’ list, I didn’t vote for Trump in the general election either. Once again I wasted my vote, casting my ballot for one of the third party candidates — my way of expressing contempt for both Hillary and Trump and their wacko extremist parties. 

Take a look at Cuba, a country trapped in the 1950s. Then consider the failed satellites of the USSR which, now that they are capitalist, are becoming prosperous. A couple we traveled with own a vacation home overlooking the Adriatic in Croatia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) and report they can’t find workers to renovate it — the economy is that strong now that the socialists are gone. 

Friends and family members excited by the socialist candidates who will be featured on some ballots in November’s election believe these candidates have good intentions, are compassionate, and want to help. Most likely they are, but every socialist-leaning American voter would do well to pay a visit to Cuba to see what socialism has wrought before pulling the lever.

Socialism isn’t pretty in Cuba, Venezuela, China or North Korea. It wasn't pretty in the countries that comprised the Soviet bloc. It would be fatal here and it’s madness to even flirt with it, no matter how much you want to let the world know you’re a good person who cares about injustice which, I’m convinced, is the one and only reason to vote socialist in the first place. 

Our own government is a mess right now but Americans have an uncanny ability to self-correct their mistakes and we will someday get it right. 

Let's hope Cubans someday get that right, too

A Che Guevara poster : "It is proposed to all young people ....
to be essentially that (which) approaches the best of humanity."

Thanks, Google Translate. This one makes such little sense that our
guide/interpreter couldn't even translate it with any degree of accuracy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Nike could have done so much better

As a marketing professional, I am disappointed about Nike's decision to make Colin "Take a Knee" Kaepernick the face of its latest advertising campaign.

The objective of the campaign, which features Kaepernick's mug and the headline, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." is clear: To generate buzz for the brand by choosing a spokesperson who can offend as many people as possible.

Given its objective, Nike could have done so much better. For instance, the company could have chosen:

Adolf Hitler:  He sacrificed everything---Germany's reputation for the next millennium, not to mention six million Jews, to make sure the world knew where he stood.

Charles Manson: He sacrificed his freedom and the freedom of his followers who gleefully butchered nine people whose murders, he believed, would precipitate a war based on the Beatles' song, "Helter Skelter."

Jeffrey Dahmer: He raped, murdered, dismembered and ate 17 people between 1978 and 1991 and tragically sacrificed his life when he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate.

Jerry Sandusky: Sacrificed his career as an assistant coach at Penn State when he was charged with 52 counts of raping young boys.

Josef Stalin: As General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, it is estimated he sacrificed up to 15 million people who were executed or died in his gulags so he could prove that Communism was swell.

Osama bin Laden: Under his expert direction, the lives of 2,996 men, women and children were sacrificed on 9/11 to prove he was a man of God.

Mark Parker: Nike's CEO, who green lighted the Kaepernick campaign, may not know it yet but he has sacrificed billions in shareholder value, and will most likely be sacrificing his job.

Friday, August 31, 2018


Last Saturday, I sat on the front porch of a log cabin where, nearly 200 years ago, a decision was made that determined my future.

The cabin, a few miles south of Abingdon in southwest Virginia, was built in the late 1700s by my great-great-great grandfather, David Dryden.

On that porch, high on a hill looking across a river into the mountains of Tennessee, two of David’s sons, Nathaniel and Thomas, decided in the late 1820s to strike out for the west. (Okay, I don’t know for sure they held this discussion on the porch — maybe they held it around the gigantic stone fireplace in the kitchen or as they were fishing on the river or hunting bears or whatever — but I'm telling this story and I’ve decided they were on the porch. If you don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to read this.)  

I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Nate: Bro, we Drydens have been moving west since the 1600s — from Scotland to Maryland, from Maryland to Philadelphia, from Philly to southwestern Virginia. It’s time for us to continue the family tradition. Where in the west should we go?

Tom:  Let’s pick a place that, two hundred years from now, will be as far as possible from a major airport so our descendants who leave the area will be inconvenienced to the max when they try to visit.

Nate:  Well, here’s a map of the new state of Missouri. Let’s move to the middle of that godforsaken place. No way there’ll ever be a commercial airport anywhere near that.

Tom:  Great idea. Our descendants will have to get to an airport an hour early, fly several hours into St. Louis or Kansas City, rent a car, then drive two or three more hours. It’ll take ‘em all day to get there!

