Tuesday, December 7, 2010


This is the time of year when the fruitcake jokes begin to appear. Like Queen Victoria, we are not amused. The fruitcake I have made annually for fifty-one years is expensive and a lot of work -- something of a labor of love. I make it because I enjoy it, and I try to give it to other people who do. I have never required anybody to like fruitcake, or anything else I make. I didn't understand as a child, and I don't understand now, why the fact that someone doesn't like something should be felt as an affront.

"Oh, dear, don't let Nana hear you say that -- that's her homemade bread, you know." The issue wasn't the bread itself, which I had always eaten with as much enthusiasm as anyone, but the fact that it was soaked in gravy. I had explained clearly to whichever aunt was sitting beside me that I didn't like soggy bread. How that came to be heard as a negative statement about Nana's bread was beyond me; why she should care even if I didn't like her bread was more mysterious still.

Worse still was, "How can you not like these lovely lima beans that Uncle Leland worked so hard to grow?" What connection could there possibly be between Uncle Leland's decision to plant, weed, cultivate and encourage lima beans, and the fact that a young niece whom he saw maybe once a year and who certainly figured in his calculations not at all, didn't want to eat anybody's lima beans?

When I came to cook for other people, I still didn't understand the problem. "Oh, you don't like that? Lets see what else I can find for you," might represent my position. In any civilized setting, "Would you like some . . . ?" "No, thank you" covers it.

My willingness to put myself out for a picky eater took a hard hit during my first marriage. When he didn't like something he was often horrid about it (poking left-handedly at his dinner: "What is this made out of, rhinoceros hide?"). A polite refusal, or even a matter-of-fact suggestion or two about
how something might be improved, is fine with me. I object to rudeness, which includes unfunny jokes and unnecessary carrying on.

A disagreeable person I once worked for, upon my mentioning fruitcake- making, said with his trademark sneer, "But you know nobody likes fruitcake." If I had thought quickly enough I might have said something like, "None of the ignorant peasants you hang out with, maybe," but I hope I wouldn't have bothered. It probably would have been too subtle for him.

Some woman whose musings used to appear in the Boston Herald would devote one column each year to downing fruitcake -- a waste of energy equaled only by the fools who kept sending them to her on some such premise as "However much she hates fruitcake she's got to love mine." (This kind of thinking reminds me of Tschaikovsky's wife. He told her up front that the marriage was strictly for the sake of appearances and that he had no sexual interest in her. Beautiful and stupid, she apparently couldn't believe that any man could resist her. He did; with some untidy consequences that I don't remember.)

Before I give my fruitcake to anybody I do my best to determine whether or not they actually want it. One person who didn't explained, "There's something in it that I don't like." That would presumably be the candied fruit peel: bits of citrus peel permeated with sugar syrup, more or less sweet but with the astringent bite of the peel. I love those things. I'll eat them by the handful out of the box until my tongue hurts -- but I know that's perverse.

Citrus peel is probably the most common objection to fruitcake. Some people don't like dried fruit, or don't like or are allergic to nuts. My daughter-in-law is trying to be open-minded. She doesn't like dates, in which my fruitcake abounds, and prefers it without the brandy and sherry wrapping.

I don't have a problem with any of that. But the two people who said they liked fruitcake but never acknowledged the ones I sent them got dropped after a year or two, with a small muttered "phooey on them." The lady who said she liked it, accepted a slice, ate a bite and a half, and left the rest has been on my sour-memory list ever since. I seriously dislike wasting even a small amount of anything as money- and labor-intensive as fruitcake.

After my choir's Christmas orchestra rehearsal I get thanks and compliments on "that delicious fruitcake," which disappears in an augenblick or two. I'm glad the choir and instrumentalists like it; maybe I'll give them an extra one this year. I'm glad the people who don't like it can cast a cold eye on it and pass it by in favor of a cookie or two. De gustibus non disputandum est (that's ancient Roman for "there's no point in arguing about taste"). People who like fruitcake often like it a lot. Those who don't are invited to shut up and not eat it.

