Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Most Beautiful Commute

by Tom Emch

Commuting to the City by ferry boat.  Getting to know the fog and the water.  The sound of the gulls and the sea changes, the feeling of intimacy between passengers drawn together on a voyage, no matter how brief.

It's more than just a way to get there, as any escapee from the exhaust fume funnel will tell you.  It's leisure.  Time enough for a conversation, or for long thoughts at the rail, lulled by the gentle slap of waves against a moving hull.  It's a style.

Gone are the Bay's great fleets of ferries,, but there's a survivor, a spicy dame.

She's a little broad of beam, three decks high and 100 feet long; she's smooth and powerful, but you couldn't call her beautiful.  Not early in the morning as she squats alongside the Tiburon Ferry Landing in the dawn.

She's the M.V. Harbor Emperor.  And from the main deck floats the promise of strong coffee and fresh rolls and donuts.  Off the water the air is sharp.  A bit of spray and a changing seascape.  A landlubber's bargain at $1.00 the round trip adventure.

It's a feast for the senses even before the blast from the bridge signals the beginning of the 5 1/2 mile cruise to The City, 35 minutes away.  "Let go the bow line."  You hear the salty phrase and the captain sets a course for Alcatraz and San Francisco, silhouetted in the distance on an orange canvas.

"This is the way to go," says Hilda Gibson, a ferry boat fan since the Tiburon run began in 1962.  "You can stand up here on the top deck and sip coffee and feel the freshness of the morning.  And the trip is different every day."

The Emperor cruises past Alcatraz, cutting an 11-knot wake, and nudges up to the Ferry Building Landing to disgorge some 300 voyagers, braced and ready for the day.  Then with the sun rising, she turns back to Tiburon.

Four round trips in the morning and four in the afternoon.  Shoppers during the day, and the crowd of commuters on the "5:30" back to Marin.

This is the heaviest and thirstiest run.  Card games and newspapers occupy some, but there is cocktail action at the bar.  "We do better than $100 in 35 minutes," say Manuel Melas, who is manager for the food and drink caterer.

"Most of them order doubles so they don't have to get back into line," he explains.  "But one guy got up to the bar four times, ordered a double martini each time.  It's a record."

Up on the bridge, guiding the tight little ship and the homeward bound, is the captain, James Hill.  "It's a good run and the passengers like the ride: they like us (the skipper and four deck hands)."  The crew plays a game when they spot a "runner" at the dock.  Says Hill: "He knows we'll wait, but he runs anyway and when he comes aboard, the passengers cheer."

The Emperor? "She's a good ship, handles like a doll, even in choppy weather.  But you're right about her looks," he admits.

You couldn't call her beautiful."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle

Carol and Blaze Talk Shop

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)  

Another workday.  Go to the office.  Go to the Hilton to interview Blaze Starr (38-25-37) and Carol Doda (44-24-35), both tightly sweatered and sitting in Henri's Room at the Top talking shop.  Shop, in this case, being the fine points of taking off clothes in public and some of the problems of being heavily endowed.  Or, some say, upholstered.

"You have to be careful about leaning forward," says Carol.  "One time I went bowling, threw the ball and followed it right down the alley."

Blaze, some of whose gowns are covered with mirrors and weight as much as twenty pounds, says:  "Sometimes if you tilt the wrong way, you go right over."

The meeting of the two strippers, one a municipal landmark on Baltimore's famed "Block" and the other an attraction no less spectacular than one of the Bay's bridges, could have become the Battle of the Mammaries.  But as it turned out it was just two sweet girls gabbing about show biz.

How about the measurements, Carol?

"About 42 up here," she says, "depending on the weather."

And what does the weather have to do with it?

"The silicone expands when it gets hot," she reveals, "and it shrinks when it gets cold.  If it is real cold I don't even work.  That's why I can never play Alaska."

Some years back, Carol got a little bust alteration treatment that transformed her from a perfectly normal "B" cup brassiere size to a fantastic configuration.  Silicone, known for its physiochemical inertness, is usually used in adhesives, lubricants, electrical insulation and synthetic rubber.