And so the brothers loaded their wagons and moved to Missouri, putting down stakes two miles east of a Montgomery County settlement that was soon to be named Danville. 

The rest, as they say, is history: Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, begat Gilbert I, who begat Gilbert II, who begat Gilbert III, who begat yours truly. 

The view from the porch with the
Tennessee mountains in the distance.
David’s cabin is no longer in the family but the current owner, a sweet, white-haired lady named Betty, kindly allows his far-flung descendants to gather every couple of years to share Dryden stories and admire the breathtakingly beautiful place from whence we all sprang. Betty even made desserts for Saturday’s reunion, including a blackberry cobbler almost as memorable as the setting. Hanging in her kitchen are photos of Thomas and Elizabeth, taken around 1860, the oldest-known photos of any members of my family. They were given to Betty by cousin Leigh, who organizes the reunions, and Betty displays them proudly to show visitors the son and daughter-in-law of the man who built her home nearly a quarter of a millennium ago. 

This year’s reunion was sparsely attended. Only four of the 500 or so descendants who were invited showed up.  Little matter. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting relatives I never knew I had, was awed to tour my ancestral home, and hope someday to have the pleasure of sitting on that porch with the future of my branch of the family tree — my two sons and the two sons my oldest son has begotten, one of whom is named Isaac Thomas Dryden. He was named in honor of me.

I doubt my son knows this but my father always told me I was named after the Thomas who left Virginia for Missouri. And so, therefore, is the newest begotten Dryden son, Isaac Thomas.

He is still in diapers but it is my hope that someday, when he is an old man like his grandpa, Isaac Thomas will have the opportunity to visit that cabin and will experience the same reaction I had as I sat on its front porch and realized that, somehow, after all these years, I was home. 

My dad always told me, "If you're going to do something, do it right."
Maybe that's something that was passed down to him because David Dryden built his
two-story cabin right. Check out the way the logs are notched. No wonder his house still stands after 250 years.

Elizabeth (b 1802) and Thomas (b 1800) Dryden
crossed the mountains from Virginia to Missouri in 1829.
Their photos are displayed in the house his father built.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The silly (and almost tragic) saga of the hand-painted animal plates

I saw a news clip today about a quick-thinking TSA agent who noticed a smoking bag as a passenger was going through the security line at the Savannah airport.  A battery in a vaping device was on fire. It brought to mind one of my favorite family stories.

In the early nineties, my wife, two young sons and I flew to London for Thanksgiving. My wife, who has an eye for rare and beautiful things — which is why she married me —  spotted in the window of a china shop some colorful, whimsical, hand-painted animal plates. She announced they would look great hanging in our kitchen. There were, if I remember correctly, probably thirty or forty different plates in the series. She and the boys picked out 16 of them.

The shopkeeper wrapped the plates individually in newsprint, and placed them in two corrugated boxes he stuffed with excelsior to provide extra padding and keep them from jiggling around. He sealed the boxes with tape and wrapped twine around them to create handles.

The next day we went to Heathrow for our return flight to JFK. Back then, I was a United frequent flyer. This, of course, was when the friendly skies were still friendly — two decades before United started dragging passengers off planes and suffocating puppies. As a frequent frequent flyer, I belonged to the United Red Carpet Club. After check-in, we proceeded directly to the lounge where we placed our carry-ons, including the boxes containing the plates, on the floor, and headed for the free food. We didn’t notice we had placed one of the boxes atop a heat vent.

An hour or so later, as we were going through the security line, a fellow passenger noticed that one of our boxes was emitting smoke. The security agents went ballistic, ordered everyone to stand back, and pulled us out of the line, accusing us of trying to smuggle a bomb. I pointed out that if I were doing that, I wouldn’t be bringing my wife and kids, and told them the box contained plates. An agent ordered me to carry the smoking box into a nearby room and demanded I open it. 

The heat hadn’t ignited the excelsior but it was, indeed, smoking.  If we had boarded the plane with that box, the excelsior would have continued to smolder and would have eventually burst into flames — probably in the middle of the ocean. A jumbo jet would have disappeared and nobody would have known why.

But the cardboard box, amazingly, was just slightly charred so, once the security agents calmed down, we were able to repack the plates, wrapping them in dirty underwear from our carry-on bags, and allowed to board our flight. We placed the boxes in the overhead bin and settled in.

