Monday 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.
I knew Ernie was at it again.
Ernie is one of those rare individuals that warrants his own sitcom, or, at the very least, a human-interest story on PBS. You may know the “Ernie types”. They are the characters among us who inspire long, speculative conversations. These folks are the source and inventors of funny stories. They are the people you cannot ignore, nor would you want to.They are the people that keep life colorful.
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, or getting 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 medical charts for Medicare. But in all of these scenarios, 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…
Anyway, Ernie had worked in print shops all his life. He knew how to operate a multitude of machines from stitchers to folders, and all of the strange apparatus in between. I always suspected that new hires were placed with Ernie as helpers to initiate them into the reality of the print shop.
Ernie is a big, lumbering guy from Newark, New Jersey. He has thick, silver hair that he combs into a DA (Duck’s Ass) in the same manner as the Fonz. While we’d work, he’d tell a million stories … and some of them were probably true. He liked to quote The Godfather. His favorite line was “Vengeance is best when it’s cold.” That was also his philosophy. He called me “kid”. I liked being his helper. I could hold my own and I knew it wouldn’t be a boring day. In short, we liked each other.
After he left that job, 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 came from him because many of the stories he told me involved clandestine “drops” at the homes of friends, as well as 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, Doctors Appointment cards, and movie ticket stubs.
Enough was enough. I had to get even. A few of my friends, who are artists by profession, provided the inspiration. They told me about a “mail art” gallery show they’d attended in Chicago. Mail art consists of things that creative people send to each other in the mail. Some were artistically embellished postcards and letters, but much of it was outrageous items that was decorated in some fashion, taken to the post office, and mailed as is. You can mail just about anything, believe it or not.
The post office weighs it, slaps a label on it, and off it goes. Sometimes it gets to the destination intact, sometimes not. But it doesn’t matter.
The point is that it went. 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. The gallery show displayed examples of great things that made the journey, bowling balls included.
It occurred to me that I could do this to Ernie. I started to save the things he left on my porch. Then I turned them into something else and mailed them back. I wove rubber bands into an alligator post-card. An old eyeglass case was doused with the anisette liquor that had been left with it 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 would leave, combined with other things I’d find in the bags with them.
He started to leave bigger things to challenge me. I’d find a way to turn them into something 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.
It was during this time, probably inspired by Ernie and the Chicago gallery show, that a few of us began sending mail art to each other. I received collaged plastic bottles, 45 RPM records with designs painted on them, and once, a plastic martini glass, which didn’t make it intact. (The postal people were kind enough to put the pieces in a zip-loc and deliver them…) I received Pez dispensers and plastic fish. Not to be outdone, I mailed a stuffed bra mounted on a board (like a dead fish) that was embellished with Hershey’s kisses. I stood in line with it at the post office …at Christmas time. Mothers shielded their children from me. Dunedin Postal workers were 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.) The Hershey’s kisses were no longer on it, just tattered pieces of silver foil. 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 my back door.
I decided it was time to enlist the troops and 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 creative hands. 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, and I moved.
Monday 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 … and a lavender, embellished hat, with photos of it in every room of Ernie’s house.