Blaze, on the other hand, gets by with her original equipment, which is in fine repair.

Blaze is asked how she handles drunks who want to get up on the stage and touch the merchandise.

"I say to him.  'Okay, come up here and stretch out on the couch and I'll rape you.'  That stops 'em every time."

Carol has had the same problem, but handles it differently.  She says:  "I tell him if he doesn't behave I'll hit him with one of these and knock him out."

Blaze then launched into a personal story that was harrowing to hear and gained her immediate sympathy:

"It was in Baltimore," she began.  "I was doing my act for a  private bachelor party and I have this routine where I place a rose between my bust and then point to someone in the audience and invite him to come up on stage and I ask him:

'How would you like to go flower pickin' in the hills?"

"Well," she continued, "this guy comes up and instead of getting the rose, he sunk his teeth right into my boobie and wouldn't let go.

"It hurt and I started pulling his hair and beating him on the head, but he held on, like a bulldog, until one of my assistants unlocked him and got him off."

She added that her boobie (strippers have various names for their breasts) became black and blue and swelled up and hurt like hell.  But, thank goodness, it healed up.

Carol said her worst experience was a few years ago when a San Francisco police sergeant climbed up on the stage at the Condor and insisted he was going to take her to the station as is.

"But I don't have any clothes on," Carol recalls saying,  "It's indecent."  Whereupon, she ran from the stage to her dressing room and slipped on a few things for the ride downtown.

Curiously, the two strippers have different attitudes about streaking.  After being assured there would be plenty of photographers on the scene, Carol once streaked the Marina Green in the altogether.

Blaze, however, says she was once urged to streak Pimlico Race Track on a horse, but refused.  "He was a long shot," she recalls, "and he had his blinkers off."

Both Blaze and Carol have been around the circuit for awhile.  Blaze, born in Mingo County, West Virginia during the Depression, began stripping in Washington, D.C. in 1950.

She was working a night club with a guitar act and followed on stage another guitar act, a cowboy.  One night the promoter discovered that Blaze was getting laughs each time she tried to get the guitar strap over her head and chest.

The promoter said:  "You ought to be a stripper."

That started it.  Once she learned the basic bumps and grinds, she no longer needed the guitar.  She found she loved stripping on the old burlesque circuit and developed her act into an art form that is beautiful to behold - even today.

By the late fifties she was famous on the East Coast.  In 1963, she became a fixture of Baltimore's "Block" and eventually bought the Two O'Clock Club, where she held forth for six years.

The rewards of this toil?

Today she owns two four-story buildings on East Baltimore Street, a $150,000 home with a pool in suburban Pikesville and has investments.

Her recent one-week stand at the Palace Theater on Turk Street earned her $4,000 and she says she doesn't work much anymore.  Maybe one week a month or every two months "to pick up pocket change."

How about the rise of pornography?

"About seven years ago the porno flicks won their court case and suddenly they were everywhere.  But when you've seen one of them, you've seen them all.

"Now, people are tired of them and they want to see the flesh again," says Blaze defiantly.

Carol agrees.  "That's what they come for.  It's couples and even families.  The audiences have changed since the go-go dancers of ten years ago."

Carol, a veteran of the North Beach scene and a television personality in San Jose, has plans for a "Nevada-type" show that she would like to take to Reno and Vegas.  She has in mind a full night club routine with a number of performers and top flight comedians and musicians.

"But I would always come back to work San Francisco," she says.  "I feel a responsibility toward the community.  We get tourists who come out here from the Midwest and want to see two things:  the Golden Gate Bridge and Carol Doda."

Their acts differ, but are basically comedy by highly professional performers.  Carol says, "I've had to get into production numbers.  You can't maintain audience interest unless you give them the jokes and one-liners.  After I take off my clothes I can't just stand their and say: 'Hello, there'."

Blaze concentrates more on the old fashioned strip routine.  She uses her own original music to strip by and has written two sons - Thirty-eight Double-D (her bust size) and West Virginia Sink Hole.

She remains a West Virginia country girl at heart, and people around Baltimore will tell you it's a big heart.  She's active in a number of charities and does non-profit performances when asked.  She (unreadable) and like many true stars, she's a  plain, honest person underneath a professional patina.

