Thoughts on Immigrants Then and Now, Thanks to Rags: An American Musical

I encourage you to go quickly to see Rags: An American Musical (by Joseph Stein-book, Charles Strouse-music, Stephen Schwartz-lyrics, and David Thompson (revised book) now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House. There are only a few days left, but it is worth shuffling your schedule around to experience this timely story about immigrants coming to America. Though it is set in 1910 on the Lower East Side, one can see how it applies with immigration issues today.  I sincerely hope “Rags” runs at other venues because it is one of those shows that every American needs to see!

The “melting pot” of characters–especially leads Samantha Massell, (Rebecca),Sean MacLaughlin (Sal), Adam Heller (Avram), and Sad Kapner (Bella)— show us their struggles, their tenacity, their cultural assimilation, their traditions. How they had to deal with prejudices of earlier waves of immigrants and the “elite” in society.  They were so brave!

I won’t tell too much more as I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the plot, the score, and the stage designs will make you stand-up and cheer for your own immigrant ancestors no matter what time period they came to America. Thank you, Buzzi and Ossola family from Italy, Sammuelson and Granat family from Sweden. Thank you, Richards, Way, Knight, and Morse families from England!

I want to share this quote that was in the playbook by one of the authors, David Thompson who shared a passage he read in one of the guidebooks immigrants were given at Ellis Island:

“Holdfast, this is most necessary in America, forget your customs and your ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might…You will experience a bad time, but sooner or later you will achieve your goal. If you are neglectful, beware the wheel for fortune turns fast. You will lose your grip and be lost. A bit of advice for you: Do not take a moment’s rest. Run, do, work and keep your own good in mind. A final virtue is needed in America—called cheek.  Do not say, ‘I cannot, I do not know.'”

I wonder if any of my relatives or yours read this pamphlet? From what I’ve researched and hear through family stories, many of the self-made could have indeed read this and taken this advice to heart.

Thank you— authors, producers and cast of Rags for this truly timeless production. The ending especially made me stand up and cheer for immigrant folks coming into the United States today! They face the same hopes, fears, prejudices as did our ancestors. Maybe even more so with talks of building walls and deportation.

Whether or not you get to see Rags: An American Musical, what more can we do as individuals and as a society to be more welcoming and helpful to those coming in?


Sometimes, All I Need is My DQ: What is it that You Need?

As a rule, I am not a brand maven preferring names like Campbell’s over store brand labels for soups, or Birds Eye over Stop & Shop brand for string beans. I am, however, an absolute snob when it comes to soft serve chocolate-dipped-in-chocolate cones. There is positively NO substitute for Dairy Queen. I should know. I had my fill working at a DQ in my late teens and have sampled hundreds of poor substitutes elsewhere in my life ever since. Though the menu of treats at today’s DQ has ballooned since the early 80s, I find myself going back to my tried and true treat.

There is just no better food (except perhaps peanut M&Ms) than a DQ chocolate-dipped-in-chocolate. It’s perfect hard shell is unmatched in taste, texture, and chippity-crunch. I may be giving away a trade secret, but if memory serves, there is just a hint of wax—yes, wax in the dip. I’ve read the back of the can and though may have been a little startled at first, it never kept me away from my devotion to DQ dip.

Since I’ve not found its equal, I won’t bother make any comparison with far trailing runners up here. Beneath the signature DQ curl, which only true DQ employees can make because of specific, franchise ingredients and top-secret training, is the softest, perfectly blended cool chocolaty, creamy sweetness. So what if it’s not actually ice cream? Who cares if it comes from a mysterious plastic bag and flows through a Wonka-esque machine with a huge shaft thingy, gears and oh-rings? Whatever is in it and however it gets from liquid to lusciousness in my wafer cone is absolutely no-never-mind to me.

I admit I can get a little moony when I settle in to nibbling deftly to avoid dripping and to make sure I get every lick. Cool, silky smoothness floods my every taste bud with unrelenting creamy chocolate, stealing my breath away. My eyes glaze over in pure ecstasy and I’ve been known to coo softly.

On occasion, a line from The Hollie’s song overtakes me,  “Sometimes, I all I need is the air that I breathe…and my DQ.”

What’s your treat you just can’t do without?

