I came home to a rusted tricycle, a paper bag full of empty cigar boxes, a large, crumpled garage mat, and a full bottle of white zinfandel. They were piled by my door like dead animals the cat brought home.
They were offerings from Ernie.
Ernie was one of those rare individuals that warrants his own sitcom, or at the very least, a human-interest story on PBS. You know the “Ernie types.” They are the characters among us who inspire long, speculative conversations. These folks are the source and inspiration for funny stories. They are the people you cannot ignore, nor would you want to. They are the people that make life colorful. They are the “Miracles of the Tenderloin,” to quote my kid.
I met Ernie years ago when I took a job in a factory … a print shop, to be precise. It was a big, loud, dirty place. I’d never worked in this kind of an environment. Mind you, I’m no princess. I never worry about my nails and the dirt under them. I’ve pounded bottoms into hassocks with a rubber mallet and pumped gas in a blizzard at the height of the shortage in the seventies. I’ve had numerous waitress jobs, managed a blue jean store, written a little column for a town paper, and sold concrete, cosmetics, and rain lamps. I have driven to hospitals thirty miles apart to review charts for Medicare. I’ve met a lot of people. But I had never met anyone quite like Ernie.
I took the job at the print shop for the benefits. It was supposed to be temporary until my massage practice could become more lucrative. I worked there for nine years. (Frowny-face here.) Ernie worked in print shops all his life. He knew how to operate a multitude of machines from stitchers to folders. I’d always suspected that the new hires were placed with Ernie as helpers. It was the best way to initiate them into the sub-culture realm of the place.
Ernie was a big, lumbering guy from Newark, New Jersey. He had thick, silver hair that he combed into a DA (Duck’s Ass) in the same manner as the Fonz, (but this was the millennium.) While we worked together he’d tell stories, and some of them were probably true. He liked to quote The Godfather. His favorite line was “Vengeance is best when served cold.” That was his philosophy. He called me “kid.” I enjoyed being his helper. I could hold my own and knew it wouldn’t be a boring day. In short, we liked each other.
After he was fired, things began to appear on my porch. I moved twice, but the intermittent offerings would still find their way to my door. It was Ernie’s way to make sure you wouldn’t forget him, as if anyone ever could. I knew the stuff was from him because some of his stories involved clandestine “drops” at the homes of friends and enemies. There were no horse heads that I’m aware of, but for years … years, I’d come home to find old toys, boxes of rubber bands, a wine rack, rolls of shrink wrap, a vintage Royal sewing machine, old beach chairs, t-shirts on wire hangers, shoes, and the contents of drawers, or perhaps glove compartments, consisting of expired AARP cards, broken pencils, drink coupons from Casino Cruises, five-year old doctor appointment cards, and movie ticket stubs.
I had to get even. A few of my friends, who are artists by profession, provided the inspiration.
Snail-Mail art consists of things that people who live outside of boxes send to each other. The art museum in CHICAGO even had a gallery exhibit for crissakes. Mail art can be inanimate objects covered with stuff–or not. Mail art can be things like embellished postcards and letters, but most of it is outrageous items that are decorated in some fashion, taken to the post office and mailed as is.
You can mail just about anything.The post office weighs it, slaps a label on it and off it goes. Sometimes it arrives intact, sometimes not.
But it doesn’t matter.
That was the fun of it. People never knew what they would find in their mailbox, or when. God forbid a lucky recipient would actually have to go to the post office and pick it up. It occurred to me that I could do this to Ernie.
I saved the things he left on my porch. Then I turned them into other things and mailed them back. I wove rubber bands into an alligator post-card. An old eyeglass case, (a previous offering,) was doused with the anisette liquor that he left on my porch the day before. It became a holder for an original little story, with a picture on the other side. I made collages out of Ocean Spray labels from the empty bottles Ernie abandoned on my porch.
He began to leave bigger things to challenge me. I’d find a way to turn them into something else and mail them back. Eventually, the porch offerings began to taper off. But I knew I hadn’t won by a long shot. Ernie LOVED this shit too much to cry uncle.
In the meantime, during this brief truce, I sent and received excellent snail-mail art. There were 45 RPM records with designs painted on them and a plastic martini glass which didn’t make it intact. (The postal people were kind enough to put the pieces in a zip-loc.) I received Pez dispensers and plastic fish. Not to be outdone, I mailed a naughty stuffed bra mounted on a board like a fish. It was embellished with Hershey’s kisses that I held as I stood in line at the post office. Mothers shielded their children from me. Dunedin Postal workers are very helpful and have excellent senses of humor, as do the Safety Harbor postal people where the bra ultimately landed (and had to be picked up by the recipient.) I learned that a clunky high-heeled shoe costs $2.88 to mail, and postage labels fit quite nicely across the toe.
Then Ernie delivered a beat-up straw hat which he propped against my back door.
I decided it was time to escalate and enlisted the troops to do a “pass-the-hat” mail attack on him. I painted the hat lavender and wrapped it with a gold lame band. I took it to the post office. I sent it to one of my co-conspirators with an attached list of names inside. Each recipient was to embellish it in some way, then mail it to the next person on the list. The hat passed through several patches of real-estate. About a year later it was returned to the last person on the list … Ernie. Last, but certainly not least.
Ernie never made mention of the hat but sent a brief, scrawled note on the back of an old motor lodge post-card. The note stated he was going to Texas for the holidays to visit his kids. Life went on, the holidays came and went. I moved.
Months later I came home to a rusted tricycle, a paper bag full of empty cigar boxes, a large, crumpled garage mat, and a full bottle of Chardonnay.
And a lavender hat, with photos of it in every room of Ernie’s house glued to the crown.
~written by Deborah Klein, Safety Harbor resident blogger
Now I know why, I’ve always wanted to be your friend. You are indeed a special lady! Write a book, you are a great writer and person.
Summer, I’m very pleased to be YOUR friend pretty lady. Thank you for the compliment. I am my very worst critic.
you crazy rabbit