Friday, November 12, 2010


At the end of an afternoon of cooking, I made one of those piecrust rolls that uses leftover dough: roll the dough out flat, sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon, add whatever else comes to mind, roll it into an irregular cylinder, transfer it to a pie plate, and put it into the oven at 450o. While it baked, I washed, wiped, and put away the accumulated utensils, ingredients, and whatever else I and my family had spread across the kitchen.

As the table and counters came into sight I began to notice that I hadn't seen the medium-sized cutting board lately -- a sheet of white plastic, five-eighths of an inch or so thick, maybe a foot long, and eight or nine inches wide. It wasn't hanging in its place on the wall, or in the dishwasher, or in any other obvious place. It could hardly have gotten out of the kitchen. I had rolled out the piecrust on it before transferring it to the pie plate; the board was last seen under the plate.

By the time my husband and son presented themselves for dinner, I had come to a horrible suspicion of where the cutting board must be. I had already noticed a mild odor of roasting hydrocarbon -- but that wasn't unusual. Somebody was always melting plastic cups or containers or milk-bottle tabs. But maybe, I thought, I ought to check the oven.

The first thing I saw was, not the sheet of white plastic, but cascades of thick clear liquid, rather like Duco Cement, pouring through the racks and onto the oven floor. As soon as a good supply of oxygen drifted in from the opened door, the mass of black-ish goo on the bottom of the oven caught fire. I slammed the oven door shut and headed for the salt or baking soda. We had a fire extinguisher, but I have never used it or anything else of that kind. By the time I figured it out we would all have been engulfed in flames.

Baking soda in hand, I approached the oven door. My husband said, "Don't open the door." I didn't; but he sat in his chair at the table with nary a sign of an alternative idea. He was thinking about it. As I used to have to remind him from time to time, I didn't know what he was going to do. I probably said something impatient. Laurie snapped out of his reverie and instructed Justin, who might have been eight or nine, to grab a towel from the bathroom, soak it, and deliver it to the kitchen. He did so -- one of the best towels, predictably.

The high-quality towel absorbed a lot of water. Laurie opened the oven door and deposited the soaked towel onto the reviving flames. The racks must have been positioned relatively high -- or could it be that we took them out? I hope somebody thought to turn off the oven. In any case, Laurie's strategy worked. We no longer had an emergency on our hands. The pie crust roll hadn't suffered from its adventure. We had it for dessert that night as if nothing had happened. We take emergencies in stride.

The blackened plastic on the floor of the oven came up readily, probably before it was completely cold. I expected to have to replace the oven racks; but before I did anything that troublesome and expensive, I made a stab at cleaning the ones we had (have I mentioned that the stove was a relatively new one?). The melted and solidified cutting board that clung to the racks -- more like its original opaque white than the Creature from the Black Lagoon on the floor of the oven -- wouldn't budge at room temperature. Little as I liked the idea, I had to heat the oven just enough to soften the plastic, and work on it before it hardened again. I did so several times, and eventually it all flaked and chipped off. The racks today look like any other much-baked oven racks.

The towel was a total loss, of course: large burned holes, and solidified plastic bonded with the fabric. But losing a towel, even a good one, beat burning down the house.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


"If we don't do this this summer," Justin said, "We'll miss this parent-child experience." At thirteen, he was aware that his childhood was expiring.

The experience was riding the Coney Island Cyclone. Justin and I collected roller coaster rides, in an unsystematic way: If a roller coaster crossed our path, we rode on it, including those at Riverside Park in Agawam, Whalom Park in Lunenberg (as soon as the authorities declared him tall enough), and Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire.

I had recently seen a magazine article that ranked the ten most spectacular roller coaster rides in America. The Cyclone had been nosed out of first place by something in California that was modeled on the Cyclone, but more so. We weren't going to go roller-coaster-chasing to California; but New York, Coney Island, and the Cyclone were within reach. When my mother offered to stake us to a tour to New York City offered by a bus company in East Templeton, we accepted, first verifying that the Cyclone would be open for business during that October weekend -- its last for that year, it turned out. It also turned out that the Cyclone had its own telephone line. There's something very New York about that, I'm not sure why.