Click on this for some Hollies:

“Buddy Jesus” Meme Gets Personal

Just for fun this weekend, I searched my name in meme using Google Image and my oddly spelled T-A-N-J-A. I thought “Tanja with a “J” would never come up. Lo, I found this among other “Tanja” memes, a good number in German. At first glance I thought this rather duded-out rendition of Jesus could be a bit irreverent, but I have come to know that divine messages are delivered in all shapes and forms.

My husband who is far hipper on-line than me is well-versed in memes and explained that this is the “Buddy Jesus” meme. I realize that someone  generated this meme for another “Tanja” somewhere out there, but since we share the same spelling, I hope she won’t mind if I claim this meme as a personalized message for me today.  It rather reflects on my current faith journey status: I am seeing Jesus not only my Savior, but as “my bud” who gets my back as a Heavenly bro. God uses the world wide web as well as burning bushes to get our attention. Can a I get a witness?

Can You Be Trusted? On Your Honor In the Ring

Can you imagine in this day of passwords, locks, and alarms to protect our most precious valuables, lifesavers (literally) like this one on the remote Ring of Kerry stay posted, unguarded? Talk about the “the honor system”! We saw a few of them on the western part of our recent trip in Ireland. They were not in plain sight, but around corners at the bottom of steep cobblestone and patch-work accesses of small beaches or old, hazardous boat launches. All the easier to snatch off the post and pop into one’s car if one was so inclined.
Yet the well-chosen, philosophical and theological one-liner, “A Stolen Ringbuoy— a Stolen Life” appealed straight to one’s conscience. Would you dare remove the buoy for any other reason than, God-forbid, its intended purpose to save someone drowning in the nearby sea? Would you dare risk eternal consequences?
I know I wouldn’t, but then I had a cynical thought. What if a person was so full of wickedness or didn’t believe in eternal consequences? What if they didn’t care about their fellow human being? Could they be so caviler to vandalize? Remove the ring and toss it into some ditch?
Then I scanned the tawny, brush-topped cliffs sloping into the foaming surf, hemmed in by the mystical turquoise sea. Behind me were the endless rolling verdant hills dotted with sheep, rocks and old church foundations. How could one not feel closer to Heaven, or at least an unwavering, deep and reverent calm? An unquestioning obedience to that sign?
Cliffs and sea on the Ring of Kerry Cliffs and sea on the Ring of Kerry

It isn’t often you witness “the honor system” today. I did notice an unmanned stand at Dublin airport that allowed you to take liter of water trusting you’d toss one euro into a box. Come to think of it, two years ago at a national campground in New Hampshire we were on our honor to deposit the right fee in the tube as we exited. What other “honor system” situations are out there? Please share.

Boo to The Who! They Blew Us Off: But We’ve Met Other Stars Along Our Way!

What happened to the fecking Who? The iconic rock band, launching their 50th Anniversary tour blew off Ireland! They were supposed to play in Belfast and last night here (26 Nov.) in Dublin, but we learned a few days ago they cancelled both shows for "logistical difficulties"! What? Apparently they had an unexpected? offer to play in Abu Dhabi on the 23rd and are claiming they couldn’t get to
Ireland? The UAE is not THAT faraway from Ireland, guys! I am thinking they got a better deal to party with the royalty and to heck with Ireland! Was there no way for them in this day and age to get back in time for “our” Nov. 26th show here in Dublin? Yes, I know this is such a first world rant but bear with me a bit.

Back in July Sean noticed The Who would be playing in Dublin at the beginning of their 50th anniversary tour in November. He asked if I wanted to go. I eagerly said yes knowing that he LOVES Ireland and The Who! Both in one place would be mind-blowing! But more that that, I was all for him going to one of his happiest of happy places—Ireland—to “get off grid” from his many stresses in the States.

We weren’t fully thinking in July that we’d be away for Thanksgiving so he bought The Who tickets that day. That kinda made us pregnant to take the trip!

I had a few misgivings about missing Thanksgiving, but also relished the idea of taking a break from 15 years in a row of hosting at our house. I’d miss our kids the most–and watching the parade in the morning, but our grown-up kids encouraged us to fly!