Her book, Blaze Star; My Life, has been sold to Hollywood and casting for the film will begin soon and though she is not really wealthy, she doesn't have to worry about money.

"Burlesque has been good to me," she says.

Carol Doda says the skin trade agrees with her, too.  Both claim that all they do when they strip "is what every other girl in the world would like to do - if they had the nerve."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle    August 1975

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Pollution Revolution

by Tom Emch

In the Diamond Valley of Alpine County is a sparkling new 165-acre lake.  It looks ideal for swimming, boating, camping and fishing - and it is.  Majestic mountains form the backdrop for this pristine jewel, alive with rainbow trout.

But those trout aren't swimming in an ordinary Sierra lake.  There isn't another like it in the world.  Every drop of that beautiful blue water comes from sewage.

The lake, known as Indian Creek Reservoir; is filled entirely with reclaimed water from the South Tahoe Public Utilities District.  One billion gallons of it.  

If you can stomach the idea, what goes into the utilities district treatment plant as a six-letter word comes out as a five-letter word - water.  Good water.  It meets U.S. Public Health Service drinking water standards, tastes slightly flat but mixes well with scotch.

This effluent of the affluent, from some 8000 buildings along Lake Tahoe's south shore, from Emerald Bay to Stateline, is purified and pumped 27 miles by pipeline over Luther Pass and to the reservoir where it serves three purposes.

*  It supplies irrigation for farmers with pasture land or bay and alfalfa.  
*  It is a receptacle for unwanted effluent from nearly one-third of the Tahoe Basin.
*  It provides a new Sierra recreation facility, approved by the State for water contact sports.

Boating and swimming in what was once sewage?  Just how pure is the water?

It's comparable in quality to the drinking water from your tap in The City, according to the Purification Division of the San Francisco Water Department.  Accepted water quality tests indicate San Francisco drinking water is slightly higher in turbidity than that at the reservoir, but slightly lower in detergents, phosphorous and alkalinity.  The coliform bacterial count is almost identical.

If that doesn't tell you much, listen to Bob Tharatt of the State Fish and Game Department, who stocked the reservoir last August with 8000 rainbow trout.  "The water's fine - or the trout wouldn't be thriving."

Two and a half months after the stocking, the fingerlings had doubled in size.  "We expect they'll be a foot long by opening day of the season, May 2.  It's a good test of the water quality.

"Rainbows require a pollution-free environment, unlike carp or catfish.  We stocked the lake as an experiment, but the results are so good that we plan more stocking to replenish what the fisherman take out."

The lake, man-made from reclaimed wastewater, was made possible by one of the world's most advanced sewage treatment plants.

The $28 million plant is the engineering answer to water pollution.  Because it was a prototype, nearly half of the funding came from government agencies, including the U.S. Public Health Service, the Economic Development Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and the State of California.  Residents of South Lake Tahoe provided the rest through revenue bonds, and they provide operating money through sewer assessments.

The reclamation plant, which has been visited by engineers from all 50 states and from 31 foreign countries, was completed in March of 1968.  Eight months later, an ammonia stripping tower was added to removed nitrogen from the effluent.  And in April, 1969, exportation began.

Pumps lift the water 1700 feet to the summit of Luther Pass from where it flows by gravity into Alpine County and to the reservoir hidden in the mountains, five miles from Woodfords.  

Lakeside development plans, according to Hubert Bruns, chairman of the Alpine County Board of Supervisors, include an access road from Hwy. 89.  And the State Bureau of Land Management will spend $100,000 to erect 35 campsites, 20 picnic sites, restrooms and a boat launching ramp.

Alpine County supervisors, reluctant at first to take the effluent, now know the quality and the value of the water they are getting free.  (The Federal government and the South Tahoe Public Utilities District maintain the pipeline.)  They almost didn't.

Export routes considered but prohibited by various agencies included one over Echo Summit to the South Fork of the American River, a route over Dagget Pass to Douglas County, Nevada, another into the Hope Valley.  

