Sharon Fiffer's Blog
September 8, 2013
I don’t often post anything labeled “science” since I believe collecting, writing and remembering fall more into the arts than sciences. However, I engaged in an experiment this weekend that I’d like to share.
If you like Jane Wheel on facebook, you might know I attended three rummage sales this weekend and gathered some “stuff.” Since I like to think that I can cull my collections to make room for new old things, last night I scanned the kitchen for ways to control clutter. I spotted a cake pan I had purchased–mostly for its yellow color and also for the recipe for “flan” printed on the bottom. I hadn’t bothered to try the recipe–or use the pan. Should I get rid of it or keep? I was ready to put it into the subtraction bag when I decided that I ought to at least make the “flan” once. So, last night, while watching a little college football (Go Wildcats and Go Blue in honor of my Michigan family members), I whipped up this little “flan.”
Why the annoying “”"”? Because I always thought of flan as a delicious caramel custard and this recipe made what looked to be a cross between a lemon cake and shortbread. I covered it and decided to serve it tonight when we have dinner guests coming. Too bland looking alone, this afternoon I filled in the indentation on the top with lemon curd and raspberries and will serve whipped cream on the side.
Thus, whether the pan stays or goes will be up to the tasters of tonight’s dessert. Don’t you wish all decluttering could be solved scientifically…or deliciously?
September 3, 2013
Anyone who has spent any time reading and/or visiting the website knows that my spring post ended on a high note! The Kankakee trolley tour was so much fun and I was happy to share some photos, my daughter’s “trailer” video, and my gratitude for all who planned, worked, and scurried around to make it all work so well. And thanks, of course, to those who attended.
Then, Jane Wheel went underground and I followed. Or vice versa. I would love to tell you that I was at a cabin far out of internet range, cranking out books and living close to nature, but that would be a lie. The truth is, we got a new dog, I started writing a new book (not a Jane Wheel this time around) and I busied myself with family and friends. I also worked at more estate sales than I usually do–cataloging great libraries and prepping houses for downsizers. Normally, I work a few summer sales for “research” and that’s it, but this season there were lots of books and lots of treasures to discover, prep and price. Also taught two nights a week. So yes, I was busy, but that’s not an excuse. Who isn’t busy?
The closest I can come to an explanation for my absence here is that summer just isn’t my enthusiastic season. Oh, I love the respite from snow and cold, but it’s just not the productive time for me that it is for so many others. You know how some people get depressed when there’s not enough sunlight? I think I’m a minority sufferer of some malady about too much sun. All of those beautiful days? So much pressure to be out there enjoying them, doing something sporty! Not my season at all. But September? With cool mornings and acorns crunching underfoot? That’s when my energy returns.
So here’s hoping I can stay on a schedule that includes staying in touch here on the website. I’ll be teaching three workshops a week starting next week, finishing the YA book I started this summer, hosting family for the upcoming holidays, and continuing to work and play with our maybe-scottie-maybe-cairn-terrier mix, Fergus. Next weekend is a favorite rummage weekend for me–the four corners sale in Highland Park. Three churches across from each other. Park once, shop thrice? So I feel like I’m coming back to life–sweater season brings out the best in me. How about you?
May 23, 2013
A surprise from my daughter Nora this morning!
Now you can take the tour in just a few minutes! I’ll fill in the details soon–but in the meantime, enjoy!
Sorry that it doesn’t come with pie from Blues, but you get the idea!
April 22, 2013
I apologize for not updating the site about the tour. The May event
was sold out as soon as the library had the information ready.
When I spoke there last fall, a sign-up sheet was passed
around and those who were interested in the tour got calls and priority
sign up. That sold out the trolley, I’m afraid.
Because this all happened so quickly, we are considering another
tour in the fall. I will keep you posted about that, but I want to remind
everyone that the library is sponsoring this event. I am not selling any
March 6, 2013
The May 18 Trolley Tour in Kankakee is on! More details will follow here–and you can also contact Vicki or Allison at the Kankakee Public Library for more information as the date draws closer. Rumor has it there will also be a Jane Wheel flea market on May 18th at the Farmer’s Market, so come to shop and tour!