So Justin and I piled onto a bus in East Templeton and rode to New York City, arriving in time for a couple of hours relaxation before supper at the hotel. While others relaxed, we fell to figuring out how to get to Coney Island. Knowing nothing about New York -- I could count the number of times I've been there in my life and have a bunch of fingers left over -- I considered springing for a taxi.

It turned out to be startlingly easy to get there by subway. During the forty-five minute ride each way I had ample opportunity to be glad I had decided against the taxi. At the end of the line we hurried over to the Cyclone -- it was easy to find, towering over everything in sight -- and joined the queue at the entrance.

Once on board, we experienced the familiar sinking sensation in the mid-digestive system as the car jerked up the slope, and held our breath as it plunged down that legendary first drop; rattled and lurched and shivered around corners; and eventually rolled to a stop. We thought about going around again -- but my arthritic old neck didn't appreciate being jolted and shaken quite that much; $3 each for a ninety-second thrill seemed a bit steep; and anyway, we wanted to get back to the hotel to the dinner that came with the tour before it was too late and we had to spend money somewhere else. So back we rode on the subway, arriving just in time.

During the next day or two we saw the usual New York sights: the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, New York harbor from a tour boat, and some shopping center that we could have done without. We had a delightful time, especially the parent-child experience that had inspired us to go to New York.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


"Aghast, and months after the number was printed, I saw that I had called Philip Firmin, Clive Newcome. Now Clive Newcome is the hero of another story by the reader's most obedient writer . . . . But there is that blunder at page 990, line 76, volume 84 of the Cornhill Magazine and it is past mending . . . ." [William Makepeace Thackeray, The Roundabout Papers, "De Finibus"]

Anyone who has ever produced anything, which must be nearly the whole human race, has known the sinking feeling of discovering something that isn't up to standard when it's too late to fix it. Writers and editors cringe at such blunders; so must carpenters, artists, software developers, quilters, sewers of clothing, bakers of cookies, and plastic surgeons.

I once worked for a company that produced maps. Upon discovering an error in a published map, my supervisor muttered about how "we try so hard to get things right -- how did this happen?" and then, in tones of ironic resignation, declared that the person preparing that map had been distracted by the lunch wagon at coffee break time, left his or her post to grab a snack, and upon returning failed to get back into the groove. "Coffee and . . . a cheese Danish, that was it. Cheese Danish." Pinning the error on a hypothetical Cheese Danish seemed to sooth his perturbed spirit.

The publisher of lecture notes for whom I worked in graduate school knew that that in this imperfect world errors could creep into the most meticulously edited publication. Still, he tore his hair (figuratively -- he was nearly as bald as an egg) when a mistake turned up in a set of published notes.

One of my hobbies is interviewing individuals who have done things I think are interesting, and transcribing and editing the material. Four or five of these projects have resulted in rather elaborate booklets that I have copied and given to as many as fifty people. They are seldom reviewed by anyone but me. Going over the same material again and again is tiresome beyond expression. I have to sympathize with Edward Gorey's fictional novelist (Amphigory, "The Unstrung Harp: Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel"), engaged in "the worst part of all in the undertaking of a novel, i.e., making a clean copy of the final version of the M.S. Not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratchings-out, and scribblings, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness. A freshly-filled inkwell, new pheasant feather pens, and two reams of the most expensive cream laid paper are negligible inducements for embarking on such a loathsome proceeding."

There comes a point in my projects where I mutter something impolite and decide this will have to do; load myself and my work into the car; and proceed to White Dog Printing. When I distribute the copies I emphasize that if anyone notices a mistake, I don't want to know about it. I'm not alone: Edward Gorey, quoted above, once told an interviewer: "I refuse to read anything I've done."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Small Claims Court

I came out of work at Stanford University to discover that my motorcycle had a flat tire. I summoned Danny, my husband at the time, who appeared on his own motorcycle with one of those kits for patching bicycle tires. Motorcycles don't carry spares.

He cobbled the tire together. We knew it wouldn't hold; but after a heart-in-mouth drive down the peninsula on El Camino Real we arrived at Santa Clara Motor Sports, the local BMW motorcycle dealership. As we knew, they weren't open. We left the bike there and called them the next day about the tire and some other minor things it needed.