Halfway across the Atlantic a passenger opened the bin and the boxes tumbled out and crashed to the floor. We assumed all the plates were smashed to smithereens. When we got home, we were amazed to learn they had somehow survived intact.

For years the plates were displayed in our Connecticut kitchen and today hang above the cabinets in our Florida kitchen where almost everyone who sees them comments on them. We always tell the story of their bizarre journey to America, a tale I have now told for probably the 100th time. 

Postscript: As I was taking the above photo, my wife asked if I noticed anything different. Looking at the plates, as I have every day for twenty-some years, I realized there were a number of new ones. There are still 16 plates hanging there, but some I had never seen before.

A few years ago while changing a light bulb, the top of my ladder struck one of the plates.  It fell to the floor and broke into 100 pieces. My wife was heartsick. While the plates aren't particularly valuable, we love them, not only for the playful artwork but because of the story associated with them. She began scouring the Internet for a replacement and, months later, found one -- not the same one I broke -- at an antique shop in England which I dutifully hung in place of the one I had broken.

What I didn't realize -- and, knowing her as I do, shouldn't have been surprised to learn  -- is that she has continued buying more plates as she finds them online, one or two at a time, from individual sellers and shopkeepers on eBay UK.  She says she even struck up an email correspondence and friendship with one of the sellers, a woman who bought her plates the same time we did. My wife has been taking down old plates and replacing them with new ones for more than a year. I didn't notice. She now owns more than two dozen plates but there are still only 16 hanging in the kitchen. 

What'll we do with all those plates? The same thing we'll do with all the stuff we've accumulated over the years -- leave them for the kids and grandkids to deal with when we're gone. Not our problem.

In the meantime, they're kind of cute. And the silly saga continues.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Obituary: Billy R. Dryden, 8/22/03-7/20/18

Billy Ray Dryden went to be with Jesus on Friday, July 20, 2018. Moments after greeting him at the pearly gates Jesus is reported to have announced, “I can’t deal with this nonstop barking,” and took off for parts unknown.

Billy was born on Aug. 22, 2003 in Pomfret Center, Conn. On Nov. 22, 2003, he was adopted by Judith and Thomas Dryden but he rarely acknowledged his father; Billy was, heart and soul, from the moment he was placed in her arms as a two-pound puppy, his mama’s boy. Their love for one another was pure and absolutely unconditional. Billy could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. For nearly 15 years he was tucked under her arm 24/7 and, on the rare occasions she was out of his sight, barked hysterically, even when she tried to have some privacy in the bathroom. 

As those who knew him will attest, Billy was vocal. He barked at thunder. He barked at lightening. He barked at fireworks. He barked whenever the phone or doorbell rang. He barked whenever a phone or doorbell on TV rang. He barked at the pool man, the yard men, at postal workers and UPS/FedEx drivers. He barked at his neighbors George and Mary. He barked at children. He barked at adults. He barked at other dogs, at lizards on the lanai and he barked especially loud whenever his father attempted to hold a conversation with his mother.

He loved Costco rotisserie chicken, frolicking through the snow of his native Connecticut, and riding in the car where he always slept on his mother’s lap, the one time his parents could talk to one another without having to scream.

Billy was a hero. In 2007, he discovered that a miniature shark his human brother Stuart had adopted years before — a fish that was supposed to live for a year or two but was six years old at that point —  had somehow leapt out of the aquarium and landed behind a chair. Billy began barking. His mother took no notice since Billy always barked whenever she wasn’t holding him. His barking became increasingly agitated, as he tried to paw his way under the chair. She realized he was trying to tell her something, just like Lassie used to tell Hugh Riley and June Lockhart that Timmy had fallen into a well. His mother was able to pick up the shark with a spatula and slip it back in the fish tank. The shark, alas, suffered brain damage because, from that day until his death several years later, he could only swim counter-clockwise, but his life was saved thanks to the bravery and persistence of a nine-pound long-haired black-and English cream dachshund. 

Billy was predeceased by his dachshund sister, Bonnie, who tricked him out of his breakfast every day for 13 years by standing at the door barking, pretending to see something, which always made him run to the door where he would bark at nothing for 10 minutes as she doubled back and inhaled his food. Survivors include his dachshund brother, Rupert, whom he welcomed into the family last year and loved dearly; his mongrel Great Pyrenees/Greyhound bitch of a niece Topanga, whom he despised, especially after she tried to swallow him whole under the Christmas tree when he stole the toy Santa had brought her; his father; and the love of his life and reason for being, his mother. 