Location of the reservoir in Diamond Valley was finally approved in late 1965 by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.  The reservoir with its two dams and spillway was completed in December, 1967.

Solving the export problem was simple compared to the task of producing potable water from raw sewage.  And the District had guaranteed water of drinkable quality at the point of discharge.  

Jerry Wilson, quality watchdog for the District's consulting engineers, Claire A. Hill & Associates of Redding, explains how it's done.

"First you must realize that there is only one wastewater reclamation plant in the world anything like this.  It's in Pretoria, South Africa.  And when they get through treating the water there, they feed it back into the city water system for drinking.

"The effluent comes in over there, almost 99 per cent liquid and about body temperature.  Solids are ground up, and removed by sedimentation in these tanks."  You don't have to look where he's pointing because you can smell it.

"Then it goes into these sludge aeration tanks where diffused oxygen is pumped in for the bacteria, or bugs, that eat the sewage.  The waste, solid sludge, is settled out and pumped in the incinerator where it is cooked and reduced to sterile, insoluble ash and burned off.  Please note there is no steam or smoke or air pollution from the incinerator.

"This is a primary and secondary sewage treatment.  And this is where conventional treatment stops.  All major cities have this and pump the secondary effluent directly into rivers.  Seattle pumps it into Puget Sound.  The Ohio, Illinois and Mississippi rivers all get this sort of effluent."

At this point you notice it still smells plenty.  And it's muddy colored.  You don't believe even with the wildest imagination, that it will ever be fit to drink.

"Over here," says our tour guide, "we add lime to remove phosphorous. And in the next tank we take out the lime floc by sedimentation.  From these secondary clarifiers ,  the overflow  is pumped to the ammonia stripper or nitrogen tower where the effluent becomes droplets and the ammonia is dissolved as a gas.  Here, carbon dioxide is added to reduce the pH factor, or alkalinity.

"The re-carbonated water flows to ballast ponds.  These are control tanks for the timing of the whole three-day process.  Then, the effluent flows to the tertiary treatment plant where it is filtered in sand, anthracite and garnet.  This removes the last of the solids.  

"The, it is pumped through eight carbon columns containing 25 tons of charcoal each.  Here, the color is removed; also remaining chemicals, detergents and dissolved organics.  "Now the effluent is clear," says the guide, "clear as Tahoe water."

And by this time you are almost convinced the water is good enough to drink.  For somebody else to drink.  But there is one more step.

The final touch is simple chlorination.  "To kill any coliform bacteria." he explains.

The magician of wastewater reclamation then leads you to an artificial mountain spring outside the plant.  Clear, inviting, bubbly, cool water cascades from the rocks.  "Here, try some," he says and smiles.

"You mean drink it?"  says the guest, knowing that to refuse would be a gross error of etiquette.  So you take a sip of the reclaimed wastewater and say "Hmmm, marvelous."

Later noting few bad effects, you even begin to fee good.  Daring.  After all, what's good enough for rainbow trout is good enough for you.

And later still, after two martinis, you suddenly remember with a shock that in the lobby of the South Tahoe Public Utilities District building, there was a bottled water tap.  The label read "Diamond Springs Water Co., Reno, Nevada."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle  Jan. 1970

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Last Man on the Rock

by Tom Emch

Plaster peels off the solid walls of Alcatraz; steel gun galleries that rang to the booted step of the guards are rusting.  Grass sprouts from cracks in the concrete of the exercise yard and the guard towers are unmanned.

In the main cellblock, three tiers high, the only sound is inside your mind where you can imagine the screaming and rifle fire of the big 1946 riot that left two guards and three prisoners dead.  The cellblock today is a a place of bad dreams and clouding memories.

But John Hart remembers well.  He's the last man on Alcatraz, the last link with the 29-year history of the prison that began in 1934 when the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over the island from the military.

A square fort of a man, he has lived on Alcatraz for nearly 22 years.  For 15 of those years, he was an armed guard, close enough to the prisoners to know them by name.  They are gone now; the last of the inmates was herded off the island in 1963.  And most of the grimness is gone, replaced by the ghostly atmosphere of a decaying institution.