Unfortunately, I have to report that the Milwaukee workshop, Finding Your Hidden Story, scheduled for Friday-Sunday, March 8-10 is off. I’m sorry we’ve had to cancel, but am hoping that Lynden Sculpture Gardens and Woodland Patterns Book Center and I can reschedule. Stay tuned–and if you’re in the Milwaukee area and were hoping to attend, let us hear from you and we’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.
Those are the updates–but here is the real news. Despite the snow here in Illinois, I count the number of estate sales this weekend to be on the upswing. Lots more than last weekend. Plus, daylight savings time begins this weekend! Some people look for robins and tulips, but I say blooming estate and garage sales and more light are the real first harbingers of spring. How about you?
February 12, 2013
It’s not that I’ve run out of things I learned at the EZ Way Inn–I won’t ever run out of those lessons–but I have some current news to share!
March 8-10, I’ll be teaching a writing workshop, Finding The Hidden Story, in Milwaukee at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. The weekend will begin on Friday afternoon as I lead a Jane Wheel type junking tour around the city–and as we browse and chat, we’ll discuss objects and memory and memoir and fiction–all stemming from visual prompts. And we might also find some good stuff! Friday evening, I’ll read from my work and discuss both memoir and fiction at the Woodland Pattern Book Center. That reading is open to everyone, not just those participating in the workshop. Saturday, workshop participants will discuss writing prompts, voice and style–and finding that hidden story–and I’ll have some time for one-on-one consultations with each writer. Sunday morning will be more writerly work and then, after lunch, participants will have an opportunity to read and share some of their work with friends and family. I think it will be a wonderful, creative and stimulating weekend. Please spread the word to everyone you think might be interested. This workshop, like the ones I teach regularly, is open to all writers–even if you’re a writer who is just beginning to sharpen your pencil! Here’s a link for more information. And if you check it out? I am not sure from where on the internet that photo was pulled, but I don’t look like that. I am a much more serious person. Seriously.
Next big thing? Start planning a trip to Kankakee for the weekend of May 18! On that auspicious Saturday, I will be behind the megaphone on a trolley, driving around scenic Kankakee to present the first ( and probably one and only) Jane Wheel Trolley Tour of Kankakee featuring sights and locations from all of the Jane Wheel Mysteries! This tour is being sponsored by the Kankakee Public Library and will leave Saturday morning from the library parking lot–right across the street from the Saturday Farmer’s Market and, I’ve heard, on that Saturday, there just might be a Jane Wheel Rummage Sale/Flea Market set up alongside! The three hour tour will include stops at the site of the tavern formerly known as the E Z Way Inn, the Kankakee History Museum, the Root Beer Stand (Dead Guy’s Stuff) for lunch and Blue’s Cafe (known as Pink’s in the books) for a piece of pie ! I’ll even show you the exact spot I had in mind where one of the victims in Backstage Stuff was offed! I’ve heard there will be a flower show in the Civic Auditorium on that Saturday, so we’ll be able to take a peek at the stage where the fictional “Murder In The Eekaknak Valley” was presented in Backstage Stuff! If you decide to make a weekend of it in Kankakee, the annual Rhubarb Festival is scheduled for Sunday, May 19! There will be a limited number of seats on the trolley, so I’ll keep you posted on how to get a reservation/ticket. If you go to the Jane Wheel page on facebook, I’ll be posting updates there, too.
Stay tuned! Just when you thought Spring only brought flowers and garage sales, here comes Jane Wheel!
December 20, 2012
My mother, Nellie, did not drink. No beer, no whiskey, no wine, no cocktails. Her beverage of choice was hot thick black coffee, the kind that left a half inch of sediment in the bottom of the cup. In the summer, she opted for iced tea, unsweetened with as many lemon slices as she could squeeze into the glass. If Nellie were a radio station, the tag line promo would be ALL CAFFEINE, ALL THE TIME.
Since she spent almost all of her waking hours inside the E Z Way Inn, people were and are often surprised that not only did Nellie abstain from alcohol, she actively disapproved of drinking.
