Letters: “Srimps”

“Srimps.” That’s all I remember now. Back in the day, there was a guy, a kid, maybe a girl, basically a young adult who didn’t know how to pronounce “shrimp.” We made fun of the person, to their face and behind their back, but it was always “srimp” and it’s a damn shame that after all the fun at someone else’s expense, I can’t remember anything other than “srimp.”

Funny now, how selective the memory can be. Maybe, after a time, most of a lifetime of real events that actually mean something and have lasting value, for the rest we just remember that one distinguishing characteristic we enjoyed the most.

In any event, our conversation on “shrimp” stuck, so today I was in Joey Franco’s old PW Market, a previously v. upscale market for our tony Castro Valley well-to-do. It was bought out by Safeway a few years back and has rapidly become JAS – just another Safeway.

Armed with that backgrounding, picture me now trying to figure out where I was going to locate their shrimp cocktail, if those little glass jars I used to buy as a college student even exist any more. I was near the meat counter, so wandered up to the display case and waited my turn for the meat person to help me.

“Hi, can you tell me if you stock shrimp cocktail?”


“You know, those little glass jars of shrimp with the tomato cocktail sauce.”

“Oh, we don’t carry those no more.”


“I see. Do you know if it’s stocked anywhere in the store?”

“We don’t carry those no more.” She waited for me to leave.

“Very well, then, what do you tell your customers who would like shrimp cocktail? Do you sell ingredients to make it?”

“You can buy shrimp.” She pointed vaguely to the glass case. I saw only meat in the case.


They had prepackaged cooked shrimp in various grades, in another case below where she’d pointed. She waited for me to leave.

“What about the sauce?”

Oh, those are over THERE.” She pointed to a display of bottled condiments. One brand said “Cocktail sauce.”

“These? These are for shrimp?”


I thanked her profusely for all her valuable time. At last, after all these years, another “srimp” mentality, a pudgy white girl with an unfocused expressionless squint who will lean on her glass case until they fire her, and then blame the world for our inability to recognize true quality when we see and hear it.

I picked out the medium grade size, looking fresh and in good condition. $8.99 for about a pound. I know from previous experience with the trots you want to avoid the small economy shrimp packages, because the meat is largely bits and pieces and you can’t tell the freshness or health of the specimens.

I took my shrimp and sauce to the checkout counter with the rest of my basket. The customer behind me said she always uses that sauce and she always adds lemon juice. She must have been an old PW Market customer. At least, a real human being. I thanked her.

As I wrote in a 1994 essay named “Lunch at Ten Fu:

“I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were.”

At home, I prepared my shrimp cocktail exactly as noted earlier. Best damned shrimp cocktail I ever had. And there’s enough for tomorrow too.


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Lunch at Ten Fu

reposted from the 1994 essay

Nothingness Nodules

I had an hour to kill while the Apple Computer dealer assembled and tested a new hard disk drive for me. Lunch, I decided, would be a good way to use up an hour, keep my mind off my worries about my computer files at home, and reward myself for having been up most of the night recovering the files from a “crashed” hard drive.

It was an oppressively muggy day, that sort of overcast day when the diffuse light steeps lifelessness into all the colors and makes everything look the same. A lousy day for a drive. Somewhere south on El Camino, I spotted a place calling itself “Ten Fu Chinese Restaurant.” It looked empty, perfect for my contrived, kill-time, contemplative mood. I hung a U-turn and pulled into Ten Fu’s “Parking In Rear” area. This doubled as reserve parking for tenants of the adjacent apartment. A circle of women were holding hands in the middle of the parking lot, communing in some deep spiritual ceremony. The uniformity of blissful smiles assured me this nest of beatitude was best left undisturbed. I pulled around the oblivious circle slowly, parked, and walked cautiously into Ten Fu.

The place seemed deserted. My watch said two-fifteen. Two waiters sprang to life while I waited by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. One asked if he could help me. “Is it too late to be seated?”, I asked cheerfully. He dead – panned it: no, sir, not too late, right this way, please.

I was escorted past huge tables for parties of eight or more. My waiter hid me at a little table, adjacent to a drab freestanding folding utility screen. This hid the little workstation where restaurateurs keep the clean ashtrays, toothpicks and ice water. I like to look around, but said this would be fine. There was only one other party in the whole restaurant. We were both on the same side of the folding screen, so they, and a vast expanse of undecorated red wall space, were my principal view. I ordered Szechuan Beef.

Soup came right away; with no time to warm it from the lunch hour “crowd”. It being Saturday, this might have been soup from Friday’s lunch hour. When my mind’s fogged from lack of sleep, I can understand how people who endure periodic bouts of chronic depression must dread knowing what the next bout will do to their attitude. I felt like that about my attitude. I hoped lunch would help. Even so, the soup was still lukewarm-lousy, compellingly evocative of those tired old speculations as to what they really put into this stuff. I sipped at it, tried to ignore the conference at the next table, and soon enough the soup was gone. Time: two-twenty-five.

It seemed there was just nowhere to rest the eyes in this place, but upon my pot of weak tea, a blank red wall, and that oddly inanimate conversation at the table next to mine. I pretended not to listen.

About eight American-born Chinese were talking about one or more church projects. Swell. At best, I am not generally a big booster of churches and church promotions. There was some question as to who would finance all the $20 Bibles which had to be passed out, and as to whether the recipients would get these Bibles up front, or be required to first complete a baptism. Just the sort of distraction I needed to fan my growing restlessness.

After a bout of eavesdropping like this, I will generally begin to feel I am inviting comparison to all those others who don’t cherish (as I do) that grand illusion of privacy. I mused as to whether these joyless folks would ever actually succeed in making one person’s life a little happier or more coherent with their programs and merit Bibles. Who would teach the recipients how to seek wisdom from these books, or seek solace in their words? Who would teach these teachers?

The trouble with everybody else’s religion in America is that those who “have it” are encouraged to substitute concrete literalness for thought, gospel for introspection, and advice-giving for self-examination. They may use the good words to hide from themselves and from their own souls, or they might use the words to manipulate and coerce others in ways the original manuscripters doubtless never conceived. Good old America: situational ethics, formula solutions. If somebody comes with a twelve-gauge to shoot my cow while she’s being milked, hey, what should I do? What should I say? How would the Bible handle this situation? “Plug it into the Bible”. Fractured ideas, disconnected from source or context, “thou shalt nots”, proscriptions and admonitions extracted out of context like so many fragmented files on my disk drive at home which has irretrievably broken its original directory.

In a short while, I get to go home, back up my recovered files onto my new hard drive, and rebuild my directories from scratch: clean slate. Proselytizers can show us the records, they can even direct us to the methodologies, but they can’t teach us how to live. Everybody should learn how to rebuild their own directories once in a while.

I realize I must be tired. I do not usually see myself as so smugly cynical, and it dawns on me that maybe I really am. Time: two-thirty. The Szechuan beef arrives, a generous portion, and warmer than the soup, too, with pork fried rice and topped with a large slab of yummy fried cookie and glazed egg roll. I’d never seen a luncheon garnished with the dessert before. I decide to see how much of the fried rice and beef I can eat by undermining its undisturbed cookie “roof” until the foundation collapses.

The distinguishing thing about the party at the next table, I decide, is that nobody is having a good time. They are not having a meeting after all. They are going through the motions of having a meeting, perhaps because they don’t know how to go about it, or perhaps because they are unwilling volunteers. There is nothing for them to do but let one woman, the apparent “leader”, decide on-the-fly what is to be done, and how she will want them to do it. She patiently instructs them on what everybody’s duties will be, and she does not appear to see any need to address any group member as an individual. I am reminded of grade school kids being herded during a fire drill. If these are missionaries, they’ll find no zeal here.

The conversation lacks any spark of spontaneity, with a carefully metered lifelessness, as if you and I are dividing up chores to mop up some horrible and very distasteful mess – and would really prefer not to be discussing this at all. Very much like discussions about the weather, the presumption of the participants must be that, if it isn’t already a nice day, conditions will eventually improve.

The “leader-lady” is counseling her group that she does not know yet what their brochures will look like, or how they will be printed, but that she will be able to determine what “will be needed” to make the brochures suitable, as soon as she sees the group’s completed effort, which she delegates. The participants’ stony downcast eyes tell the story. They evidently see that she’ll know what she wants them to do when she sees it. Nobody is looking at each other. I realize that this person has no concept whatsoever of how to plan a project, of how to enlist the aid and enthusiasm of the volunteers. The group realizes this too.

I think of the untold human effort which has gone into projects just such as this, based on the simple and flawless premise that life should be happy and purposeful, and that we should be able to find others who can pass on the distilled wisdoms from the discovery process, so we do not all have to re-invent everything from scratch. On the other hand, groups like this are solid evidence that perhaps we should, after all.

A younger man finally interjects with guarded enthusiasm that he has a computer program which could print the Chinese character sets directly onto their brochure. The leader lady ignores him, stating, for some reason, that no matter what the form of the brochure, it must leave space at the bottom for a name and a telephone number. I silently wonder why, imagining that perhaps the leader lady has already invested in a rubber stamp and ink pad, saturated with the blue-black ink of the ’50’s public libraries. Yes, by all means, leave room at the bottom of the form! The young man lapses into silence again.

I see that I shall be able to finish luncheon after all, and so cannot burn up a little more time waiting for a take-home container, or “doggie bag,” as we are so pleased to style it. There is not enough left to take home, so I eat the rest. Like these people at the Bible church group, I am here only because I do not yet want to be “there”, waiting (in my own case) idly for my new hard drive to be set up and formatted. Unlike the folks at the next table, I can look at my watch as often as I want. It is hard to say what they are waiting for, since nothing is happening here for them either.

I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were. I can pay and leave Ten Fu’s at two-forty-five, and I do.

© Alex Forbes, La Parola July 1994

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Driving The Sonoran Desert

Sonoran Desert

I’ve heard many people remark that driving the desert is boring. To me, the main highlight of a drive to or from Phoenix is the Sonoran Desert.

This vast area of sand was once a shallow inland sea. It’s essentially flat, with little islands of rock and rubble poking through here and there. Or, so it’s easy to imagine, driving the desert between Phoenix and the Colorado River.

Fossil evidence for marine habitats dates back to algae colonies about 1.2 billion years ago. More recently: sharks, corals, trilobites, clams and oysters, and those monster sea-going dinosaurs. More recently than that: traditional dinosaurs, duck-billed and otherwise. Even the most obvious visible features of the desert have been around for a very long time. Continue reading

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The Beatles: Impressions of a Still-Loyal Fan

A short essay by Fred Leeds

“Limitless, undying love that shines before like a million suns and calls me on and on, across the universe…” — John Lennon, “Across the Universe”

Dedicated to both John Lennon and George Harrison

Essay by Fred Leeds

To tell the plain truth, I still love the Beatles. This little essay is an attempt to explain to myself, as much as any reader, their unique appeal. The essay is written from an amateur’s point of view.

The key to the Beatles’ success lay in the combined artistry of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, a rare harmony of unique traits. McCartney’s conventional musical genius and Lennon’s searching originality made for a truly one-of a-kind sound. McCartney contributed an abiding sense of beauty (lyrical and melodic), while Lennon contributed a groundbreaking innovation and insight. Through their music, they show a combined faith in truth and beauty that Keats himself would have been proud of.
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A New Take on the Inner Child

by Fred Leeds

It is my belief that we can form much better friendships by seeing ourselves as interrelated, complete in each other. This requires us to show more vulnerability, an approach thought dangerous in many circles. There is a concept in psychology known as the inner child. The exaggerated wording shows how much difficulty we have in addressing normal vulnerabilities. As living beings, we go on developing throughout our lives, but the public requires us to put on a constant face. The trick is to avoid tripping each other up with our faces, to remain human and connected in our feelings.