John Hart and his wife, Marie, remember happier times: their four children growing up on the island, playing on the rocky shore; their two daughters who were married on Alcatraz; their friends among the 65 resident families.  It was a good life - outside the prison compound - for the 250 "civilian" employees, many of whom commuted daily to the mainland.

Hart stays on as a security contractor for the General Services Administration, reluctant owner of the property which will unload the island as soon as The City decides, finally, on a developer.

Meanwhile, the Harts live in spacious comfort on the 12-acre island.  They occupy two ground floor apartments in the building that formerly housed married guards and their families.  On the west side of Alcatraz, their quarters command a sweeping view of The City from the Golden Gate to the lower Embarcadero.

"At night, San Francisco is a fairlyland," says Marie, "but I miss the lights on the prison and along the shore.  And mostly I miss the children. This was their home."

It's still home for the last couple on the island, and for two semi-retired men who help keep the curious away.  Bill Doherty, 62, and Orval (Barney) Barnes, 83, help with the guard chores, and answer the phone on the dock.

Here, where Hart's boat, Rocky II, is moored and where all visitors come ashore, is a watchdog. He's required by Hart's contract with the GSA.

"Duke is a little unpredictable," says the former prison guard.  "We have a loud speaker here, and at night we can hear Duke's bark at the apartment.  If he snarls, I get into the pickup and drive over to the dock.  No one gets by him."  Another dog, Duffy, has lesser duties.  He stays near the apartment located on the old parade grounds.  Four people and two dogs.  It's a lonely little community on the Rock that once held more than 250 prisoners in maximum security.  "It was tight security, but not escape-proof," says Hart.

He takes you out in his 20-foot twin outboard cruiser and points out the spot where, it is believed, three men entered the water in June, 1962.

The three - Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin - disappeared.  They have never been heard from since.  Nor have Ted Cole and Ralph Roe who took a similar route to death in the tides or possible freedom in December, 1937.  Only these five are listed as "escapees," according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the history of the prison.

Hart and his wife "escape" occasionally to Santa Rosa where they have a second home.  And there are the weekly trips to the Marina for supplies.

"One of the problems of living on the island," explains Marie, "is groceries.  It's hard to buy for a week at a time. We have three refrigerators and try to keep them full."

"If we run out of something, we can't just dash in to the store," says the lady of the island, who has written a book about her years on Alcatraz.  Lou Hurley, a radio traffic reporter who daily delivers the Harts' newspaper by helicopter, has offered to fly in emergency rations, land on the old parade ground where he drops the paper. But it hasn't been necessary.

Communications with the mainland are another problem, or were.  Six months ago, a freighter cut the underwater telephone cable.  It has only recently been repaired.  Radiotelephone contact is available, but unreliable.

And water (certain to be a headache for any future developer) is brought in by barge once a month - 10,000 gallons at a time. "There's enough water for us," says Marie, "but not enough for the lawns, barely enough for the flowers."

Water has been a problem for visiting movie companies and television camera crews that have used Alcatraz for location filming since the prison was abandoned.  

The Harts have been host to all the news networks, including Britain's BBC.  A Hollywood studio filmed "Point Blank" on the island; MGM rented it for $2000 a day for one scene.

But, seeing the bleak five by nine foot cells and the bare tile boxes for the mentally disturbed wonder if the smoldering world of the inmates could have been captured on celluloid.  The yelling and bar-banging of the isolation unit where prisoners were fed from trays pushed through a slot in the bars.  The"Central Bath" where Mickey Cohen once handled the linen.  The caged fury of Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, Billy Cook, Machine Gun Kelly and the Barker brothers.  The special cell for Roubert Stroud.  The office of Warden Olin D. Blackwell, now an  unfurnished shambles.

And what of the life outside the walls where the children of the guards played hide-and-seek among the old military fortifications?  This story has not been told.  "The children who grew up on the island have all had happy marriages," says Marie. "We don't know of any of them that have gone bad.  They had a good life here."

Their years on Alcatraz have meant much to the Harts. "I hope we will be able to stay on after the island is developed."  Both of them want this.  And both want to be there when the development is complete. Marie says:  "We would like to see them put the lights back on again."