“Your mother’s the best bartender in the world,” my dad often remarked. “Doesn’t drink up the profits.”
She also was the cleanest, fastest and liveliest bartender in the world. She just wasn’t the best purveyor of alcoholic drinks.
“Buy you a drink, Nellie?”
“Nope, and you shouldn’t have another one either. Go home now.”
My dad would shake his head, comforted by the fact that he did, after all, have the fastest, cleanest and least troublesome bartender in town, if not the most profit-motivated.
If someone was especially persistent about buying her a drink, always a not-quite regular customer, who coaxed, wheedled, and nagged, Nellie would get a sly look and collect for a shot of their best whiskey, open the register with a flourish and drop the money in. The buyer would shout with pride, making sure everyone knew he had successfully persuaded Nellie to have a drink with him.
The drink, of course, was never poured.
“You wanted to buy me a drink, right?” said Nellie wiping off the non-existent spills in front of the pouting big shot. “You bought it and I’ll drink it when I drink it.”
The exception, the only time Nellie jumped off the wagon, I discovered, was at Christmas.
The EZ Way Inn usually closed early on Christmas Eve. Whoever was there just before the lights were turned out around dinnertime would offer to buy Nellie a Christmas drink. Instead of her usual disgusted headshake, she would dust off the bottle of peppermint schnapps and pour herself a shot. She threw it back to the amazement of all who had remained for last call. Everyone, including my brother, Emory, and me, dropped our jaws. Watching Nellie down that schnapps seemed like some kind of Christmas miracle.
“There. You satisfied?” she asked, scraping the money off the bar for her drink and ringing up the sale. Thanks to Nellie, another angel got his wings!
Then Don and Nellie shooed out the regulars, exhorting them to go home to their families. And the regulars without families? They were a worry to all of us. Don usually opened on Christmas for a few hours in the middle of the day, just so Barney and Vince and a few others would have a place to be on Christmas. But what to do when a bartender couldn’t be found and my mother had laid down the law about my dad staying with us at my Grandparent’s for Christmas dinner?
There were a few years when our family, Don, Nellie, my brother, Emory and I, solved the problem by inviting two of the loners to come with us to my grandmother’s.
Barney and Vince, all clean and shiny in their best suits, joined the party at my Lithuanian grandparent’s small house next to the railroad tracks on Union Avenue. We were all crowded in, eating the feast in at least two shifts at the dining room table, so what difference did two more make? Grandpa Schultz was glad to see them. They were both better euchre players than my Uncle Joe and my grandpa who spoke no English except to swear while listening to the baseball game on the radio (for years I thought gottamcubs was a Lithuanian phrase I was supposed to learn) always got stuck with Uncle Joe as his partner. Barney and Vince made the card games more interesting, evened up the odds a bit, and, even more important, they showed up with gifts of whiskey and a case or two of beer so they were welcomed by Grandpa and the Uncles. Even the Aunts poured a shot or two of whiskey into their glasses of coca cola, enjoying what they always referred to as a highball or two for Christmas. Nellie cut her eyes in disapproval, never joining in on the highballs poured in the kitchen as the women washed and dried the plates for round two of Christmas dinner.
“Not even a drink on Christmas, Nellie?” my Aunt Veronica would tease.
“Nope, I don’t drink,” said my mother, giving me a look that warned against any mention of peppermint schnapps.
On the way home in the car, I asked my mother about the schnapps and why it was a secret from her family that she did occasionally make an exception to her no-drinking rule.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” said Nellie. “Besides, I just have that schnapps to see the look on everyone’s face when I drink it. It’s not like I enjoy it.”
My dad laughed at that and so did Emory and I, although I’m not sure why. Nellie started laughing, too, which was rare enough that it made us all silly happy. To this day, I can’t tell you why it was so funny, but it was. Maybe the lesson has something to do with being careful, being selective in what you give away and what you keep to yourself. In Nellie’s case, saying no throughout the year certainly made saying yes at Christmas all the sweeter.
November 13, 2012
When I was growing up, according to my dad, Kankakee was a Republican town. According to many who live there today, it still is. I don’t know about any of that—my fictional character, Jane Wheel, who still lives in Kankakee, only knows what she reads on vintage campaign buttons.