Even though we didn’t get to see The Who on this trip, we’ve had a great experiences already and have been privileged to meet some great people along the way–rock stars in their own right! Take a bow Brian and Helen, funky, classy hardworking hosts of the luxurious but comfortable Castlewood House B&B out in Dingle.

Thank you, thank you! to the very encouraging and hip Father David Gunn for welcoming us to your parish home at Port Magee for the tea and allowing us to pour over pages of hundred year old handwritten marriage and baptismal records as we trace more of Sean’s Irish heritage in the Ring of Kerry! We were welcomed right into the house and life “don’t mind the toys!” of a very cool cousin Sheila who introduced us to her wee ones, Shoon,3, Seamus,2. She made a phone call for Sean to see his cousins Mary and Tessie Cremens who lived up the road and across the street.

We were reunited with Tomas who spoils us at Kate Kearney’s Cottage in Killarney and now has his own photography business. It was so good to see John and Nora in at their lovely Ferris Wheel B&B at the Gap of Dunloe. We spoke at length to a very decent and bright woman at a woolen shop in Cashel— (Knitted) Hats off to Inga!

We anticipate meeting a few more “celebrities” as we spend the next few days here. Tonight, about the time you all back home will be enjoying your beautiful turkey dinners, (we’re 5 hours ahead), Sean and I will be taking a Literary Pub Crawl learning where Irish writers—Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, etc. hung out to discuss life, politics, their stories, and where they put down a few pints. Who knows who else we’ll encounter? Sean met Conan O’Brien on Grafton Street in 2012!

Happy Thanksgiving to our American family and friends. And Thank You, friends and relatives we’ve met on this trip! God Bless, Salente, Cheers!

Finding Evidence There’s Still Hope for The World

After ranting about mating macaroni boxes and x-rated jean commercials last week, my hope for the world has been restored a bit.
I see that Hasbro, the toy company giant, has decided to help Operation game creator John Spinello’s meet some of his post medical expenses. Spinello, who invented Operation in 1964 and sold the rights for only $500, didn’t have the means to pay for oral surgery he needs that will cost $25,000. Hasbro has offered to buy Spinello’s prototype of the popular game for their toy museum. What’s really touching is that even before Hasbro stepped up, friends and fans set up a page on crowdrise and have amassed over $25,000 for Spinello!

McDonalds is working on a “Love Beats Hatin'” tag line in addition to their “I’m Lovin’It” campaign. I think it is a thought-provoking idea, even if some consumers think it’s lame.

Yesterday I saw a Jeep with a bright, yellow, happy face hippy on the wheel cover as we drove down the highway. It made me grin. Might we have more mirth as motorists if we saw more smiley faces and uplifting bumper stickers on our daily commute? What’s the best bumper sticker you’ve ever seen?

What have you heard lately that makes you think, “Hey, humankind is alright after all”? Just this morning something on the radio made me well up in gratitude. A DJ broadcasting from northern California on K-LOVE, a national Christian radio station with millions of listeners nationwide, said she had just driven past a police memorial set up for a fallen officer. With heartfelt reverence, she expressed her condolences and then her appreciation “for all police officers and sheriffs out there.” She acknowledged how they put their lives on the line everyday for all of us. “Because of you, we can go about our lives feeling safer, in comfort.” K-LOVE is praying for law enforcement officers, she said.

Thank you, sister DJ at K-LOVE for lifting up our men and women in blue. Policemen or women (and their loved ones) needed to hear your words today. Their calling/career can seem thankless, dangerous and overly criticized.

Shameless plug: To get a steady stream of “Positive and Encouraging” music and messages 24-7, you can tune in to K-LOVE in Connecticut at 106.9 FM or anywhere on-line.

Please share the good stuff you’ve witnessed in the world this week, or lately. As Toby Mac says in his song here, Speak Life.

How To Thank My Retiring Therapist?:Kenny Loggins’ Lyrics Beat Out The Best Greeting Cards

Hallmark (and other companies) create greeting cards for nearly every occasion. Births, sympathy, encouragement, graduations…but searching racks and racks of prose, I just couldn’t find one that aptly says Good-Bye and Thank You to my retiring psychologist!

