It’s funny what sticks to your mind from reading books. What we remember from a book may be just a throwaway line – if there ever are such things – the author may have thought was slightly amusing, or a description of a character who’s not key to the plot. (Then again, if you remember that, maybe she was).
Anyway, this is once again a way to make a short story long to say that I once read a book and the only thing that’s stuck with me through the decades is not its name (so I can’t tell you which one it was or anything else that seems important) but instead, I remember a character description. In the book there was someone who “liked to give nicknames to people”.
“OK, pick a word,” Mika said as soon as I sat down.
I was a little out of breath because I had run all the way from the bus terminal in the middle of town to our school, and had made it to our psychology class just in time. I dropped my blue backpack on the floor, and sat down in the first row, next to him.
“Any word,” he added, like a magician, ready to amaze his crowd.
So I did.
Just as there are times when the Phantom leaves his jungle home and travels as an ordinary man there are times when this freelance writer dresses up for work. Instead of just jumping into a pair of jeans and pulling on a Back to the Future T-shirt, I may wear a shirt. With buttons and everything.
Last Friday was such a day. And when I left the house to pick up the kids from school – it was Friday, after all – I noticed my black dress shoes pushed to the side of our shoe rack and I picked them up. They looked good, really good, considering I had them polished in Las Vegas ten years ago.
I put them on.
There’s something about shoes like that that make me want to tap dance, and vow that one day, I’ll learn a few nice tap dance steps.
One of my favorite photos of Wife and me is also one of the first ones of us together. In the photo, we’re sitting on a bank of snow after an hour of skating on the lake, drinking hot chocolate – and looking very happy. Continue reading
Fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine arranged a visit to the Swedish state alcohol monopoly’s lab. She was a member of their language task force that aimed to come up just the perfect words to describe the wines on the shelves, to make sure the way the words matched the taste of the wines so that the nakedly elegant wine truly was that and that people intuitively understood what that meant.
We weren’t there to taste wines, we were there to see how difficult it was to put things like taste into words, but the thing I remember the best was our cinnamon test. Each one of us got a little cinnamon, maybe a half a tablespoon, while we held our noses, waited a while and then, at the instructor’s signal, let go of our noses.
I’m sure you know, or can guess, what happened, but I’ll tell you anyway.
These days, sports news travel at lightning speed on Twitter, but I have to believe that even in the era of Twitter, there still have to be rink rats, people who hang out at the hockey rinks and get close to the teams. They’re often either kids or people with special needs, and I think it’s because they seem harmless. And are harmless. And have the time.
I was one once. When I was a kid. I loved being at the rink, any rink actually, so I tagged along with Dad to his beer league and oldtimers’ games, and looked for pucks, and talked with the cafeteria people, and watched Dad and his buddies play.
The most famous rink rat in town was a man everybody knew as “Puti” and while he probably wasn’t homeless for real, that’s what we’d call him today. A homeless person. He was also special.
I suppose it’s possible that Pekka was trying to get me off my game with his question, although I doubt it. I think it was just something that occurred to him in the heat of the moment. He was never one to focus on football all that much.
Anyway, we were on our home field, on the small lot of grass between Pekka’s house and mine, and it was my turn to be the goalie. I had made a couple of saves and kicked the ball back to Pekka. He stopped it, put his foot on the ball, his hands on his hips, and asked me: “Hey, how old are your parents?
I didn’t say anything.
Pekka asked me again.
I said nothing. Pekka looked at me, and then – to be helpful, I guess – he said, “Mine are 35. Or, Mom’s 35, Dad’s a little older.”
Two weeks ago, I was on the ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki, listening to an interview on my headphones when suddenly I saw a man standing in front of me, pointing at me with his index finger. I took off my headphones just in time to hear him say, “Risto, right?”
It was Lare. I recognized him right away, which was pretty impressive, considering that I had only seen him once since we lost touch after fourth grade (mine, Lare’s third) and even that was more than twenty years ago.
But there we were, sitting at the table by the window, talking like that was all we ever did. We talked about his Dad (who was the first person I remember dying), about his 98-year-old grandfather who had lost his driver’s license and was wondering how he’d get to the summer cottage now, about my kids, his kids, our old hood, my work, and his work as a bodyguard at the finest and most legendary hotel in Helsinki.
“Some of the celebrities are really nice,” he told me. “Like Springsteen, he’s been there a couple of times. He’s a good guy … except that he gave me a T-shirt that was way too small so I had to go back and give him some feedback,” Lare said with a laugh.
“So, no rökötys for him,” I said.
One June morning in the 1970s, when I was on my way back from the park where I had gone to get some government sponsored soup, I spotted a familiar character walking towards me. I was glad that I noticed her first, because I was a little afraid of her. She walked around our neighbourhood almost every day, but it was much more fun to watch her from our kitchen window.
Every time Mom saw her, she let me know.
“Mrs. Sunshine’s out,” she’d yell, and I ran to the window to see what she was wearing that day.
Although, I wasn’t her clothes, really, that was the big deal. It was the fact that she was wearing so much makeup that it looked like she had painted two red balls on her cheeks. She also seemed to be wearing two wigs on top of each other. Anyway, seeing her made Mom happy so, in a way she was Mrs. Sunshine, even if the nickname probably wasn’t all praise to begin with.
Before we had latte – and that’s with any prefix, whether a tall or grande or venti or just cafe – before Central Perk was on TV, before Swedish coffeeshops had landed in Finland, long, long before Starbucks made it here, and before we even had coffee to go, we had the local gas station’s caféteria.
That’s where people got together, that’s where you heard the news, met your friends, hung out, and maybe had lunch, or even dinner. But at least a cup of coffee and a donut. One of the biggest Finnish comedy characters, Uuno Turhapuro, always hung out at a gas station, another major 1970s hit TV show, Tankki Täyteen (“Fill’ er up”), told the story of a quirky family that ran a gas station, and its cafeteria.
The local gas station was where everybody knew your name, even in a city like Helsinki.