But I can tell you what I learned at the E Z Way Inn about politics.
One early November morning as I observed Don and Nellie go about the pre-opening chores—the sweeping, the scrubbing, the polishing, the chopping, the simmering, the stewing, I settled in to watch my dad swing open the door to the cigarette machine and assess which brands needed filling. He had full and half full cigarette cartons in a big box and, as he requested them, I rummaged for the Lucky Strikes, Camels, and Winstons. Don was as serious as a surgeon calling for scalpel, retractor and sponge. Equally serious, I was the operating assistant slapping the cellophane-wrapped packages into Don’s outstretched palm.
“Go grab me a new box of matches, honey,” said my dad, lighting up a Tareyton of his own. “Next to the cash register.”
I jumped at the chance to travel behind the bar.
The wire rack next to the front door had a shelf for bread and rolls, boxes of doughnuts and buns and pastry snacks to provide corner store convenience for customers whose wives wanted them to pick up a loaf of Butternut on the way home. Salty snacks had their own rack on the countertops next to the kitchen, but behind the bar? At my eye level, on the low shelves to the left of the register were all the intriguing “extras”.
Chocolate bars, cough drops, Wrigley’s Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit gum, Rolaids, Tums, Alka Seltzer and tiny tins of aspirin. The EZ Way Inn was a small establishment, but in addition to the drinks and homemade lunches it served, it presciently combined the drugstore and the grocery in those pre-mall, pre-superstore days for customers who preferred one-stop shopping.
“These matches, Dad?” I asked. I was puzzled. Large white matchbooks with bold letters that spelled out VOTE DEMOCRAT couldn’t be the matches my dad wanted me to find.
“Yup,” said Don, smoking and sipping Nellie’s tar-like coffee from a thick green fire-king mug.
Shaking my head, I trotted over with the matches. My dad set the box on top of the machine and swung the heavy door closed.
“But they say to vote Democrat,” I said. “We’re not Democrats, are we?”
“W-e-l-l,” my dad stretched out the word. “It depends.”
He handed me the almost empty box of matches that he had taken off the top of the machine and I saw that the remaining two matchbooks read, “VOTE REPUBLICAN.”
I was puzzled and my face must have showed it because before moving on to the arduous job of filling the reach-in cooler with bottled beer before lunchtime , he took the time to give me a lesson on politics.
“The Republicans come in and give me these matches and the ones for their candidates, right?”
“Then the Democrats come in and give me the matches with their candidates’ names, right?”
“Uncle Ray says the difference is that Democrats like the little guys like him and Republicans like the big wheels,” I offered, pleased to show off my knowledge of politics at such an early age.
My dad, no fan of his brother-in-law, but always polite, just shook his head and said that it wasn’t that simple.
Nellie, emerging from the kitchen with a tin tray of ketchup bottles and mustard jars, waved me over to set the pairs on all of the tables alongside the salt and pepper shakers and napkin dispensers.
“You vote for the man not the party,” said Nellie. “That’s what I do.”
And, in those days, it was the man, not the man or woman, as I recall.
“But the matches?” I asked. “Are you a Republican?”
My dad lifted his palms and inconclusively moved his head.
“Or a Democrat?”
Same lifted palms, this time with another grimacing simultaneous nod and shake.
“When a Democrat comes in and asks me to put out the matches, I say sure, And when a Republican comes in, I do the same. That way, I don’t take sides. I support everybody. That’s what a businessman has to do.”
“The customer’s always right,” added Nellie, prompting a quizzical look from both Don and me. Nellie rarely behaved as if anyone was right, least of all a customer.
“Look, honey, on Election Day, someone’s going to win,” said my dad. “And if I hand out the matches from both sides, I’m always supporting the winner.”
“And the loser,” I said.
“Yup. Loser needs support, too. And,” my dad added, “You never know, next time, it might be the other way around.”