The card I finally ended up giving my therapist, I had narrowed it down to four possible but mediocre choices, was a bit wordy. On the front it said, “Finally, a thank-you note that says how I really feel.” Relational enough to give to a therapist, but even after a ton of descriptive words such as “grateful, happy, supported, content, forever in your debt, acknowledged, peaceful…” it still didn’t quite nail it. The writer in me added “thankful” and a deeply personal message. Yet, mere words didn’t fully express the depths of gratitude I wanted to convey to my professional advocate and guiding light for helping to save my sanity, salvage relationships as well as extricate myself from toxic ones, and who knows, possibly extended my very life! Reflecting now, I think that the incredibly accurate, succinct and perfectly-timed lyrics I heard on my car radio as I drove away from my last session fully expresses what is in my heart and pays tribute. Enjoy the song at the end of this post.

I had my very last appointment on August 28th with one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever been blessed to know, clinical psychologist Dr. Ella G. Marks, PSYD. I began seeing Dr. Marks on a weekly basis over four years ago because at 45, all the stuff I tried to keep stuffed down, held back, or tried to hide just wouldn’t stay buried anymore.  Four and half decades as an adult child of an alcoholic family, a product of divorce, years of appearing to “fly right” but still over-indulging in risky behaviors, being lost, pressing my luck, and meandering off-track had blurred and scalded into a hot mess. It began oozing out in physical symptoms of panic attacks and heart palpitations. I couldn’t ignore it. It was time to really take care of me and do some very heavy, but very necessary lifting. Or else.

I prayed and researched and left voice messages.  There was something about Dr. Mark’s soft-spoken, lovely, Virginian- accented-voice message that gave me courage and lead me to her kind but firm care. When I still rather hesitantly made my way to her creamed-colored office with a bright white couch in the office park in Madison, CT,  I was comforted by her soft creased face, her sparkling blue eyes and billowy white hair.  I found out by peeking at the dates on her framed diplomas in her office that she had to be in her early 80s. I learned early on that she had studied at first to be a dancer, but then married an Episcopalian preacher, had four children, and then decided to go back to college.

She completed her bachelors in her late forties, her masters in her 50s and fought to enroll in her doctorate program at the tender age 59. She served as a social worker, then earned and hung her shingle as a psychologist and bariatric medicine doctor at the age of 71.  How blessed was I to connect with her a decade later!

Quite a head case, I remember saying to her, ” I have lots of anger and confusion. Am I too much for you?” She smiled graciously and said, “No, you are not. You have a lot of mourning to do.”

I would discover over the next four years just how well-equipped this woman was for the likes of me. She guided me to some really tough and ugly places to repair years of damage, grief, and anger stemming from a tumultuous alcoholic environment as a first-born.  I worked honestly through confusion, hurt, betrayal, marital challenges, a serious motorcycle accident, extended family woes, and a recent exodus from a church I’d given my soul to for 46 years.  She praised me often that I was “what they call a worker,” and reminded me that therapy is a “partnership” whenever I thanked her for helping me. She gave me permission to give myself some credit for my healing, for good things I have done and am doing in my life.

I had written in my card to Dr. Marks that she will forever be a part of “my new psychological DNA.” I will from here on out have greater success with stopping a negative thought and replacing it with a better one. I will think of what she would advise and say in any given situation. A life-long dividend of the work we’ve done.

I know it was hard for Dr. Marks to retire from her beloved work. She who practices Pilates and walks every day is in excellent physical as well as mental shape and “presents herself” as someone at least a decade younger than her actual age.  She reluctantly wound down the over 20 years of her practice, extending her calendar for months since she’d first announced earlier this year she’d be retiring. “My family wants me to leave before they ask me to leave,” she’d smile, “but I am going on one more month.” That lead to another and another, until finally the end of August was really it.

I cherished her guidance and wisdom to the very last session. My throat tightened as I pulled into her parking lot. As I climbed the stairs for the last time, I took photos of the waiting room, her office, but out of privacy, I did not take any of her.

So surreal. She lead me in from the waiting room, the one last time. Into her office, one last time. “How are you?” She asked in her customary greeting. “Full of emotion,” I squeaked out. I noticed she was welling up a little, too. “This must be hard for you saying goodbye to everyone,” I said. “It is,” she confided.