"It's really such a beautiful place."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1969  

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Heavy Look at Diets

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

When you're overweight, like I am, you like to read about diets.  It's much easier than actually going on them.  A friend of mine likes to read about diets in his local pub while drinking draft Budweiser.  This amuses him; so does needling people who take the veil and announce they're on a diet (with a capital D).

It was this joker who suggested my first diet, some ten years ago.  "Look," he said with a leer, "just give up all potatoes and beer."

"Okay, I said.  "I'll give it ten days, and if I loose ten pounds, you have to go on it for ten days."

He feigned horror, but agreed.

After seven days of substituting wine for beer and doing without French fries and baked potatoes with sour cream, I said "To hell with it" and started drinking beer again.  Before the tenth day I started draming about little red-skinned new potatoes, boiled, and garnished with parsley and butter.  End of first diet.  Weight loss:  zero.

The second effort was the fourteen-day Nibbler's Diet.  Your're allow to snack, but are forbidden full meals.  I liked this idea because it didn't interfere with the drinking, and at cocktail parties there's usually plenty to nibble on, such as shrimps, chicken livers wrapped in bacon and occasionally caviar with grated egg yolk.  Unfortunately, I gained weight on the Nibbler's Diet.  But at least I lasted the entire fourteen days.

In between diets, I kept up with my homework, read everything I could lay my hands on about dieting.  I discovered there are Zen Macrobiotic diets, diet hypnosis and one-Dimensional diets.

A lady I know tried the latter one and lost about twelve pounds in two weeks.  The game plan is that you eat a hard-boiled egg (just one) at mealtimes, and for supper, you're allowed a boiled chicken leg.  That's all.  Period.

After two weeks of this she opened the fridge one day, saw the rows of hard-boiled eggs, and began to cry.  She tried to get me on that one but I balked, claiming I'm allergic to hard-boiled eggs.

I really don't know why I don't like to diet and never have from the earliest days.  I was born with a large hungry frame and an inense interest in the gustatory pleasures of life.

Mother's milk, I thought, was great stuff.  And I still drink a fifth of milk occasionally. Dieting was not a big thing during my formative years, the Great Depression era.  No one was concerned about dieting and theere weren't a lot of fat people in the bread lines and at the soup kitchens anyway.

I liked the Depression because I liked peanut butter.  The owner of a Chicago peanut butter factory owed my father some money.  And he paid off by the case.  I ate peanut butter with a spoon then and I still do every now and then.

In adolescence it never occurred to me that I might someday slip into obesity.  But the handwriting was on the wall the day, at age sixteen, I discovered I truly liked beer.

One thing led to another and some years later I found that I liked drinks of all kinds.  I was what H. L. Mencken called "omnibibulous."  And everyone knows it's difficult to remain slender  when your're an omnibibliac.

So, without ever trying it myself, I became obsessed with the subject of dieting.  I liked particularly to read articles warning of the dangers of dieting.

One doctor claimed, in the public prints, that quickie diets caused your hair to fall out by the handful, because if the roots are deprived of calories and nutrients, the hair dies.

I told a lot of dieters about that one.   Another doctor had written that fad diets could cause holes in the bones, or osteoporosis.  Bones need minerals and if they don't get them - presto, instant holes.  It was fun describing osteoporosis to people who'd announce proudly that they'd lost fifteen pounds.

And when the Cigarette Diet broke into the news, I was overjoyed. All that it required was that you smoke a lot.  The theory was that smoking dulls the taste buds and food tastes lousy and so you don't eat as much.  And the nicotine was supposed to limit the extent that foods add to existing fat.  I was on this one for six months and developed a smoker's cough so bad I had to cut down to two packs a day.  I must relate, honestly, that the diet didn't work anyway.  My weight loss was again zero.

The next diet I tried was one invented by the writer, Jonathan Dolger.  He called it the ExpenseAccount Diet.  On this one you give up all junk foods, such as hot dogs, hamburgers; and all sauces and salad dressings.  But in return you get to eat caviar, escargot, prime roast beef, asparagus spears and drink champagne.  Dolger maintained that caviar and champagne have hell of a lot fewer calories than hot dogs and salads with thousand island dressing.  He was right, of course, but I found that I couldn't afford Beluga caviar and I gave it up without any discernable effect on my waistline.