A week or so later they wanted $300-odd for their efforts. That's in 1974 dollars. We paid up -- what else could we do? -- and then sued them in Small Claims Court. Their head honcho threatened a countersuit. Danny wasn't impressed. I was sure the guy would sue, and that he would win and ruin us. I can't imagine what he would have had against us that he could have made a case of; but at the time I knew nothing about things legal and, as always, assumed the worst. He didn't, of course, have any kind of a case, and he didn't sue.

Danny is a bulldog. He went over every item in the bill, asked questions of motorcycle shops and the local BMW car dealership, even managed to get samples of the kind of seals Santa Clara Motor Sports should have installed instead of the ones they had in fact used. When the time came, we were by far the best-prepared litigants in the courtroom.

We had always been suspicious of the Santa Clara Motor Sports guy, a middle- aged man with a bald head, a skin-deep smile, a habitual demeanor that was meant to express sincerity and didn't, and a talent for running up bills. We took the bike to him because we hadn't been in the neighborhood long and didn't yet know about Rich Davis in San Jose; but that's another story.

When we saw Mr. Motor Sports outside the courtroom that morning, he wasn't smiling. His phony sincerity had given way to what I think was supposed to be an air of quiet menace. He was still bald.

Small Claims Court was an interesting experience. It seemed to be Finance Company Day -- or maybe there are finance companies in court every day. (Do finance companies still exist, or are they deservedly illegal?) One hapless Filipina in a white hospital uniform had been hauled in over a loan she had co-signed for a friend and her boyfriend so they could buy furniture. The payments had not been made and the friend and boyfriend had disappeared, as had the furniture.

The finance company showed minimal interest in their whereabouts. With a solvent victim in their net, they weren't about to concern themselves with the beneficiaries of the furniture.

"Why did you sign this loan?" the judge asked the defendant.

"Because she was my friend." "You know that I have to enforce this?"


Then the judge turned to the woman representing the finance company. I have the impression that judges can get as tired of finance companies as of divorcing fathers who don't want to support their kids.

"I'm continuing this case for two weeks. By that time, I want to see a real effort made to find these people."

I think it was the same finance company lady who had a guy in court for a couple of missed payments. He admitted that he was behind: he'd been sick, or lost his job, or something. He was trying to be conscientious amid his difficulties but didn't think he had missed as many payments as she said.

The judge asked her a few times what the exact amount in dispute was. She went on about the March payment and the April payment and the May payment but seemed unclear on the total.

"How can I issue a judgment if you don't even know how much you're suing for?" asked the judge in exasperation. "Case dismissed!"

When our case came up, dead last, our friend with the bald head tried to make much of the fact that the bike had been found lying on its side, presumably indicating carelessness on our part. The judge accepted our contention that the flattening tire had caused it to tip over. He was impressed enough, particularly by the seals, to award us a small rebate.

Danny was ticked off that it wasn't more. I was content to get anything, and not to be successfully countersued. I pointed out that we had had an interesting experience, which I had to suspect was not novel or interesting to the defendant; and if nothing else, we had tied him up all morning and prevented him from ripping off anyone else.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


God, it was hot. The peaches in the paper bag on the front seat, bought beside the road somewhere, had lost juice and flavor and become mealy and uninteresting. In the absence of air conditioning -- not standard in the summer of 1971, especially in older cars, which this was -- the three of us draped ourselves out the open windows. The air was as desiccated as anything else on that August day north of San Francisco; but at least it was moving. Then, on a barely-two-lane road through the hills, traffic ground to a halt and we sat in the sun and toasted.

We advanced a few yards -- uphill with the dropoff on our right -- halted, advanced again, halted again, over and over. Clearly, something was obstructing one side of the road ahead. Observing the pattern of stops and starts and the traffic coming the other way, and thinking about it as is my way (not that there was much else to do), I concluded that the obstruction was probably on our side of the road. When I said as much to the two guys in the car, I was greeted with a chorus of "Oh, you're so negative, you're always looking at the worst side of things."

