Introducing: Senior Citizen Roulette!!!
Plus: A Heart-Breaking Rubber Band Ball Saga
Welcome to ISSUE #29 of CAFÉ ANNE!
Last week’s feature, in which a reader’s query sent me on an ultimately failed mission to unearth the story behind Sherita, the glamorous pink dinosaur creature on the fuel oil billboard at the corner of Atlantic Ave. and Classon in Brooklyn, had a number of readers launching their own investigations and suggesting new leads.
A number of folks forwarded a story describing a lawsuit filed against Robert Thomas, the man believed to be the billboard’s owner, but only reader Sandra K. in Cobble Hill noted that the plaintiff’s first first name, Rita, is similar to Sherita. She sent me some court filings. Hmmm! I emailed Rita’s lawyer but have yet to hear back.
Forrest S. in Providence, RI took the trouble to consult his brother-in-law Carlo, a cultural critic in Rome. Carlo wrote:
The drawing (not that great) is certainly a pink dinosaur and I think it may be vaguely inspired by the Sinclair Oil Corporation branding. Indeed, it happened that in the 1960s a 70-foot "Dino" traveled more 10,000 miles through 25 states - stopping at shopping centers and other venues where children were introduced to the wonders of the Mesozoic era courtesy of Sinclair Oil (see attached photo of the US tour).
This advertising campaign coincides with the period and may have been intercepted as a source for that strange sign, of which the origin of the name remains to be understood.
Kyle in Prospect Heights discovered a Balkan band named in honor of the billboard character and suggested I check with the musicians see what they know. Will do!
My favorite suggestion came from reader Michael E. in Los Angeles: “You might consider tweeting this mystery to [NYC Mayor] Eric Adams. He's a cop and weirdo, so this case seems right up his alley.”
In other news, I am pleased to announce a new recurring feature, Senior Citizen Roulette, in which I ask random NYC seniors questions submitted by readers. See below.
Finally, this issue includes an exclusive interview with Deborah Wilson of Myrtle Beach, SC about her rubber band ball.
DEPARTMENT OF PROTESTING TOO MUCH
NOT A TRASH CAN!!!
Thank you, Aharon in Flatbush, for photographing this receptacle that thinks it is not a trash can, spotted near the SUNY Downstate Biotechnology Incubator. I am now heading down there with a big load of trash.
Senior Citizen Roulette!!! (Round One)
New Yorkers are the best people. Old people are also the best people. Put them together and you get an Old New Yorker, the very best sort of best person.
I am always looking for excuses to meet New York’s Most Venerable, so I recently invented a new game, Senior Citizen Roulette, which involves me asking random questions of random old people on the city streets.
Back in Issue #26, I asked readers to submit questions to ask the oldsters. I got some great suggestions. Last week, I set out to play my first round.
My rules for who to approach:
They had to be a random senior spotted out in the wild, whom I did not know.
I could only target seniors who were sitting down. It’s rude to stop a New Yorker in transit. They may stop to chat out of politeness, but it’s painful for them.
I spotted my first target on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade:
Dr. Jon Jack Berall, 82
Dr. Berall was in the middle of breakfast—an egg, provolone, tomato and onion sandwich—but said he’d be happy to take a few minutes to chat. I explained the premise of Senior Citizen Roulette—that I was asking random questions of random senior citizens.
“Well,” he said, “I’m about as a random a senior citizen as you can get!”
“So I have 19 questions that my readers submitted,” I said. “You pick a number between one and 19, and I’ll ask the corresponding question. If you don’t like it, you can get a different question.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll take question three.”
The question— “What is wrong with the world today?”—met with a long pause.
“In one word?” he said finally. “Disrespect. For people, for the planet. Disrespect, unfortunately, covering many aspects of the world.”
“Tell me about disrespect for people,” I said, as I don’t really care so much about the planet.
“Well, we’re all from the same seed, and we grow differently, and the result is what may seem a different person,” said Dr. Berall. “And that makes people afraid. And that would be the second word I would use. ‘Fear.’ Disrespect and fear, I think, accounts for a lot of the things that are wrong with our world.”
I asked what he did to avoid fearing or disrespecting others.
“I happen to be in a situation where I am afraid of somebody,” he said, “and I avoid that person. I don’t have a problem with respecting others. I’m a New Yorker. Disrespecting people is foolishness.”
“What does that have to do with being a New Yorker?”
“I grew up here,” he said. “I grew up in the subways, in many respects, and it’s like the United Nations without the frills! I don’t understand how people can be against, against, against—except because of fear and respecting only a limited number of people. If you slow down and talk to people and watch people, everybody’s the same.”
Dr. Berall told me that he is a medical doctor and entrepreneur who invented a device called the video laryngoscope, which he has been trying to bring to market for 26 years.
“So you’re still working!” I said.
“Very definitely!” he said. “I’m now in Federal court suing people on both coasts!”
“Hahaha!” I laughed. “That’s business for you!”
“That’s business!” he agreed. “Haha!”
My next target was sort of a cheat. It was someone I knew—a former boss! But it’s actually fair game because we didn’t recognize each other at first—it’s been a while. I spotted her filling out a medical questionnaire at a café table in Downtown Brooklyn. She had a doctor appointment, so she could only chat for a few minutes.
She asked me to not take her picture or include her last name. “I’m as incognito on the internet as you can get!” she said.
I asked her to choose a number. “But you can’t pick number three because someone already picked that,” I added.
“I see,” she said. “Okay. Seven.”
“Whoa!” I said, glancing at the question. “This might take a while.”
“Shit,” she said.
I read the question: “What’s your biggest regret in life?”
“Starting a [café] business in 2015,” she said. “Given the fact that the government shut it down for the pandemic, all the money I put into it was lost, is one thing. But it would have been a mistake anyway. Why? Because my resources were probably better spent either writing a book or doing some kind of journalism than starting that particular business.”
“I had hoped to create a lot of discussion among various strands of people trying to create a better world,” she continued. “And as it turned out, I feel like most of that effort went down the tubes when the pandemic came along and a lot of people went against freedom of speech and stopped talking to each other. So all those years and all that work I put into my business was all for naught.”
“However,” she added, “I have a very strict policy of not looking back and not regretting. So I am just plowing ahead!”
Bob Tate, 75
I spotted Bob Tate, a retired postal worker, smoking a little cigar on a bench overlooking Borough Hall. He picked question #10: “Do you believe in God?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Anything more you can say about that?” I asked.
“There’s a lot I can say. You can ask me.”
“What is the role of God in your life?”
“Actually? I think of him as my father. I read it in the King James Bible—my mother’s Bible handed down to me. He guides me.”
“Can you tell me something God did to guide you?”
“It comes and goes,” said Mr. Tate. “It’s a better understanding of life. Different definitions of life. There’s more to it than what Webster’s English Dictionary says. There’s much more to it. So I’ve been defining it. Just like you say ‘peaceful.’ You know what peaceful means to me? It’s when you eat completely. That’s peace-full. That’s what it really means. When you eat and then go to sleep and it’s really nice. That’s peaceful. Full!”
He told a story about when he was eight or nine years old and had the measles, or maybe it was the mumps, and he was separated from his three brothers so they would not get infected, and he looked out the window and saw something orbiting the moon.
“I don’t think it was a UFO. I think it was my starship,” he said.
He told me about a time he was embracing a girl in a hallway and felt so full of love he thought he might beam right into the sky. “I was getting ready to go up,” he said. ”I’ll never forget that.”
He also told me he was a writer and offered to show me a poem. He pulled a tattered sheet from his wallet. The poem was titled “I AM LOVE” and dated October 11, 2011, 4:29 a.m. It was written almost entirely in capital letters, in blue pen. “This is one of my best,” he said.
Here is a short excerpt:
I AM ALL THE LIVES YOU LIVE BEYOND YOUR IMAGINATION
WHEN YOU EAT, YOU TASTE ME
WHEN YOU SLEEP, I AM NEAR
I AM LOVE
WHEN YOU AWAKE, I SHINE ON YOU
When I finished reading the long poem aloud, Mr. Tate resumed his recollection: “If I hadn’t broken that embrace with that girl, we would have went up,” he said. “You know what that was? That was love. It was like an unusual feeling. It was overwhelming. If I hadn’t broken that embrace we would have elevated and left the earth.”
Have a question you’d like to ask a random senior? Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
DEPARTMENT OF RUBBER BAND BALL SAGAS
“I Think About Him Sitting in a Landfill Somewhere. Or Has it Exploded?”
My mom and I were struck by your doorman's rubber band ball. My mom collected rubber bands from the Reno Gazette-Journal (where we lived at the time) for 15 years for her rubber band ball. When she moved to South Carolina SHE THREW THE BALL OUT.
The photo is of her holding the ball somewhere around year 7. She also wants to make it clear that it was all rubber bands from the newspaper. She didn't start with like a golf ball or anything because that would be cheating.
I wanted to know more, of course. So Kate put me in touch with her mother, Deborah Wilson, who is now living in Myrtle Beach. I wrote to request an interview.
Ms. Wilson replied promptly: “I would be happy to talk to you about my rubber-band ball. I’m happy to see it finally getting the recognition it deserves!”
We had the most delightful Zoom chat, which I thought to share with you all. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Your daughter Kate told me you started your rubber band ball a long time ago, while you were living in Reno.
When we first moved to Reno, I believe in 1997, I got a job at this little museum that was close to our house. One day I was at my desk, and I open the drawer and someone had started this little rubber band ball. I thought, “Oh, there's a thing to do with the rubber bands that come on the newspaper every day.” We lived in Reno for about 20 years, so that ball was in progress for most of that time.
What did you do with the rubber bands that came on the newspaper before you started your rubber band ball?
I probably just tossed them, or maybe threw them in a drawer. And you know, after a while they pile up. So my thing was, “Okay, I'm gonna recycle, I'm gonna use these rubber bands.” And I never went out and bought bags of rubber bands to add to it, or anything. It was always recycled rubber bands.
I used to get really excited when I would buy broccoli, because they had those big purple rubber bands. So some of those were on there. And it always made it look really pretty. But most of them were from that stupid newspaper.
The newspaper—probably about 10 years into this thing—it was doing a human interest story on people that had weird collections. So I thought, “Oh my gosh, my rubber band ball has to be a contender for this!”
But they didn't pick me. So yeah, they were a stupid newspaper.
My younger daughter, she was the editor on her school newspaper and one of her favorite things would be to get that morning paper at breakfast and circle all the mistakes on the front page.
Where did you keep the ball?
I had it right on the kitchen counter. And when I'd get the morning newspaper, I'd add to the rubber band ball, or if there were rubber bands on vegetables and stuff, I would put those on there too.
It was surprising how many people would come in my house and not even notice it sitting there. You know, it was a big thing to me.
Our church had these rotating dinners, traveling dinners, and you would have four couples at your house, and then the next month, dinner at the next couples’ house. And everybody would say “Tell people something about you.” So these people are like, “Oh, I just ran a marathon. I just had my first book published.” And so I'm sitting there, I showed them my rubber band ball, and nobody really reacted at all. I think they would at least say, “Wow, tell me about it.”
You know, it was a big thing to me. A work of art. I kind of wish I still had it, and I feel kind of bad that I got rid of it.
I know what you mean. It's almost like having a friend or a little pet that you were caring for. How big did it get?
Pretty big! About ten pounds. My ex-husband was a nuclear physicist. He had a degree in nuclear physics and so when it started getting really big, he kept telling me it was going to explode. Which was a little scary, because I did look it up on the internet, and people do have pictures showing that the inner rubber bands dry up and break, and then it can set off an explosion.
It got to where I had to tie the rubber bands together because I couldn't stretch them big enough. And then that's when it really started being a problem. I’d tie them and then the ones inside would start breaking and that make me think about my husband's idea that it was going to explode.
Is that why you get rid of it?
We retired. And my kids live on the east coast. We wanted to be one airport away from the kids. Then we started looking at top places to retire and Myrtle Beach was right on the top.
So when we moved, I had to make choices. We went from a big house to a smaller house, and there was this whole exploding idea, and also just the fact that it wasn't as much fun anymore because I wasn't able to get rubber bands around it.
How did you dispose of it?
I think I threw it in the garbage. Isn't that sad?
The outdoor garbage can or the indoor garbage can?
The outdoor garbage can. That's sad. Isn't it? Heartless me. But it was time. It was time for us to go our separate ways.
Do you remember how you felt?
I felt a little bad. And this conversation is kind of bringing it back. I wonder how big it would be by now.
Where do you think he is?
I think about him sitting in a landfill somewhere. Or has it exploded?
I think maybe it exploded in a landfill somewhere and destroyed a nearby small town.
I said I wanted it to get big enough so that it’d be like one of those stops, you know—people do the road trips across the country and see the world's biggest rubber band ball. But then I saw some pictures of actually the biggest rubber band balls, and I knew I had a long way to go.
Anything you're working on now?
Not really. I have a garden. I work in my garden now. I live on my own and I have a house to take care of. So that keeps me pretty busy. Clubs and classes and stuff. The usual retirement things.
Last question: What did you think of my doorman's rubber band ball?
Kate sent me the article. I was impressed. But mine was better.
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