He was cremated and, at his mother’s request, the little lacquer box in which his ashes repose will someday be placed alongside her body in her coffin, so they can spend eternity the same way they spent their life on earth together—with him tucked safely under her arm.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

In good hands

Recorded voice: You have reached the desk of Angela Lindstrom, claims adjuster. I am either on another call or away from my desk. Please leave your claim number, name, and a brief message.

TD: Hi, my claim number is 555123456.  I just got a letter saying you need some information in order to process my claim. Here goes:

My legal name is Thomas J. Dryden.

My social security number is (redacted).

Although I prefer wine to beer,  don't watch TV sports and if I miss a day shaving, nobody really notices because I've never had a heavy beard, my legal gender is male. Perhaps I should consider transitioning but at this point it doesn't really matter.

My date of birth is November 17, 1951. I used to regret that my mother couldn't hold out a few more hours because then I would have been the third generation of my family to have been born on November 18th, but, after all these years, I've decided the 17th suits me better.

The date of my accident was, well, nine months before November 17th, give or take a few days, so I'll have to say February 17th, 1951. My parents always said I was an accident. Dad was 44, mom was 38, they already had two kids and weren't planning on having any more. I like to think I was conceived on Valentine's Day.

If you have any more questions, let me know.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Shutter madness

October 5, 2017

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. You guys installed our electric hurricane shutters last year. The one over our bathroom window is broken. I pushed the button to lower it before the hurricane but the motor was dead. I got up on a ladder and took the cover off and was able to lower it manually, an inch at a time, but it took half the day. The room is now pitch black so I want to get this fixed as soon as possible. My number is 555-5555. Thanks.

December 1, 2017

Woman: Southwest Storm Shutters, this is Sara, how can I help you?

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. I left a message a couple of months ago but didn’t hear back. The motor on one of the electric storm shutters your company installed last year is broken. Could you send someone out to fix it?

Sara: I’ll have someone call you. Just a heads up, it may be tomorrow, we’re a bit backed up.

TJD: That’s fine, thanks. I’ll wait for your call.

February 12, 2018

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: Tom Dryden here, I’ve called several times. The motor on one of my shutters is broken. Could you please call me back? 

March 31, 2018

Sara: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. How can I help you?

TJD: This is Tom Dryden and this is the third or fourth time I’ve called about this. One of my shutters, the engine on it — you installed it two years ago — is broken.  Last time we talked you said someone would be calling but I never heard back. I need to have this taken care of. 

Sara: Nobody got back to you? I gave Don your message, he’s usually so good about returning calls, so I don’t know why he didn’t, but I’m sorry. I have your number. He’s out right now but I’m going to text him and he will get right back to you.

April 25, 2018

Sara: Southwest Storm Shutters, Sara speaking. 

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. I’ve been trying to get one of my shutters fixed since just after the hurricane. I’ve called and called and you've promised someone will get back to me but nobody ever does. When I stopped by your office last week, you said you’d have Don call me that afternoon. Hurricane season starts in a month. I really, really need that shutter repaired. 

Sara: Oh my God, I am so embarrassed! This isn’t like him. I tell you what, I’m going to put you on the schedule right now for — let me see — how about Thursday, May 3 between 9 and 3? 

TJD: I have three appointments that day but I’ll rearrange my schedule. Thank you!

May 3, 4:40 p.m.

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Our office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden. You promised you’d be here today between 9 and 3. It’s 4:40 now and, after sitting around all day waiting for you to show up, I’m learning you’ve gone home for the day. This is unacceptable. I spent (a massive amount) with you last year and these shutters are guaranteed for ten years. If you don’t call me back first thing tomorrow I’m going to call the Better Business Bureau.

May 4

TJD: Hello?

Sara: This is Sara at Southwest Shutters. Mr. Dryden, I am so, so sorry. The technician we had scheduled to repair your shutter yesterday up and quit without warning — abandoned his truck and the sheriff finally found it on Marco Island this morning. You have my word Don, the owner, will be there on June 3 at 8:30 a.m. sharp. 

TJD: You swear?

Sara: On a stack of Bibles. This isn’t the way we do business. There will be no charge.

TJD: There shouldn’t be, they’re guaranteed for 10 years, parts and labor. 

June 3, 9:30 a.m.