It was too hot to argue. In that time and place a woman who ventured to point out anything to one man, let alone two, could expect to be put firmly in her place by tactics having nothing to do with the merits of her position (in my experience, the East Coast was better in that respect; but that's another story). I mentally shrugged my shoulders and, reflecting that the guys probably knew more about traffic patterns than I did, receded and went back to enjoying the heat.

In due course we rounded a corner and passed the obstruction: A huge logging truck bearing two or three redwood trunks had failed to negotiate a curve and, half on the road and half off (California never heard of guard rails), was firmly blocking our side of the road.

Nobody said anything about it. The guys probably didn't even remember the mini-conversation of half an hour or so previously, and reminding them would just have annoyed them. But I made a large mental note to the effect that when men make those "Oh, I don't think so" remarks in that conversation-stopping tone, they don't necessarily know anything I don't know.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Late one night in a remote parking lot in the early 1960s, Sheldon's clunky old American car wouldn't start. The car was equipped with a standard shift, of course. Automatics probably existed when it was built, but they weren't common. For want of a better alternative, Sheldon pushed the car to the top of a gentle declivity at one side of the parking lot, with an eye to clutch-starting it.

It's not difficult to make a car move on the level, but the slightest slope changes everything. It took all Sheldon's early-twenties strength and stamina to push the car to the top. He started it rolling downhill, jumped in, and at the optimum moment -- when the car was rolling just fast enough to have a chance of starting, with still enough hill in front to maintain momentum -- put it in gear and popped the clutch.

The car wasn't buying any. It chugged, spluttered, and shuddered to a stop.

In the absence of any obvious alternative, Sheldon and the car struggled up the hill and rolled down again. Heartbreakingly, the car fumbled and jerked to a halt again.

In those days before cell phones, the option of a tow truck may not have been available, even in the unlikely event that Sheldon was prepared to pay for one. There was nothing for it but to undertake the weary trek up the parking lot yet again. This, Sheldon realized, would have to be the last attempt of this kind; he wouldn't have it in him to push the car up a fourth time.

With a flash of the kind of insight that can come in a desperate corner, Sheldon noticed, or first took seriously, that it was a windy night, and the wind was blowing down the hill. He opened all four doors to catch the wind, and tried again. This time the car chugged, spluttered, spluttered again, and caught. Sheldon was saved.

Monday, May 10, 2010

THE HOUSE OF USHER: Great Was the Fall Thereof

(with apologies to Edgar Allen Poe)

In my late teens, I aspired to produce a cake in the shape of a house. Such a thing is supposed to be assembled out of rectangular sheets of cake, gingerbread or cookie, nailed together at right angles with toothpicks and further glued with frosting. That approach left me entirely cold. I had taken it into my head that I wanted a solid house-shaped cake.

I actually found a pan for producing such a thing at the local hardware store. It was in two pieces, constructed so as to stand on its roof and be filled from the bottom. Such directions as it came with didn't tell me how much batter I should use or how to adjust the cooking time and temperature. With next to no information to go on and with the misplaced confidence of youth, I forged ahead.

Anything that thick baked at the 350o usual for cakes would turn black and crisp on the outside and fill the kitchen with smoke, while retaining a raw liquid center. I set the oven low; but a more serious problem, as it turned out, was that I dramatically misjudged of the amount of batter appropriate to this large and odd-shaped object. Ten minutes after the house-cake went into the oven, the unmistakable odor of burnt cake filled the air as the batter expanded, rose, and overflowed. Knowing better than to open the door on a cake prematurely, I put off the evil moment as long as I could restrain myself.

When I declared that the cake was as done as it was going to be and took it out, batter had spilled all down the sides of the pan and formed big, charred cookies on the bottom of the oven and stalactites dangling from the oven racks. The center of the cake had collapsed into a five-inch Great Depression.