I suppose the hard and fast lesson here is that a small businessman, especially a small town saloonkeeper, needed to stay on the right side politically in case problems arose– if the bar happened to stay open after hours on a Saturday or opened before noon on a Sunday, for example, and a newly elected Sheriff of either party happened to drive by and count cars in the parking lot. But I like the implicit compromise suggested by Don’s reasoning. Someone’s going to win. Someone’s going to lose. Might as well support them both. After all, whoever did what, the cigarette machine would still need filling and the ketchup and mustards still needed to get put on the tables. Most people I know would give their eyeteeth for simpler times and simpler solutions. And don’t we all wish that everyone had learned the lesson that the customer is always right?
October 22, 2012
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em
Don, like most men of his generation, was a smoker.
Since he had constant access to cigarettes at the EZ Way Inn, he left half empty packs on the standing ashtray next to his recliner at home. Often a silver-colored lighter was tucked in next to the cigarette pack. After all, Don could easily pick up another lighter at the tavern where they were sold from a display rack on top of the cigarette machine along with bright yellow packages of flints and cans of lighter fluid.
Incidentally, if you recognize those last two products, I know how old you are.
At around age 14, sitting in my dad’s chair, home alone, watching television after school, I picked up the habit of flicking my dad’s lighter. It was, indeed, an attractive nuisance. The sound of opening the top, the weight and feel of the cool metal in my hand, the acrid smell were inexplicably wonderful. Using one hand to operate, thumbing the lid up and off, running same thumb down to strike the spark? It was a mysterious, satisfying gesture. One day, I fished out a Tareyton from the crumpled pack, slipped it between my lips, and used my perfected one-handed lighter skills to fire it up. I was still wearing my high school uniform, plaid skirt, green blazer with the Bishop MacNamara patch sewn on the pocket proclaiming that I was “Committed to Christian Excellence.” I didn’t inhale.
Thus began my high school habit of sort of smoking, non-inhaling about two cigarettes a week.
I loved holding the cigarette, waving my hand, stabbing the air with it to emphasize a point to my imaginary companions, flicking the ash casually or impatiently, and I adored stubbing it out angrily, thoughtfully, or deliberately. Cigarettes were perfect props, demanding so many gestures which displayed so many emotions. Yes, the tar and nicotine made them addictive, but even if the poison hadn’t been the evil hook, I would have become addicted to the great theatrics of smoking.
After I had not inhaled my first Tareyton, I noticed a few days later that my dad had switched brands. The next week, again, there was a new brand. Lucky Strikes, Winstons, Kents, Parliaments all made appearances on the standing ashtray. My dad, who I knew as a decisive solid thinker, appeared to be entirely fickle when it came to his smoking habits.
“So Dad,” I asked as casually as I could, “didn’t you used to smoke Tareytons?”
“Uh-huh,” answered my dad, not looking up from the paper.
“Why the switch?” I might be a new occasional sneak smoker of two or three cigarettes a week, but I was a steady watcher of television and the cigarette advertising that dominated commercial breaks.
“You don’t like the charcoal filter anymore?”
“What, honey?” said my dad, still not looking up.
“Do you prefer the recessed filter of a Parliament? I asked, “a neat, clean quarter inch away?”
“Huh?” asked my dad, lowering the paper so he could look at me more carefully.
“Winston taste good like a cigarette should?” I said, unable to resist repeating the most addictive jingle of them all.
“What are you taking about?” asked Don.
I explained, over-explained actually, that I was just curious about why he kept switching cigarettes. I said I had noticed the different packs and that it had nothing to do with actual smoking, since how would I know anything about that? I was just curious about why he hopped from brand to brand.
My dad glanced at the pack of cigarettes next to him. He let the newspaper fall on his lap, knocked one out of the pack and lit it, expertly handling the silver Zippo and drawing in a lungful of smoke.
“They’re all the same, honey,” said my dad.
“So you’re searching for the brand you like best?”
“Everybody knows they can’t be good for you, ” he continued, ”it’s just common sense.”
My dad picked up the pack and pointed to the newly mandated warning placed on packages that cautioned smoking cigarettes may be hazardous to one’s health.
“You know, I quit for a month or two last year,” he said.
Then I remembered that he had tossed out his cigarettes, just like that, because he had read a report on the hazards of smoking. He quit, cold turkey, for almost three months.