Other diets tried were the High Protein Diet (all the beef and fish you can eat, but nothing else); the Low Cholesteral Diet (all the fish and vegetables you can eat, but nothing else), and the Low Sodium Diet.

This last one you get from a doctor.  He hands you a list of things you can eat that is half a page long, and a list of things you can't eat that is four pages long.  I lasted less than a week on the Low Sodium Diet because I discovered with horror that even club soda contains salt.  And how can you drink Bourbon and Soda without the soda?

The whole dieting concept, I finally decided, was masochistic.  People always say:  "I've lost eight pounds and I feel great!"  This is not only designed to make non-dieters feel lousy, it's downright fallacious.

You actually don't feel better when on a diet, I believe.  Most people I know invariably feel worse; they get irritable, some get headaches.  (Some may even get osteoporosis.)

The moment I decide to go off a diet, I want to splurge.  Once I ate an enire eighteen-day diet for breakfast and got up from the table feeling wonderful.

A brother-in-law believed, for a time, he could live on vitamin pills, coffee and cigarettes.  He tried it and after two months with very little solid food he had a minor heart attack and passed out in a car on the San Diego Freeway.  He doesn't diet anymore.

I don't diet much anymore either.  I eat whatever my wife provides and skimp a little at lunch and drink whatever I want.  My weight hasn't varied five pounds in as many years.  The writer, Jimmy Breslin, who is about five feet eight and half inches tall and weighs more that 250, says he knows that drinking puts the pounds on.  But he adds that he likes to drink and in the long run it doens't make much difference if you're fat or skinny in this world.  The food columnist, James Beard, says much the same thing:  "Who cares?"  He weighs in at about 270 pounds.

The only diet that has riveted my attention lately appeared in the pages of the New York Times.  A Dr. Abraham Friedman wrote that "you should reach for your mate instead of your plate."  He claimed that each act of sexual intercourse burns off 250 calories.  

Marvelous news!  That means you can have two and a half martinis (at 100 calories apiece), make love and break even.

It may not take any weight off, but it won't put any one.  That's some kind of diet.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Case of the Missing Finger

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

Almost everybody has ten fingers (including thumbs).  I don't know anyone with eleven, although I do know a number of people with less than ten.  A former colleague had eight; two had been amputated on his left hand in a peculiar alignment.  Without trying, he was constantly giving people the sign of the cuckold.  Another friend has only nine, having lost one on a butcher's block struggling with a particularly tough chicken leg and a very sharp knife.  And yours truly has just nine and a half fingers.

Nine and a half is really all you need if you're not a touch typist.  It's even an advantage sometimes.

First of all a missing finger is a conversation piece, and somewhat of a curiosity among the ten-fingered set.  "How did you lose it?"  I'm asked at parties.  Immediately I have the floor and all eyes are turned on me, waiting for an unusual story.  This is quite an advantage for someone who is usually ignored at gatherings.

"Which story would you like?"  is my standard rejoinder.  I lost the half finger in 1935 and for years, when asked questions, I told it just the way it happened.  Then one day I realized that people would believe any story I told them.  So I started to improvise.  The stories got better, more polished, and today I have a repertoire that is just short of astounding.

Fingers are very important to the species.  H. Allen Smith, the humorist, pointed out that we would be living in quite a different world if we didn't have fingers.  Toes would have to do all the tricky work, and the world would be minus a lot of outstanding violin music.  Pianos would be non-existent, but there would probably still be art masterpieces.  We would have developed a race of people with very talented toes.

But as it turned out we have pianos and Beethoven and Chopin and Jascha Heifetz, and when we go to the dentist, he doesn't have to use his toes to...   Well, let's skip that.

Everybody knows about the value of the opposed thumb, the gripper.  And the index finger.  This is the one the Anglo Saxons called the "toucher".  The middle finger, of course, is the longest and most useful on the freeways.  If someone honks his horn and tries to get you over into the slow lane, you simply raise the middle finger of your right hand and jab it in the air.  There is an Italian expression that goes along with this gesture, but I've forgotten it.