Recorded voice: Thank you for calling Southwest Storm Shutters. Please leave your name, number and a brief message and we will return your call as soon as we are able to.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden at 555-5555. Call me! I have had it with you people! You were supposed to be here an hour ago.  I ran a service business myself and if I had treated my customers the way you treat yours I'd have been out of business pronto.

June 6, 2:45 p.m.

Woman: Thank you for calling Shutter Pro, my name is Jennifer.

TJD: Hi Jennifer, my name is Tom Dryden. A neighbor told me your company repairs storm shutter motors. I have one that is broken. I need to have it fixed ASAP. 

Jennifer: Mr. Dryden, I am so sorry but we are booked solid until September.

TJD: You're kidding. September? 

 Jennifer: Don't worry, I can help. Do you have a pen and paper handy?

TJD: Yes.

Jennifer: Call Enrique Menendez at 555-1234. He used to work for us but retired last year. He still takes on some of our overflow work and, don’t tell anyone I told you this, he charges less than we do.

TJD: Thank you so much! I will call him now!

June 6, 2:48 p.m.

Recorded voice: You have reached Enrique Menendez. Please leave your name and number and I will call you back.

TJD: Hi Enrique, my name is Tom Dryden. Jennifer at Shutter Pro recommended you. I have an electric roll-down shutter with a broken motor and I need to get it fixed. If you could call me back, I’d really appreciate it, I’m desperate here.

June 6, 4:45 p.m.

TJD: This is Tom Dryden.

Sara: This is Sara at Southwest Shutters. I know we’ve given you the run-around and I’m so, so sorry.  The reason I haven’t called is that the manufacturer hasn’t had any replacement motors in stock, they’re waiting for some to arrive from China, but they have confirmation they are on their way and have promised they will be FedExing us a new motor to to arrive Monday morning, June 18th at 8:30, and we’ll be at your house by 9 a.m that same day to install it.  If we are a few minutes late, it’s because we are waiting for FedEx. You have been beyond patient. Thank you.

TJD: It’s a good thing you called. I want you to do this work because, after all, you installed the shutters and have guaranteed them but I finally put a call into someone else because I’d given up. Can I call him and tell him to forget it?

Sara: Absolutely!

Same day, 4:46 p.m. (call that went into my voicemail while I was talking to Sara).

Enrique: This is Enrique Menendez returning your call. I can fix your shutter motor tomorrow and will be there at 9. Please text me your address.

Same day, 4:52 p.m.

Text message from TJD to Enrique: Hi Enrique. Please disregard my message but I can’t thank you enough for returning my call. Have a great day!

June 18th, 9:30 a.m.

Recorded voice: You have reached the voicemail of Southwest Storm Shutters. Our offices are closed for vacation from Monday, June 18th through Friday, June 22nd. If you’ll leave your name and number we will return your call on Monday, June 25th.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

My father's store

My father, G.L. (Bud) Dryden, Jr., in 1929.
From the Central Wesleyan College yearbook.

My father died in 1966. He was 58. I was 14.

He didn’t see me graduate from high school or college. He never met my wife or six of his nine grandchildren. Sometimes I go for days without thinking about him. It’s not that I don’t hold him in the highest regard. I do. It’s just that he’s been gone so long, and that I became accustomed at a young age to not having him around.  

But there’s one place I always miss him so badly it hurts  – and that is when I go to a superstore like Target or Costco.

My father ran a general store in Auxvasse, Missouri. Dryden’s Store sold everything from milk and meat to canned goods and kerosene, from hosiery and overalls to boots, blankets and toys. It was housed in a redbrick building at the north end of the town’s block-long business district.

Customers entered through a covered tiled porch sandwiched between two raised display windows. The first floor had two rooms – a large retail space for groceries, dry goods and housewares, and a back room to store wooden cases of soda, barrels of vinegar, blocks of salt, and chicken feed. The back room also contained a kerosene pump for those customers who didn’t have electricity and depended on the fuel to light their homes.

The dark, moldy-smelling basement, accessible from the back room, contained a cast iron furnace, along with a giant pile of coal to keep it stoked in winter, and was used to store cases of canned and bottled goods. 

A staircase on the right side of the first floor led to a mezzanine with two rooms -- one for shoes, boots and ladies’ hats, and a second my father used as his office and to store boxes of cereal and crackers. He arranged his desk overlooking the floor below so that, when he was doing paperwork, he could keep an eye on his store.