Then we settled in across from each other. I gave her my card and photo of me hula-hooping that was taken at the recent Buzzi Reunion at my house. I joked that I wasn’t meaning to be a narcissist, but wanted to show her my happy spirit, celebrating our years of working together. She smiled, “You are a worker!”

As we sat, I said that I hoped we could see each other again, for coffee. Always the good doctor even up to the very last minute, she wanted to impart one last tool to help me hereafter to cope with stress and any mild depression. Meditation. She told me of a study where participants who meditated each morning and evening fared better than the group which took only medication and the other only talking therapy. I balked a bit saying I’ve tried meditating, but my mind wanders like a herd of cats even when I try focusing on a monosyllabic word or sound. Because she knows my faith walk, she said to me, “Just try to say, “Be Still and Know that I am God.”

I smiled because I was wearing that bracelet that very day for extra help knowing I’d be saying goodbye.

Half way through our last session, I had arranged for my husband Sean to come in and meet my Dr. Marks. I had shared so much between the two of them that it only seemed right they’d finally meet in person.  It was one of those spiritually-charged, crystallized moments in time as I made the introductions. Sean thanked her as he sat on her white couch next to me. They chatted casually, each feeling as though they’d known each other well—I guess after all this time, they sorta had!

Sean asked her what she had planned now that she was retiring. Without hesitating my heroine said she was going to travel to India where’d she’d gone many times on sabbatical, “but after the monsoon season in September,” and then she was going to join a hiking club!

God bless her!

When it was time to say goodbye, Dr. Marks and I hugged for a very long time. “We can get coffee now, can’t we?” I asked hopefully. “Oh, yes. We will no longer be bound by hippa.”

“We have each others phone numbers.”

As I began driving out of Dr. Mark’s office complex for the very last time, tears of every emotion streaked down my face. Sadness,closing a chapter, a sense of accomplishment, good health, new beginnings, joy!

All of a sudden Kenny Loggins’, “I’m Alright” began playing on my car radio. I kid you not. Sean, who was tuned in to the same station, called me from his car ahead of me. “Can you believe what is playing?” I blurted first. “You are alright,” he said.

I’m alright, Dr. Marks. Thank you, and thank you, God, for Dr. Marks! OK, and thank Heaven for the serendipitous Kenny Loggins’ lyrics as I was driving on!

"I'm Alright!"I gave this photo to my therapist on her retirement as a celebration of our work together over that past four plus years.
“I’m Alright!”I gave this photo to my therapist on her retirement as a celebration of our work together over that past four plus years.

Inappropriate and Nearly Uncontrolable Laughter Strikes Again!

Can you recall a time in your life when something struck you as absolutely pants-wetting hilarious but you were in a place where it would just be sooo inappropriate to let it rip? This happened to me, again, just yesterday in church!

My awesome and relational pastor was taking his place at the pulpit to give us a message about Palm Sunday. He began paraphrasing Matthew 21:1-11, “According to the Gospels, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem…” Only my pastor did not say “donkey”. He inadvertently switched the “d” for an “m” and said, “Jesus rode a monkey into Jerusalem.”

At first there was a quick ripple of tittering across the congregation but then most everyone settled down to listen. Everyone but me and my dearly beloved, that is.  I don’t know who began quaking first, he or I, but our pew began to vibrate with stifled, almost-impossible-to-contain laugh-tremors. My mother in the pew behind us saw us rattling. She tapped my husband on the shoulder. He only shook all the more.

That only fired me up again. I hid my face in my scarf. I was trying so hard to control myself and set a good example to my 15 year old niece sitting beside me. It’s just that the mental image of our dear Lord and Savior being carried on the hairy back of a monkey, limping triumphantly into the crowds—and that my husband was also fighting hard not to lose it—that practically caused me to really LOL and wet my pants! At one point I envisioned us bolting out of the pew, racing down the aisle and bursting into the stairwell erupting and echoing with fits of “bwah, ha, has!”

Instead, I opened my hymnal to try to distract my mind by focusing on the lyrics of a random song. I struggled to tune into my pastor’s serious message of how we all have to face “Good Fridays” (tough times) before we could have our “Easter Sundays” (relief).  The only relief I wanted then and there was to either bust out or to chill out: pronto!