My father, a foodie's foodie, never met a dessert he didn't like. He enjoyed dense, heavy, pudding-y concoctions and actually had a certain fondness for fallen cake -- but even he wouldn't eat this one. The house-cake may have been the only dessert our family ever threw away.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


One Sunday in early spring, Mother and I stopped for lunch at the Old Mill in Westminster. A restaurant for many decades now but originally a mill, it is picturesquely situated at the edge of the mill pond. A long porch faces the pond; the walkway into the building and the dining room windows offer views of the brook cascading over the dam and rattling and foaming over the rocks on its way to Fitchburg and points east. Ducks, a few swans, and a passing goose or two thrive on a diet of whatever grows in the pond supplemented by leftover rolls, including the Old Mill's signature pecan rolls, from a basket of discarded baked goods maintained for the purpose. When Justin was six or seven, he was pecked soundly in the foot for not being quick enough in dispensing alms. The Old Mill's birds must be among the world's most prosperous water fowl.

On this Sunday afternoon, the ice on the pond had turned to a slab of slush that looked like ice but wasn't, quite. Our attention was attracted by a duck that, through force of habit reinforced through the winter, began from a floating position near the dam and, with great flapping of wings and (I suppose) stomping and clinging with its feet, attempted to scale the ice floe -- now more of a slush floe. Away from the edges, it was firm enough to hold a number of ducks. At the comparatively thin edges, it gave way steadily before the bird's frantic thrashing and flailing.

Eventually, the duck either caught on and flapped hard enough to raise itself out of the water, or arrived at a thicker place towards the interior of the ice. The last we saw of it, it was sitting on its chilly perch enjoying a well-earned rest.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Long before Paula's kids were allowed on the road, they learned to drive in the field behind the house in Otter River. Justin, a dozen years younger than his cousins, watched in fascination. He loved the fact that it's all right for a kid to drive in an eight-acre field that belongs to his family. He sat in my lap to steer until he could reach the pedals and thereafter took the wheel by himself, with me supervising from the passenger seat.

On Easter Sunday when he was eleven, he clamored for a driving lesson after dinner. The holiday at best wasn't all that gladsome at that time: my father's death shortly after Easter half a dozen years before was still on the back of everyone's mind. With nothing festive going on, Justin and I might as well conduct a driving lesson in the field.

Everything was fine until he ventured too far into that low-lying back corner (an outpost of the family Swamp), where the car sank into the mud and stuck there. I took over the driving and did no better. By the time we finished scrubbing and scrabbling around in the mud and moss, the right front bumper was resting on the ground and the left only a few precarious inches above it.

We crossed the field to the house to see what we could do about rounding up help. Paula and Mary rose to the occasion, and off we went across the field in the almost-rain: misting, damp and soggy. As we trooped out there, Mary said in an impatient treble -- this family runs to sopranos -- "Don't you remember Dad telling you, 'It's too wet to drive in the field?'" "No," I snapped, "because I never asked, because I wasn't interested in driving." That's my family: When you get into trouble they'll drop everything and gather to help if they can, and let you know every step of the way just what a stupid thing to do that was.

All four of us together couldn't move the Toyota. This was serious. I had work to do in Medford. I couldn't afford a delay that threatened to extend at least into Monday. I steamed back to the house and called a tow truck.

"Is it solid enough so I can drive out there?" asked the tow truck guy. I assured him that it was, on what grounds I can't imagine. I also, then or later, started researching busses that would get me back to Medford in time to get my work done. There weren't any.

Assuming the car wouldn't be liberated in time to save me, I indulged in a fit of the furious sulks in the unused back parlor. When my mother ventured to make a suggestion, I barked at her and went back to sulking. The first I heard of the arrival of the tow truck was when someone came in to tell me that it, too, was stuck in the family Swamp.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, about the time I called the tow truck, Paula had called her sons. The three of them, in their early twenties at the time, were a decent start on a basketball or football team. She said: "Why weren't you here this morning? You said you were coming to church? Come up here and get your aunt's car out of the mud."

Still sulking and brooding in the back parlor, I didn't see the sons arrive either. I was told later that they began by dislodging the tow truck -- pushed it, I suppose -- and then turned their attention to the Toyota. Mother says they lifted the front end, placed boards under the wheels, and pushed the car out. I never thought until this moment about what Justin was doing all this time; he was probably in the field with his cousins, trying to help and getting wet and muddy.