A small room on the third floor was used for storage. This floor also contained several apartments. One was rented to the local phone company whose operator connected calls using an old-fashioned switchboard. 

A wooden platform freight elevator ran from the basement to the top floor. Dad never used it – he found it quicker to carry whatever he needed from one floor to the next -- but his children, nieces and nephews played with it on Sundays when the store was closed and he could allow them to yank themselves between floors to their hearts’ content without every other child in town begging for a ride.

The ceiling of the first floor was made of stamped tin. The floors were wide pine planks that, every Saturday night after closing, were mopped with kerosene to keep the dust down, giving the store a distinctive but not unpleasant scent of oil.

Groceries were displayed on the the left side of the store. Upon entering, customers passed two racks of bread, wooden bins of potatoes and onions, oversized glass jars of cookies, shelves of crackers and boxed foods, and a rack of candy. There was an open coffin-like cold case for produce and dairy products, a meat case, and, behind that, a metal cold box for soda. A butcher block table contained an array of knives, a meat saw, and alongside was a stand with an electric meat slicer. The little finger of my left hand is proof positive children shouldn’t be allowed to operate meat slicers. 

There were three orange and green-trimmed counters where customers' merchandise was placed as they shopped, and two aisles.  One of them, for most of its length, contained shelves displaying cans and jars of vegetables, condiments, jellies and fruits. Cereal boxes were kept on the top shelf.  

Shoppers didn’t have a choice of brands. If you didn't want Del Monte green beans or Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, you were out of luck, but nobody ever complained.   

Dryden’s wasn’t a self-service store. There were no shopping carts or baskets. Customers stood in front of the counters, rattling off their shopping lists to dad; to his children, who worked after school and on Saturdays; or to one of the middle-aged lady clerks who wore flowery aprons. As each item was located, it was placed on the counter until everything on the customer's list had been found. At that point purchases were placed in brown paper bags or cardboard boxes which, for ladies, dad always carried out to the car. 

A metal stand containing rolls of white and brown kraft wrapping paper separated two of the counters. Tucked behind the rocket-shaped gum ball machine at the end of the counters was a candler. Clerks held eggs against its light to determine if a fetus was inside, in which case the egg was thrown away.

The far left aisle was accessible only to employees because it contained the cash register and sensitive financial information, including a cabinet full of invoice booklets on which charges were recorded. My father never hesitated to extend credit to those who needed it. He knew that, for some of his customers, it was the difference between feeding their families and not feeding them.

Dad happily took phone orders and, regardless of whether the order was for $1 or $50, faithfully delivered them in his trusty 1954 red Chrysler our family affectionally called "Old Red."  When the delivery included a case of soda, he placed it on Old Red's right front fender. Many who called in their orders were elderly and unable to get out of their homes.  My father was, for some, the only human they saw all week and they kept talking, long after they had paid for their groceries. Dad always made time for them though I could tell, when he took me along, that he was antsy to get back to the store. I remember one octogenarian showed us a tumor that had been removed from her stomach which, for some reason, the doctor had allowed her to bring home in a jar. 

The dry goods section of Dryden's Store was on the right side of the building. It consisted of two aisles containing shelves of paper goods, grooming products, hosiery, toys, school supplies, bolts of fabric, jeans, and other items of clothing. Coats and jackets were kept in an upright wooden closet. A short counter held a circular tin container of thread; dress patterns; and wooden boxes of rick-rack, buttons, elastic, eye hooks and other sewing accessories dad referred to as “notions.” In the spring and summer, there was a spinning rack of Burpee seeds for gardeners.

Among the best-selling items in the dry goods department were the hand leathers, special gloves made from goat skin. Men who worked in the refractories in nearby Mexico and Fulton needed them to keep their hands safe from the hot-from-the-kiln bricks they had to handle.

Tampax, Kotex and Modess boxes were wrapped in plain brown paper, the price was noted in the upper right corner, and placed on a shelf where customers could reach them without having to embarrass themselves by asking for them by name. All the women in town knew what they were and could tell which product they were buying by the shape of its box. 

The dry goods counter had an old-fashioned crank-style cash register that emitted a "ka-ching" when the drawer was opened but, because most folks who shopped that side of the store also purchased groceries, dry goods were usually rung up on the left side.