I recall one other time also in a church, when I was supposed to be quiet but something struck me as so funny, that I had to turn myself into Sean’s shoulder as not to “bwah, ha, ha!” at a wedding ceremony. The clever bride, wanting to recite her vows correctly had taped a note card on the backside of her bouquet. When it was her time to pledge to her betrothed, she flipped the card and read off it.  At the time I was in college and was no stranger to note cards in my speech classes, but taped on the back of the flowers just made me blow!  Please share a time when you struggled with overpowering inappropriate laughter!

A Man’s Craving for a Beer Saved My Husband’s Life

Editor’s Note: We were blessed to have survived this accident that occurred on June 10, 2012.

Sean has been cleared of all restrictions on his shoulder and is doing well with his neck, after the four breaks to his C-1 and a fracture to his C-2. He has some stiffness and aches and can’t turn his head all the way to the left, yet, but he is otherwise a miracle man! My knee is still a little tender and I can’t kneel on it. The doctor says that is it is good as it is going to get, but I am not complaining because I know it could have been so much worse.

I wanted to share with you that after all this time, we are still receiving confirmation of God’s mercy and love for us at the time of that horrific accident.

Last week, Sean met up with the man Patrick who “happened” to be just two cars behind us. It was almost as if he materialized on the scene back on June 10. As you might recall (or read), after we crashed, Sean jumped up, TOOK OFF HIS HELMET, and was heading over to the motorcycle to try to pick it up! Patrick, who saw the whole thing, came over to Sean and identified himself as former EMT, and basically ordered Sean to lay down so he could hold Sean’s head in a straight line. “I will move any way you need to move,” he said. By then the searing pain was ripping through Sean’s body. He was writhing and screaming. Patrick knelt with Sean’s head cradled in his hands, and kept Sean’s neck and back straight.

Patrick works in the security department at Middlesex Hospital. Sean, as a police captain, serves at a liaison between the hospital and the PD, and spoke with Patrick before their meeting. Sean thanked Patrick again, crediting him again, for saving his life.

Patrick explained the ‘odd circumstance’ that lead him to the accident scene. Patrick was just finishing mowing his lawn, when suddenly he had a craving to go to the local bar to get a beer. He said he never gets a craving to go to local bar. Further, his car keys were outside on the front step—and he said he ALWAYS hangs his keys on a hook inside his house. He snapped up his keys, got in his car and headed to the local watering hole…until he came upon our accident!

Have you ever had a strong impulse do something out of the ordinary to find you were being used for another purpose?

I’ll Be Dipped In Chocolate: Thinking About My All-Time Favorite Job

I am grateful for my flexible and part time job as a grant writer at St. Vincent De Paul Middletown, but if were to take an honest assessment of my work resume, I couldn’t say it’s been my favorite job. Whether I am just being nostalgic or the place I am about to mention truly was the best place to pull a paycheck, I would have to put a gold star next to my run as a Dairy Queen counter girl, 1981 to 1983.
Of course, I was sixteen years old when I started, and back then I only needed money for my car insurance (and repairs), gas under a buck a gallon, concert tickets, and white Nike leathers with the black swoosh. I had scoped out working at the DQ even before I got my license on April 4th 1981.

Before the plastic was even dry, I raced over to the Middletown DQ and applied. Sure, I’d had other jobs babysitting since I was a kid, and I was employed to do office work at age 15 through a program called C.E.T.A. (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act that provided jobs to kids in low income families), but this was my first “real” and exciting job that I could drive to myself! No more begging rides to the excruciatingly boring UConn Extension Center (C.E.T.A. job) where I filed papers or recorded data from various state surveys! No more dollar-per-hour babysitting stints! I’d be making three and change at the DQ! The big time, baby!

I reported to work wearing chocolate fudge brown chinos and the red, white and yellow waffle-plaid DQ blouse with the hallowed DQ patch over my heart. I was a nervous and conscientious worker and asked tons of questions so I would do things right. I kept in constant motion filling lids and cup dispensers, swiping down the counters and topping off the sundae topping wells.