The next finger is the ring finger.  Once it was believed that there was a nerve that went from the tip of this finger directly to the heard.  And thus it was appropriate to signify a bond between two hearts with a ring on this finger.  In some quarters, it is also known as the "stirring finger."  I can't imagine why because if you try it in your scotch and water it doesn't work nearly as well as the index finger, particularly if you use ice cubes.

The last finger is called the "little finger," logically enough.  Here again I'm indebted to Smith for pointing out that the little finger is the only one that fits well into a nostril or an ear.  Try it.

Fingers are useful to nervous people who drum them, and to executives who tap them to get the attention of subordinates.  And if you've got a mouthful of spaghetti and meat sauce and someone asks you the way to the men's room, an index finger makes a handy pointer.

Children find more uses for fingers than adults; finger painting, making mud pies, writing in the sand, scratching enemies and getting into the cookie jar, to name some.

When they grow older they use fingers to play musical instruments (the five-hole flute, for instance) and to write home for money and to learn about the opposite sex.  Entwined fingers are big with teenagers.  Fingers are also good for typing (you need at least two), and for throwing an inside curve ball.

But to get back to how I came to have only nine and a half fingers, it happened this way.  Possibly.

My parents had imposed on me the cruel and usual punishment of piano lessons.  Unless you're eight years old and male and it's a beautiful spring day, you can't understand just how cruel piano lessons can be.

I had stuck with it grimly, through all the exercises and some of the beginner pieces until one day I was handed a simple Chopin etude.  "Simple" is what the piano teacher called it; she had been playing Chopin for forty years.

Three lessons later I still hadn't come close to what the composer intended and I knew I never would.  That's when I hit on the "final solution" to the dreaded piano lessons.

When I tell this story, there's invariably a gasp from the audience and I usually let the story hang unfinished.  It's very effective.

"You don't mean you cut it off yourself?" they ask.

Or it's:  "Oh, you couldn't!"

I just smile because I know the story isn't true.  Depending on the audience, I have another story, also untrue:

In make company, particularly right after World War II, I would hint broadly that it was a combat wound.  Men who had been really wounded didn't pay any attention to me, but the stateside GIs would listen respectfully.

I told how I was in a forward observation post in the Pacific, in a shallow foxhole when, suddenly, a large snake slithered in beside me.  I made such a commotion trying to get the snake out of the hole that I attracted enemy fire.  And when I finally got hold of the snake and held it up to throw it aside, I caught a bullet on the end of my index finger on my left hand.

Looking back, few believed this story, but it did get me an occasional free drink.

Actually I had lost the finger years before and the military wasn't interested that I was minus half a finger.  After all, it wasn't my trigger finger, they said.

Another story about how I lost my left index finger at the second joint I can only allude to because this is a family newspaper.

It begins on a beach near Havana in 1947 and involves a Cuban girl named Maria, who was not as virginal as her name.  The next scene is in a room at the old Florida Hotel, near the waterfront.  Maria and I have words, then we fight and in the ensuing altercation I end up with half a finger gone, and Maria is in tears, bandaging me up.  "Don't know if she still has the finger," is the way I conclude this tale.

Almost nobody believes the story, including me, but it fires the imagination of the listener and it usually makes a hit.

Okay.  Okay.  Enough of the baloney.  You want to hear the real story:

It's dull but true.  On my eighth birthday, I received as a present a good jackknife.  Showing off this marvelous weapon to my pals, I jammed it into a tree and the clasp closed over my finger and severed it.  I recall that all my good pals were scared and ran home.  I was left to pick up the severed finger-end and hold it in place until I was taken to a doctor.

The doc said he couldn't save it, sewed it up and sent me home with a piece of candy.  I never had a chance to thank him.

That missing finger has gotten me hundreds of free drinks over the years; it has made me the center of attention at scores of cocktail parties; I've learned how to do tricks with the stub that amuse some people.

And I don't miss the end of the finger one bit.  I was even able to tap this story with two fingers and one thumb on the space bar.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle