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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Number 96: John Updike "Ex-Basketball Player"

Ex-Basketball Player

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

--John Updike

Hap Notes: Here's a poem to celebrate basketball playoff season- sorta.

Normally, I'd say this poem speaks for itself but there's a lot of information in this poem that is about an America many readers do not know. "Bubble head" gas pumps and "Juju Beads" are not part of everyday life anymore, neither is a luncheonette. Once again we have a reference to an Esso station, which were so common on the East coast. And again, the gray greasy look of all service station's employees uniforms (remember Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station"?) America was a charming and fairly dirty place in the 30s and 40s. The 50s started that streamlined "clean" look that most gas stations have now.

The candy at the luncheonette (which is sort of like a diner only they usually were only open for lunch) is on a slanted display (probably on a shelf behind the cash register) which looks very much like bleachers in a gym, like an audience. A lemon phosphate is an old time drugstore/diner/luncheonette drink made with carbonated soda water, a flavored syrup and a pinch of phosphoric acid. They came in lots of flavors: vanilla, cherry, lime, lemon and chocolate. (If you want to make one now use a pinch of citric acid- I don't think you can find restaurant grade phosphoric acid now.) The flavored syrups were often added to Coke, too, but that's not a phosphate- that's just a cherry Coke or a chocolate Coke or a lemon Coke etc.

Juju Beads are harder candies than Jujubes (which are still around) and they were regional. Necco Wafers can still be purchased at Walgreens (they've been around since the late 1800s!). Nibs were small pieces of licorice. They came in both the red and black variety. (Although "red" licorice is NOT licorice. There's no licorice in it. Just sayin'.) I have pictured the candies and gas pumps and the luncheonette (at the masthead.)

Now, of course, Flick would get a scholarship, flunk out of college, maybe make the grade as a professional athlete or maybe not. After he got through rehab he could open up his own station if he'd saved some money. I'm not so sure high school athletes have it much better than they did in Flick's day. All of us know someone who was a great athlete in high school-- some turn out happier than others.

Here's where we talked about Updike before:

I will also reassert my original statement that John Updike was a better poet than most and I wish he'd concentrated on it more and saved us from having to read "Rabbit Redux." He had a gift for poetry.

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