This impressed my bosses—all four of them. Ralphie and Madge* were the owners and had to be in their fifties. They may have been older, but who can tell when you are sixteen? They were old and to be feared. Their son Ralphie Jr. and his wife Sharon were also my bosses. Sharon was serious and hard-working, but friendly. She said I reminded her of how she started, when she married into the family. Ralphie Jr., was more of a laid back, being a son of a DQ dynasty. He seemed to operate at a slower speed as he flipped burgers at the brazier. Because we were closer in age, we talked about the Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin, groups not quite qualified as vintage rock, just yet.
I drew my first tube of DQ soft serve into a waiting, wafer cone, carefully turning it to create the iconic, signature curl. I did a fairly good job with a lot of praise from Sharon. Whew! There was a scale on the counter for newbies. Our first cones were subject to a weigh in. A small cone was supposed to be no more than three ounces, a medium five ounces, and a large seven. If a cone was grossly overweight, the bosses (except for Ralphie, Jr.) had us scrape the top half of the cone into a large cup and bring the base back to the machine to try for a more slender, business-savy size. The aborted top half of a cone would never be wasted, but made into a salable product for the next shake-ordering customer.

I learned fairly quickly how to make model cones. I prided myself on the DQ curl and would silently affirm myself with praise! Yes! Imagine my sheer elation when I could dip the entire enterprise upside down in the dip well! I developed expert timing and a deft flick of my wrist, and mystifying myself and customers, was able to right the Holy Grail of all DQ treats into its standing and upright position. I confess, there were times even in my later days of my DQ career when approaching the dip well with a virginal cone to coat that some freak fault of physics (a drop in the dew point or extra gravitational pull) caused the cold content to slide out with a perverse plop into the dip well!
Shoot! Before it all melted into a contaminated swirl, I’d use the stir paddle on the dip cover to quickly ladle the mess into a future shake cup. Often, especially when the bosses were out, we’d happily eat our mistakes. Thank God I had a sixteen year old metabolism or I’d have blown out the seams of my DQ pants and pop buttons off my blouse from the thousands of calories I ingest each shift.

I enjoyed working with kids my own age and encouraged my close high school friends to apply. They were coming in the nights I was working, anyway. We tended to do that as teenagers—flock to the places where friends worked on our days off, as we aimlessly drove around. Soon there was a small entourage of my Haddam-Killingworth high school friends working alongside Middletown co-workers-turned-friends. We had a blast especially on shifts when the bosses didn’t come in. We’d invent new sundaes to eat in the back and flirt with each other in-between rushes of customers.

At night we’d follow a militant-style list of breaking down the machines and cleaning every crevice of the joint. Madge and Ralphie, Sr. would inspect each morning and if the crew the night before didn’t do a dilly of job, there’d be hell to pay. A critical note, a DQ scarlet letter as it were, would be tacked next to the work schedule for all to see. My pals and I were seldom scolded because we feared the shame of our employers and really were hard workers. Those who didn’t care as much usually quit after a short stint.

The fact that we ate a lot of our “mistakes” and were otherwise unskilled laborers probably contributed to the fact that in the two and a half years I worked there, I think I got one three cent raise. The fall after I graduated and began attending college, I quit DQ because I lived on Southern Connecticut State U’s campus and worked in Hamden and New Haven in Fotomat booths. During summers at home, I didn’t go back to DQ. Our old crew had dispersed and I picked up a more lucrative job driving bundles of newspapers around in my little red Ford Fiesta. I had mornings off having to report to the newspaper dock at 2:30 p.m. and get my deliveries done in less than three hours. I made over $200 bucks a week and had Sundays off.

I’ve never found another job as fun and exciting as working at Dairy Queen though. Before the DQ was knocked down on Main Street extension, and a damned CVS was put in its place, I had the opportunity in the mid-nineties to go in behind the counter and make myself a cone…for old time’s sake. It was just like riding a bike, I tell ya! I could still form a perfect DQ curl!

Sometimes after a long day of searching for grants for the soup kitchen and food pantry I fantasize what it would be like to go back now and work at a DQ, in my mid-forties. I certainly wouldn’t have a fast metabolism on my side, but I bet I would still find it thrilling. I’d cheerfully take orders, make fabulous cones and sundaes, run a register, make change, clean the topping wells, take apart the soft-serve machine and clean and lube its oh-rings, sweep and wash the floors—all at minimum wage— for what, maybe a week?