I'm sorry to say I don't think I thanked my nephews properly. It was Paula who ventured into the back parlor to inform me that my car was now available. I don't remember seeing the guys at all that day.

Justin describes my behavior in a crisis as "running around screaming as if your hair was on fire." I see his point. When I'm tempted to be annoyed with my family, I remind myself of some of the things they've put up with from me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


One morning on Old Connecticut Path in Wayland between Route 126 and Stonebridge Road, I noticed something erratic in the operation of the two white cars in front of me: their brake lights flashed a nervous rhythm as they sped up for a while, braked suddenly, sped up again, braked again. As we proceeded, I sorted out what was going on: the second car was tailgating the first, and the first driver was flashing the brake lights deliberately to get the second driver to back off.

You can't pass on Old Connecticut Path. I watched these feuding drivers from a safe distance until the inevitable happened: the first driver braked suddenly, the second driver failed to stop in time, and a minor fender-bender resulted. From the first car emerged a tall, dark-haired man who might be in his thirties, shouting something like, "All right, now you've done it!" As I cautiously made my way past the two stopped vehicles, I glanced through the open door at the driver of the second car, a very unhappy-looking middle-aged woman who might have been a secretary, administrative assistant or schoolteacher.

If these cars had been driven by a couple of teenagers or twenty-somethings, I would assume they were just being stupid and hope they'd live to outgrow it. Between two adults, one of them an older woman, I have to think there was more going on here than meets the eye.

Why was this woman so determined to exceed the speed limit on a narrow, winding secondary road? Had she left a flatiron on, or forgotten to pick up a grandchild from school? Had she been summoned from work by a call from an ailing husband, or the fire department? And why, after the collision, was she just sitting in the car looking unhappy, and not yelling back, or at least trying to explain?

What's the man's problem? Would it kill him to pull over and let her pass, instead of deliberately provoking an accident? I remember a guy that I guess I cut off on Soldiers Field Road, who surged past me and then dodged in front of me and slammed on his brakes. It took me a minute or so to figure out that he had done it on purpose to get even. Some people take their cars and driving very seriously and have a mission to punish others for driving they don't approve of. Or maybe Mr. Thirty-Something lives on this road and is really tired of watching people speed past the lawn where his children are playing.

Maybe these two know each other; maybe this is the latest chapter in a decades-long neighborhood feud (I once typed a bunch of documents for a lawsuit involving a forty-year war between neighbors). Maybe she's his mother-in-law, or ex-mother-in-law, or becoming-ex-mother-in-law, tailing him for some reason. Maybe she's somehow protecting her daughter and her grandchildren, or thinks she is.

Of course, I never heard anything more about this incident. I sure would be interested to know what it was all about.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I am traveling west on Massachusetts Avenue in North Cambridge after one or more major snowstorms. Snow is piled on the center strip and at the sides of the road, reducing the usual two lanes to one and three quarters or so. The car in front of me is an SUV driven by a possibly thirty-something guy with an incipient bald spot at the back of his head. In front of him, a large, slow, dignified orange trash truck is making its way in the same direction.

The young man isn't satisfied with the deliberate pace of the trash truck. He steers left toward what used to be the center strip and is now a snowbank, with intent to pass. But simultaneously the trash truck also moves to the left, blocking and thwarting the SUV and its driver. Nothing daunted, the SUV moves to the other side, apparently to pass the trash truck on the right.

The trash truck, serenely making its rounds on behalf of the City of Cambridge and probably not aware of the zig-zagging SUV, had moved to the left to provide itself with a better angle for turning up a narrow side street. By the time the SUV gets to the trash truck's right side, the truck has turned in front of him, momentarily blocking the whole street. There's nothing for it but to fall back and wait while the trash truck ponderously makes its way into the side street.

With the trash truck out of the way, the driver of the SUV pours on the coal and accelerates down Mass Ave, and a few blocks later fetches up against the light at Route 16. I, meanwhile, watching this microdrama as I proceed down Mass Ave in my doddering elderly-lady fashion, am still immediately behind him. That's all the good his itching at the trash truck did him.