“Why did you start again?” I asked.
“I gained ten pounds and Doc said the weight was more dangerous for me than the cigarettes.”
My dad picked up the paper, conversation over, but then I remembered that he never answered my question.
“But, Dad, why do you switch brands?”
“I smoke whatever brand isn’t selling. Whatever we’re long on, honey. Whatever is left when I fill the cigarette machine. Understand?” asked my dad. When I nodded, he went back to his paper, cigarette burning in the ashtray.
What’s the lesson? How can any good lesson come from a discussion of cigarette smoking? Well, I think the lesson is that pragmatism works.
My pragmatic dad simply picked the least popular brand of the week for purely practical reasons. Pragmatism, using knowledge and experience, served him well as a saloonkeeper, a businessman, a father, a husband and a friend. And if only he had remained pragmatic in all things, and trusted his own knowledge and experience about the ills of smoking, if only he had quit for good, trusted his own common sense and disregarded the dubious medical advice he had received from his doctor, perhaps he might have avoided the lung cancer that took him too early at age 68.
September 14, 2012
Lesson 13–Everybody’s Leg Hurts
What did everyone have in common at the E Z Way Inn?
It felt like a kind of club, a sort of blue-collar fraternity, but what were its tenets? What was the code, the colors of its flag? What defined the EZ Way Inn community?
The customers were all different and their personalities were hard to pin down. Milt might drink too much beer on a Friday, but he still ushered at St. Pat’s on Sunday. Stu was a good card player, but no one wanted him for a golfing partner. Barney’s English was broken, but his stories were so rich you could hear a pin drop when he talked about the old country. So what made all of these customers brothers?
Perhaps it was the code of their housemother. Nellie, after all, had hard and fast rules of behavior and while in the E Z Way Inn, she expected the boys to behave.
On doing unto others:
Nellie believed that all unkindness stemmed from jealousy. If I told her that someone had been mean to me, she cut me off before I got to the specifics. “They’re just jealous,” Nellie would say, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Jealous of what?” I’d ask as Nellie waved me out of the way and into the back room. She’d look around at whatever was near by. “Your crayons,” she’d say. “Look at all those crayons you got.”
On having the proper work ethic:
Nellie believed that physical labor trumped all and reading was, at best, a necessary evil. Although she consented to buy me books on our Saturday shopping trips downtown, they came with her warning. “I’ll buy you these, but don’t read them,” she’d bark. The clerk would look at her nervously and Nellie would shrug and offer a slightly softer, “Don’t read them all at once.” When I got home and raced to my room with two new Nancy Drew, I’d hear her complain to Don that reading was going to be my downfall. “How will she ever get a job? She’ll always be sneaking off. Reading.”
Nellie’s most important universal? No complaining. She turned a deaf ear on customers who didn’t like the raise in prices on a draft beer. “We got to make a living, don’t we?” She had no sympathy for the Roper boys who groused about their foremen. “You get a paycheck, don’t you?” And if someone took a sick day for a simple cold? Nellie just shook her head sadly. “You poor baby.”
Nellie dismissed complaints from me, too.
If I came into the tavern after school, wanting sympathy for my scraped knee, I looked for my dad who would listen to my story and blow a kiss toward my band-aid. Nellie would come over and assess the situation, pat me on the shoulder and shoo me off into the back room. “But my leg hurts, Mom,” I’d protest. Nellie would sweep her arm, taking in all the customers sitting at the bar.
“Everybody’s leg hurts.”
That was Nellie’s supreme law. No matter what ailed you, there was no use complaining because everyone suffered.
I think about these snippets from the book of Nellie daily. As I get older, as my friends get older, we sit, we walk, we talk, we stretch and we assess our exercise routines or lack thereof and when we rise, we creak, we wobble, we shake our heads about aging. I try not to complain. I try to remember the rules that bonded the brotherhood at the E Z Way Inn. When I say something snarky about someone? I am usually jealous. After a life spent reading? I am unfit for most jobs. What Nellie taught me and the Roper boys all those years ago might not have seemed true at the time, but now I know it to be gospel.
Everybody’s leg hurts.