The store’s back wall contained paints, floor waxes, furniture polish, varnishes, enameled pots and pans, plates, saucers, bowls, cups, pyrex dishes, and other household items. A Facebook friend wrote recently that, when she married in the late 1950s, she and her husband purchased everything they needed to set up housekeeping from Dryden’s Store, and that she still has most of it today.

The busiest day of the week, by far, was Saturday, when farmers and their families came to town to shop for the provisions they needed for the coming week. The brick plants closed at noon on Saturdays, the same time as the bank, leaving workers with paychecks they were unable to cash. They didn’t have to wait. Dad kept in his back pocket a fat leather wallet stuffed with hundreds of dollars in tens and twenties. Everyone in town knew Mr. Dryden was happy to cash their paychecks. And Mr. Dryden, a good merchant, knew that most all those men would be spending much of their paychecks on groceries and dry goods. 

At Dryden’s Store, you didn’t need a plastic bar-coded loyalty card to identify yourself. When you walked through the door, everyone already knew everything they needed to know about you. Whether you had gone to church on Sunday. How your crops were doing. The state of your family’s health. Whether you were a little pressed for money. If you needed an encouraging word. Customers and clerks (not dad but all the others including me) exchanged gossip and talked about the news of the day. Some customers, particularly the elderly ones, spent hours in the store meeting, greeting and conversing with every shopper who came in. Everyone knew everyone else and for many, Dryden’s was the center of their universe.

My father was diagnosed with cancer in December, 1964, and, for much of 1965, was in and out of hospitals, unable to work in his store. My mother, who knew what was about to happen but didn’t tell anyone, ran the store for most of that year. 

Two weeks before his death, dad came to an arrangement with a local couple who had told him years before that if he ever wanted to sell his store, they would be interested in buying it. The deal was sealed in our living room, on a Sunday afternoon. That night, I rode with dad in Old Red to the store for his final visit. Mom had mentioned as we left that we needed milk. Dad picked up a carton of Sky-Go Farms, reached into his pocket, and dropped a quarter in the cash register. “It’s their store now,” he said quietly. 

That is my most vivid memory of him.

Every time I go to a superstore, I like to imagine my father is with me and that I’m showing him around. He would be amazed to learn that stores sell ready-made meals, that customers are checked out within seconds by clerks who sometimes don’t even acknowledge their presence, that paper money rarely changes hands, and that stores are open Sundays and sometimes 24/365. He would marvel at the choice of brands (seven brands of green beans at my local Target!), at the prices (red and white potatoes cost two and three cents per pound at Dryden’s Store, they’re 99 cents and $1.09 at Publix today), at the sophisticated merchandising techniques, and at the sheer quantity of products, most of which didn’t exist in his day, that today’s consumers apparently can’t live without.

I wouldn’t have to explain to him that stores like his are gone forever. He was smart. He would pick up on that instantly and understand why. Having left college in 1929, fifteen hours short of the credits needed for his degree, he landed a job as a management trainee for a chain of variety stores and was sent to a store in Arkansas where he learned to become a first-class merchant. He threw himself into the job, kept notebooks detailing the lessons he had learned (I have them) and was making big plans to grow with the company. The Great Depression ended those plans. The store he was working in closed its doors. Try as he might, he couldn't find another job. There weren't any.

I am convinced that, more than anything, the time he spent in that Arkansas variety store shaped my father's career and character. When, three years later, he opened his own store, he put 110 percent of himself into making it the best it could possibly be so nobody could take it away from him. It was his pride, his joy, his passion.

My imaginary shopping trips with dad are my way of staying connected with him.  I like to think he would be pleased to know the influence he and his store had on my life and to know I learned from observing him many of the lessons that have defined me not only as a businessperson but as a man. 

Most of all, I'd like him to know that, every single time I set foot in one of those mega-stores, I miss him like crazy.

Post Script: 

Below are some photos my cousin Tom Tate sent after reading this post.  Years ago he and his wife were visiting Auxvasse and went by the store building. lt's no longer being used as a store -- I don't know what if, anything, it is being used for these days -- but Tom was able to get inside and shoot these photos. My parents never owned a camera so we have no photos of the store when it was operational, but these shots show some of the incredible details of the building -- the freight elevator, the tin ceiling and the railing across the front of the mezzanine where dad kept his desk (the mezzanine has apparently been sealed up), the tile on the front porch and the entrance. Note the decorative glass that runs the full width of the storefront. I'd guess it's worth more than the building itself. The building was built in (if I remember correctly) 1911.