As we get older, we learn that our dreams and ideals belong to childhood, and bury them inside.
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‘Strawberry, New York’

by Fred Leeds

I noticed yesterday how new things can get our attention by seeming out of order. Someone handed me a plate with two slices of cheesecake. They said they both were New York cheesecake, but one had strawberry. The one with strawberry wasn’t your standard, garden-variety cheesecake, you see. No, we saw, it was an altogether odd thing, something unheard of. Strawberry, New York, we came to call it: a very special slice of reality, partly a place, partly a flavor. If it weren’t for its new identity, it would just have been plain old cheesecake, a part of the Old World, where only duller taste buds travel. We visited it every day at the soda shop, spinning in our stools curiously like explorers.

Things in order seem commonplace. When you arrive at our “Strawberry, New York,” you encounter not just cheesecake, but a world. Join me there and I’ll tip my fork to you – if it doesn’t turn into a spaceship and carry us palates beyond.

Oh, by the way: Everyday cheesecake can be good, too.

Fred Leeds ©2009

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‘The First Day of School’

by Fred Leeds

Not all learners are children, not all beginnings literal. When our eyes first open to the possibility of a better world, it is just like going to school.

There is another kind of school. Here we learn that all humans are equal, that they have their moral source in one another. In the old days people who learned this were called the children of God.
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‘This Human Mirror’

A vignette by Guest contributor Fred Leeds, author of Birthday Year and Mutual I.

There is a type of mirror beyond the simple kind we know about. It is a mirror that shows the face of the whole human family. This kind of mirror is as alive as the persons who look into it; it has both a heart and memory. When anyone peers into a mirror like this, he sees not his own face, but the face of all his brothers and sisters. It is a snapshot of the human’s whole set of possibilities, an uncommon picture of our common face.
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Retirement in Oregon – by Dave Norton

Life in Oregon - photo by Dave Norton. Click photo for larger image.

You asked how we like retirement. The Retired Life is, entirely unlike most other things, just what it’s cracked up to be. I worked all my life for this: to not have to work all my life. Retirement is wonderful. It’s worth it.

We moved up here for many reasons: we wanted seasons; we got seasons. We tired of the sky being the same color all the time; we got skies with drama. We got tired of the cycle of six years of drought and one year of deluge; we got frequent gentle rains. We wanted out of the rat race; we got life at our own pace (which is a hectic one for Ellie, less so for me, both by our own choice). While we longed for a sense of neighborhood, we found ourselves surrounded by a community of welcoming, caring and gracious friends. While we wanted space, in a very rural setting, we found our own little piece of heaven.

We wanted a return to the land – we spend most of our day outside, working the soil, planting, fencing, pruning, preparing pastures for the goats, planning the way we want our home to be when we’re old.

Here in the early light of morning, as the world wakens to a new day on my run along the creek up to the first bridge, we discover in the deer and wild turkeys the only other traffic on our road. In the cool twilight as the sun drops below the mountains to the west and the crystal quiet of evening settles in, with the murmur of the creek just at the edge of consciousness, we know we are where we belong: we are home.

We lost some things we loved, as well: the closeness of old friends and family, the daily support and affirmation of co-workers, the comfort of structure, the endless variety of automotive enthusiast activities of Southern California. These things we miss. We are making new friends, and encouraging the old ones and family to drop in for a visit, to share for a time an interval of quiet in their lives as well.

We wish for you, in your own time and in your own setting, the peace and the quiet contentment we find here. Life is good.

Ripples - photo by Dave Norton. Click photo for larger image.

text and photos copyright Dave Norton, April 2008

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The Birthday Year

The Birthday Year is a short original work by Fred Leeds. It is also this first work published on this site. As a “signature piece” it is indicative of the understated introspection and humor that follows in later work.

Years are funny things. Did you know there is more than one kind? First, there is the year that everybody and his aunt knows about. This is the year that plods along faithfully from January to December. Easy enough to follow, but a little dull …

Use this link to The Birthday Year to read Fred’s full HTML work.

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